Case Study

A student club at Middlebury College invites a polarizing speaker


In March 2017, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) club at Middlebury College invited Charles Murray, a conservative political scientist, to speak about his latest book, Coming Apart.. Prior to the talk, dozens of students faculty members made their objections to Murray’s visit known, with many signing a letter urging the college’s president, Laurie L. Patton, not to introduce Murray at the event as had been arranged. The storm surrounding Murray’s appearance sprang from his 1994 book, The Bell Curve, which made controversial claims about IQ differences between races and was widely regarded as “discredited pseudoscience.” Despite these and other objections from the school community, Patton kept to her original plan, introducing Murray as she did most speakers who made the trip to the rural Vermont campus. In her remarks, she noted explicitly that she disagreed with Murray’s views saying that they should not be construed as an endorsement of his views. Then, as Murray began to speak, his words were drowned out by hundreds of students chanting slogans like “Racist, Sexist, Antigay, Charles Murray Go Away!” and “Your Message Is Hatred—We Will Not Tolerate It.” 

The talk was being moderated by Allison Stanger, the Russell J. Leng ‘60 Professor of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury. A tenured 25-year veteran of the Political Science Department, Stanger had agreed to serve as an interlocutor with Murray, in the hope of giving his views a critical airing. In response to the disruption, Stanger and Murray were moved to a separate room, equipped with a video camera to stream the remainder of the event. But students swarmed the hallway, “chanting, banging on windows, and even pulling fire alarms.” After Murray completed his remarks, as he and Stanger were being escorted to a post-lecture dinner, they were accosted by an estimated 20 protesters, many of whom were masked. As the two were being jostled, a hand reached out and grabbed Stanger’s hair, twisting her neck. Stanger was  injured by protesters during the exchange, and wrote a piece in the New York Times discussing the incident and the campus culture that led to it. Multiple networks picked up on the incident and were highly critical of the protesters involved. Middlebury led an investigation seeking to punish those who participated, ultimately disciplining 67 students.

PEN America Analysis

Given the mounting opposition to Murray’s impending appearance, administrators might have considered steps to clarify that the invitation had been issued by a student group, not Middlebury as an institution. Finding a way to avoid the standard introduction by President Patton might have been one such step. There might also have been opportunities at meetings or in newsletters to make clear that while Murray had been duly invited and would be permitted to speak, the college rejected the views that led to the controversy. Campus leaders could have sought opportunities for engagement and dialogue with those planning the protests, aiming to ensure that their rights were protected and their perspectives heard without impinging upon Murray’s ability to speak.

Further Reading

Similar Cases