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College wrestles with aftermath of Murray protest

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Posted on April 27, 2017 |
By Gaen Murphree



MIDDLEBURY — The uproar at Middlebury College surrounding Charles Murray’s controversial speaking engagement last month has ignited a conversation — both divisive and necessary, full of conflicting claims and voices — over the value of free speech and the nature of inclusivity not just on campus, but in America today.

“Events on other campuses since Charles Murray came to Middlebury make it clear that this is, in fact, a nationwide debate that is taking place and that we were not unique and that this is going to be with us for some time,” said Bill Burger, the college’s vice president for communications and chief marketing officer.

Student protesters shut down the March 2 event, not allowing Murray, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, to deliver his speech or engage in an in-person Q&A. Murray and event moderator Professor Allison Stanger were attacked as they left the McCullough Student Center, with Stanger sustaining injuries that sent her to the emergency room and left her in a neck brace.

The incident has set off a chain of official college judicial processes for the approximately 70 students who participated in the protests. It has thrust this medium-size liberal arts college — small-town based but nationally prominent — into the glare of national media and kept it awash in the sea of ink flooding in from news stories and opinion pieces.

Middlebury’s Murray event is among a host of protests that have shut down controversial conservative speakers at American campuses. And for many, the event can be seen as part of the national turmoil resulting from the 2016 presidential campaign and election.

Other notable incidents include:

•  Earlier this month, audience members were barred from entering a hall at Claremont McKenna College in California to hear Heather MacDonald, author of “The War on Cops” and critical of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

•  Students at UCLA took to the stage and chanted at MacDonald’s presentation, putting a stop to her Q&A session.

•  In February, University of California Berkeley cancelled conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulous’s scheduled speech after protests caused $100,000 worth of damage.

•  Right wing talking head Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley on April 27, but the appearance was cancelled after the university raised safety concerns and sponsoring groups backed out.

Burger said that Middlebury College was about halfway through its disciplinary processes. The college identified more than 70 individuals it believed would be subject to disciplinary procedures and, according to an April 17 statement, “about 30 students had accepted disciplinary sanctions for their actions on March 2.” The college believes it will be able to resolve all disciplinary proceedings by the end of the academic year in mid-May.

Burger would give no further details because disciplinary processes are still ongoing.

“The scope and scale of this is unprecedented for Middlebury, and, in fact, in terms of pure numbers it’s hard to find many examples elsewhere,” he said. “So it’s not surprising and it’s entirely reasonable for students or even their families to feel anxious right now. All I can say is that we are doing everything we can to ensure that the process is fair and just and also that it adheres to the policies and principles of the institution.”

The eight-member Community Judicial Board (the official body for adjudicating violations of college standards and policies deemed serious to merit suspension or expulsion) is made up of four students, two faculty, one staff and the dean of the college, according to the college website.

But that board’s official proceedings and the range of sanctions that could result — from a verbal warning to expulsion — are far from the campus’s sole response to the Murray events.

•  Immediately after the event, President Laurie Patton issued a letter to the college community acknowledging “the deep and troubling divisions” on display at the Murray event, which she described as failure to live up to the school’s “core values.” In that and a subsequent letter days later, she noted that violations of school policy would be addressed, that she wanted to open up channels of communication through the provost’s office, deans’ offices and through Chief Diversity Officer Miguel Fernandez. She insisted that the college “must find a path to establishing a climate of open discourse as a core Middlebury value while also recognizing critical matters of race, inclusion, class, sexual and gender identity and the other factors that too often divide us.”

•  Within days of the event, professors Jay Parini and Keenan Callanan penned, circulated and posted online “Free Inquiry: A Statement of Principles,” accompanied by signatures of more than 100 faculty members (roughly 40 percent of Middlebury’s faculty).

•  At a April 7 meeting, faculty debated two conflicting motions regarding free speech policy, inclusivity measures and how best to work together to move ahead (see related story).

•  Earlier this week, the campus Student Government Association and The Campus student newspaper cohosted a forum on free speech.

•  On April 28, the faculty will hold an all-faculty “Town Hall Meeting,” designed not as an official meeting with motions, votes and minutes, but as a listening session where all can speak freely and listen to a range of beliefs and opinions.

•  The provost’s office is in the process of creating a student/faculty/staff “Politics of Speech” committee to address issues of free speech and inclusivity.

Political Science Department Chair Bert Johnson last week issued an apology for the way he went about giving the department’s backing for Murray’s speech; this itself became a point of contention in the campus debate. He did not, however, issue an apology for the department’s co-sponsorship of Murray’s talk. (Read Johnson’s letter of apology with this story online at addisonindependent.com.)

Yet Johnson’s words have now been twisted and punted about like a political football. A Wall Street Journal opinion piece on Tuesday misrepresented Johnson as caving to an over-entitled student mob.

He told the Independent he wrote the apology because he felt that if the community had known sooner about his decision as department chair to sponsor Murray, it could have responded better.

Said Johnson, “The presumption should be that speech should be allowed. But what I think should also happen is that those who feel that they want to have their voices heard should also have a way to do that consistent with speech being allowed. So provide another venue, provide teach-ins, provide maybe other speakers, provide other avenues for voice.

“One of the problems with the process that we ended up stumbling into was that the time for hearing those voices was very short.”

In a follow-up piece in the April 27 edition of The Campus newspaper, Johnson noted that “it is incumbent on us all to think about what we might have done differently to contribute to a better outcome and what can be done generally on campuses in such situations. My research on campaign finance has convinced me that more is better than less when it comes to speech.”

At April 7’s faculty meeting, Patton offered her own guidance for moving the discussion forward. She asked, “How do we relate these two fundamental values — the necessary discomfort that a liberal education must entail, and an honoring of the difficult experiences of our students who have walked in the margins?”

She also emphasized that the importance of engaging with those with whom one might disagree.

“If there ever was a time for Americans to take on arguments that offend us, it is now. If there ever was a time for us to challenge influential public views with better reason, better research, better logic and better data, it is now. If there ever was a time when we needed to risk being offended, to argue back even while we are feeling afraid, to declare ourselves committed to arguing for a better society, it is now. Engaged, committed speech, speech countering other speech, courageous speech, fearless speech, is today essential to our well-being as a nation.”

Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected]

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