Alumni challenge Middlebury to embrace intellectual diversity
Middlebury College alums who now work in academia are calling for universities to become “safe spaces—for intellectual diversity” in response to the violent disruption of a Charles Murray lecture.
“As university professors and administrators, we are deeply concerned with escalating attacks on free speech and inquiry all across American higher education–and we believe that lessons of national import can be learned from the situation at our alma mater in Vermont,” the alumni letter begins,
"This view is self-evidently wrong. Shouting down a speaker...is not ‘defending’ reasoned discourse."
The alumni acknowledge that the phenomenon is not unique to Middlebury—citing recent instances of physical intimidation and harassment of speakers at UCLA, Claremont McKenna College and Evergreen State College—but say this just means that “the stakes now are heightened because students nationwide are rejecting freedom of expression and embracing a new version of the heckler’s veto.”
Calling the violent protest over Murray’s lecture “an opportunity to firmly defend these foundational principles,” the letter laments that the school’s response thus far has been “simply insufficient to address the current threats to higher education, free expression, and reasoned discourse.”
While administrators did pursue disciplinary action against the students involved in first forcing Murray to deliver his talk from an anteroom and then assaulting a professor as she escorted Murray out of the building, the alumni contend that much more can be done to ensure that similar incidents do not recur in the future.
The letter expresses particular concern over the response of Middlebury students to a statement published in The Wall Street Journal and signed by more than 100 faculty members articulating their belief that “learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech is respected.”
The alumni point out that this statement was met with a point-by-point response signed by 151 Middlebury students, who actually argued that Murray’s “oppressive language” constitutes literal “violence,” and that therefore they were justified in trying to silence him by force.
“This view is self-evidently wrong. Shouting down a speaker–to say nothing of setting off fire alarms or committing assault–is not ‘defending’ reasoned discourse,” the alumni retort. “The appropriate response to Murray’s lecture event, which by design featured his commitment to take questions and hear objections, would be an argument in kind. A special place for such important exchanges of views used to be known as a college or university.”
To help remind Middlebury students of that fact, the letter suggests four steps that administrators should take to demonstrate the school’s unwavering commitment to free expression, starting with providing “greater transparency” regarding the punishments it has handed down to students involved in the Murray protest.
The alumni also request “more balanced representation” on a special committee that was created to review the incident, noting that the current roster includes only one faculty member who signed the WSJ statement, whereas it has two professors who signed a competing statement defending the students’ actions along with one student who signed the letter calling Murray’s views a form of violence.
The third point calls on Middlebury to “organize a speaker series in 2017-18 on freedom of speech and intellectual diversity.” The alumni specify that the events “should encompass both speakers who favor traditional liberal views on freedom of speech, and those favoring the newer view that allows certain individuals and groups to veto a speaker who allegedly imperils diversity and inclusion,” but stress that there should be clear prohibitions against disrupting any of the presentations.
The final item on the list urges Middlebury to endorse the Report of the Committee on Free Expression issued by the University of Chicago in 2015, which has been held up by free speech advocates as a model for other universities to emulate.
“These four steps...would do a great deal to express Middlebury’s core commitments to its central activities of education and free inquiry, and to advance the national conversation about these commitments,” the alumni conclude. “If Middlebury considers itself a leading institution of higher education, it should be a model worthy of emulation, not a beacon of intolerance.”
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