Speaker's planned visit to Middlebury College sparks controversy

MIDDLEBURY — The chair of the political science department at Middlebury College is defending the sponsorship of a controversial speaker invited to the campus next month despite “grave concerns” raised by some professors and students.

Charles Murray, a libertarian political scientist and author, is scheduled to speak March 2 at the college about his book “Coming Apart.” Murray is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, DC. He was invited to the campus by a Middlebury student club under the AEI banner.

Some faculty and students have objected; one department chair criticized Murray as a “pseudoscientist” while the head of the political science department defended co-sponsoring the event, saying Murray’s talk was of value to a significant portion of the campus population.

Murray is best known for his 1994 book, “The Bell Curve,” where he and a co-author discuss human intelligence. The book drew controversy when the authors wrote about racial differences in intelligence, the reasons why, and the social implications. Their work was criticized by some and praised by others; Murray has said some in his field quietly congratulated him.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified Murray as a “white nationalist” who has used “racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.”

In their invitation, the student-run American Enterprise Institute Club described Murray’s lecture as part of an effort to “encourage robust discussion and expose the Middlebury Community to diverse thoughts, opinions and understandings on the important topics of today.” They cited comments from two presidents, including current President Laurie Patton, about the importance of hearing a broad range of views. The student club paid for Murray’s trip. Patton could not be reached for immediate comment.

Prof. Michael Sheridan, the chair of the Middlebury Department of Sociology and Anthropology, criticized his colleagues in the Department of Political Science for co-sponsoring the event. The head of the political science department, Prof. Bert Johnson, defended the decision to co-sponsor the talk.

Sheridan said Murray engages in “pseudoscience” and has not recanted earlier views that Sheridan called racist.

“My critique is that he’s not really a political scientist, he’s a pseudoscience ideologue from a right-wing thinktank here to promote its agenda. I am very worried about the legitimization and normalization of pseudo-social-science, which undercuts the rigor, methods, and ethical principles of the actual social science that we teach at Middlebury,” Sheridan wrote.

The political science department is “vulnerable,” Sheridan said.

Murray’s “work is not peer-reviewed, and when his books have been subject to post-publication peer review, they are found to be full of dubious claims, misinterpretation of data, and wholesale rejection of whole libraries’ worth of scholarship. Murray is a classic pseudoscientist, just one with deep institutional pockets and robust support,” Sheridan wrote.

The subject of Murray’s talk at Middlebury surrounds his book, “Coming Apart,” published in 2012, which discusses class in America, focusing on what he sees as the decline in morality and values of white Americans. In the book, he also outlines the emergence of a new upper class and a new lower class and argues that government programs cannot help some people of low intelligence.

Sheridan said he had not read “Coming Apart,” but in an email to the political science department he included a devastating review in Salon magazine that criticized Murray’s work as being “shot through with genetic fatalism, that lower IQ people are on balance lazier, more promiscuous and more crime prone, and that social policy that seeks to help them only encourages them to reproduce, worsening our problems.”

Sheridan also raised concerns that Murray is racist.

“This of course is what Murray is infamous for. You can’t shake the Devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding. This legacy remains with Murray, no matter what else he does and says, until he recants. And he has not,” Sheridan said.

Johnson said the political science department agreed to co-sponsor the talk because it was “related” to a political science topic and because “it would be of interest to a significant part of the community.”

Johnson said the sponsorship did not indicate an endorsement of Murray’s views.

“On the contrary, a broad co-sponsorship policy like this one indicates a reluctance to allocate sponsorships based on the views of speakers. At times we have sponsored events that comport with our views and the views of the majority of the community, and at times we have sponsored events featuring speakers that are opposed to them,” Johnson told his colleagues.

He said those expressing dissent would be offered help from his department. A thread on the department website has been set up to allow those who object to raise their concerns.

Johnson said in an email to VTDigger on Saturday: “I haven’t been formally pressed to disinvite or revoke sponsorship, although I have heard from faculty members and students who clearly wish we had not granted the co-sponsorship in the first place.”

He acknowledged “grave concerns” by some regarding the upcoming visit.

“We acknowledge that this is a particularly contentious speaker with a particularly controversial record,” Johnson said.

The student American Enterprise Institute club noted the timeliness of Murray’s talk with the election of President Donald Trump and said Murray’s book was “prescient” given the political times.

Murray wrote last year that he was not surprised by Trump’s rise.

“Trumpism is an expression of the legitimate anger that many Americans feel about the course that the country has taken, and its appearance was predictable. It is the endgame of a process that has been going on for a half-century: America’s divestment of its historic national identity,” Murray wrote.

Prof. Laurie Essig opposed the invitation.

“I am saddened and perplexed that a person who has no scholarly record — that is, he has never held an academic appointment nor published in peer reviewed journals — is being presented as a scholar rather than a right wing polemicist. Even a cursory look at his work shows that he uses spurious correlations to construct eugenicist arguments for class and race disparities.

“I also am saddened that someone who uses pseudoscience to make arguments so racist and classist that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled his work “hate speech” has been invited to a campus that is a space that values diversity and is committed to racial and economic equity. I worry about the effects of his presence on some of our most marginalized students, faculty and staff,” she told VTDigger.org

Essig, a professor of Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, added: “I could not be more disappointed that he will be here. I truly hope that the vast majority of the community will unite against this sort of prejudice and also take the opportunity to discuss how Murray’s trade in altfacts has no place in a community dedicated to knowledge acquisition.”

In an interview published by the AEI, Murray, 74, said his most famous work, “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” was sometimes misunderstood on purpose, that the political science world was corrupt and filled with cowards.

“The reaction to ‘The Bell Curve’ exposed a profound corruption of the social sciences that has prevailed since the 1960s. ‘The Bell Curve’ is a relentlessly moderate book — both in its use of evidence and in its tone — and yet it was excoriated in remarkably personal and vicious ways, sometimes by eminent academicians who knew very well they were lying. Why? Because the social sciences have been in the grip of a political orthodoxy that has had only the most tenuous connection with empirical reality, and too many social scientists think that threats to the orthodoxy should be suppressed by any means necessary. Corruption is the only word for it,” Murray said.

“Now that I’ve said that, I’m also thinking of all the other social scientists who have come up to me over the years and told me what a wonderful book ‘The Bell Curve’ is. But they never said it publicly. So corruption is one thing that ails the social sciences. Cowardice is another,” he said in the AEI interview.

Editor’s note: On Wednesday afternoon, Middlebury College issued this announcement: Due to expected over-capacity interest on campus for this event, admission to the Charles Murray talk on March 2 will be limited to Middlebury College ID holders and members of the news media. The general public will not be admitted.


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