In March, as he stood somewhat defiantly at the podium of Middlebury College’s Wilson Hall, as 200 students chanted ”Black Lives Matter” and “Your message is hatred, we will not tolerate it,” Charles Murray thought to himself, “This is crazy.” The audience saw him as embodying everything they oppose, but the truth was he and his audience probably had something in common: They hated Trump.
By that point in his appearance, however, any possibility of common ground had long since passed. Murray had barely uttered “This is going to be a real anticlimax…,” before much of the audience had turned its back on him. Murray has been a lightning rod for liberal protest ever since the publication of his book The Bell Curve in 1994, which suggested that racial differences in intelligence could partly explain the socioeconomic gap between black and white Americans, and he had published seven books since then. But he hadn’t seen anything like this kind of fervid pushback for years.
That is, until Donald Trump was elected.
Immediately, Murray noticed that every college speaking engagement had become an exercise in absorbing the outrage of people who saw him as a convenient punching bag for a president they hated but couldn’t reach. That part he understood—Trump, he believed, was a fraud and an incompetent narcissist—but he couldn’t abide what he considered anti-intellectual “thuggery” that he was seeing in halls like this one around the country.
By evening—after Murray delivered his talk via video feed in a locked room, following a tense exit to the parking lot where a professor escorting him would get roughed up by a half dozen or so protesters—Middlebury would be well on its way to becoming the latest front in an intensifying culture war on college campuses. The op-eds in major newspapers the following week were blunt and unforgiving. “The Mob at Middlebury,” announced the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times editorial board came to Murray’s defense: “Free speech is a sacred right, and it needs protecting, now more than ever.” Middlebury’s protest, followed quickly by violent protests at Berkeley, fed an increasingly popular narrative of intolerance on college campuses. More than just redoubts of liberalism, schools like Middlebury are now seen as actively hostile territory for conservatives, anti-intellectual safe spaces self-policed by students who would rather turn their backs than argue an idea on its merits.
But a deeper look at Murray’s appearance, including interviews with students and protesters who have not spoken publicly before, reveals that the protesters—in particular a band of outsiders who seized an opportunity to hound an adversary—were driven as much by the larger political forces sweeping the country as they were a specific grievance with a 74-year-old author whose most controversial work is more than 20 years old. During the week that led up to the confrontation, it’s possible to identify multiple points at which the administration and faculty could have defused the growing frustration of students who felt that school officials too easily dismissed their concerns in favor of extending every courtesy to someone they considered a flamethrowing pseudoscientist. And the aftermath, in which students accused the college of stacking the disciplinary process, has only exacerbated their sense that the administration, and some of the faculty, were more concerned with appeasing conservatives than defending their own students. Seen in this light, the episode is not just a case study in changing free speech norms but a generational power play acted out in an era of bitter political upheaval.
The announcement appeared on February 23 the opinion page of the Middlebury Campus student newspaper. The student authors of “An Invitation to Argue” revealed that Charles Murray would speak on campus the following Thursday, March 2. Their stated goal was to “encourage robust discussion and expose the Middlebury Community to diverse thoughts, opinions and understandings on the important topics of today.”
The students belonged to the school’s chapter of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank with connections to conservatives such as Dick Cheney, John Bolton and Newt Gingrich. In 1990, AEI hired hired Murray, who six years earlier wrote Losing Ground, which startled readers at the time by arguing that welfare programs increase poverty, not reduce it. That controversy was eclipsed by the furor that greeted The Bell Curve, which critics assailed for overstating the evidence for racial differences in intelligence. The student members of the AEI club said they knew little about either of the books or their controversies. AEI had suggested Murray on a list of speakers it sent to its student chapters and the students thought Murray’s 2012 book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, seemed relevant to Trump’s electoral victory.
“Honestly, and this is the funny thing, we did not think Murray was going to be controversial,” said Hayden Dublois, one of the AEI members involved with the invitation.
“Murray had actually been at Middlebury in 2007,” explained Dublois. “I guess there was a little bit of back and forth during the Q&A but it was relatively uncontroversial. My AEI colleagues and I spoke to the faculty member who had invited him, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, you guys probably won’t get much backlash.’”
The students who agreed to invite Murray hadn’t known the complete back story on Murray’s 2007 visit. But a few faculty did, and their recollection was that it hadn’t gone well. Soon stories were spreading on campus that Murray, during the Q&A session, had told a black student that he probably would have been better off at a state university.
“I would have never said that,” Murray told POLITICO Magazine. He remembers the talk because his daughter, who graduated from Middlebury that same year, was sitting in the audience, and he was unusually nervous. “It’s possible that a question was asked about me saying that affirmative action has resulted in mismatches.” This is the controversial argument that students of color who are admitted to elite schools through affirmative action may struggle to keep up with peers who were admitted on merit alone. “Would I have acknowledged that I believe there is a mismatch problem? Yes,” said Murray. “Would I have said to an individual student you would have been better off at a state university? Never ever would I say that.”
But the embellished and unflattering version made its way around the student body nevertheless, aided by an already tense climate. The day after Trump was elected, two Muslim students at Middlebury walked out of their dorm room to find “Fuck Muslims #Trump2016” on their door’s whiteboard. One week later, in town, two swastikas were found drawn on the door of a Jewish congregation center.
“After Trump was elected, there was really a lot of tension on campus,” said Alex Newhouse, a student journalist for the Middlebury Campus. “There was a need for some outlet, for some sort of event, or demonstration that students could rally around.”
The first stirrings that Murray’s upcoming visit was going to draw more backlash than anticipated came almost immediately. Posters on campus announcing Murray’s talk were grafittied with “White Supremacist.” Someone created a Facebook event, where people educated one another on Murray’s work and brainstormed on ways to respond.
“We had such little time to organize,” said Arianna Reyes, a junior at Middlebury who helped plan the protests. Even the students and faculty who invited Murray to campus later admitted that announcing the event only a week beforehand was a mistake. It was the first in a series of missteps that would make the college itself a target of student anger.
“The group’s leaders did want to keep the event under wraps,” said Dublois.“If I could go back and change one thing, that would be the thing. I would have announced it a month before.”
By Monday, Murray was the subject of intense conversation all over campus, inside the classroom and out.
At an early afternoon meeting, around 50 students and faculty met in an auditorium. “It became pretty clear that there was a divide between those who intended to challenge Murray a bit and then allow him to speak, and those who did not want him to speak at all,” said Nick Garber, a sophomore who was reporting on the meeting for the Middlebury Campus.
That evening, another 40 students met, assembled by three women of color: Elizabeth Dunn and Arianna Reyes, both juniors, and Sami Lamont, a senior. There was again a divide between those who wanted to protest Murray but let him speak, and those who wanted to prevent him from speaking altogether. But this time, Reyes led those who wanted to shut Murray down—about 20 students—into a smaller room nearby. “I wanted to make sure everybody in the new room felt comfortable with shutting down the event specifically,” said Reyes. That way, “we didn’t have to spiral off into debates about whether or not we were going to do it.”
Dunn and Lamont, who supported what Reyes and the others were planning, stayed in the original room and helped students write an open letter to the college president and educational pamphlets to pass out on the day of Murray’s visit.
Though it had been the AEI chapter’s decision to announce the speech with only a week’s notice, some on campus were suspicious that the short notice was a purposeful attempt by the administration to take students by surprise. Distrust of the administration intensified once students began asking their professors in class who Murray was. Even many of the faculty who supported Murray’s right to speak agreed that the debate over his work had ended two decades ago.
“Murray’s books don’t go through peer review. They’re much more written for the popular press,” said Michael Sheridan, an anthropology professor at Middlebury. “Generally, pseudoscientists tend to work without fully engaging with the other scholars working on the same topic.”
Murray, for his part, said that peer review is “an academic norm in technical journals, but not for books.” And before publishing the book, Murray said, they sent draft copies to a variety of experts. “We spent dozens—probably hundreds—of hours rewriting drafts and reanalyzing data in response to critiques.”
But it seemed to some students and faculty that by inviting Murray, the administration was less interested in free speech for the sake of intellectual exercise, and more interested in bolstering the school’s reputation as open to dissenting views at a time when public opinion of college campuses was at an all-time low.
“When Murray was here 10 years ago, people asked him hard questions during the Q&A, and he was insulting and obviously wasn’t going to change his mind,” said Linus Owens, a sociology professor who supported the protesters. “The Q&A is purely performative.”
But what frustrated the students most was their sense the administration was lending Murray legitimacy. Why was the political science department co-sponsoring the event, and why did Patton, the college’s president, agree to give opening remarks? “Is this the ‘discourse’ and ‘debate’ and ‘intellectual diversity’ we want on our campus?” wrote Nic Valenti, a senior, in a Middlebury Campus op-ed. “Are we back to the 18th Century—debating the equality of human beings?”
Students, faculty and alumni wrote open letters and signed petitions asking for the political science department to rescind its co-sponsorship and for Patton not to speak. Instead, the political science department chose to hold an open meeting to explain their reasoning for co-sponsorship. It was set for Wednesday, the day before the event.
But before the open meeting could happen, a student made a decision that would have important consequences for the tenor of the protests. On Tuesday evening, a student took a trip to attend a meeting of Green Mountain Anti-Fascist Action, a group that styles itself as “a community network of militant anti-fascists.” “Throughout the process we were in communication with students,” said a 25-year-old woman who is a member of the group. She asked that her name not be used because she fears the “alt-right” will target her. It was her group that would help earn the protest its unsavory “mob” label.
If the open meeting organized by the political science department was intended to clear the air, it had the opposite effect.
Burt Johnson, the chair of the department who originally decided to co-sponsor Murray’s visit, argued that sponsorship did not equate to endorsement. He spoke about how the political science department had mixed feelings about Murray themselves, but that it had been department policy to co-sponsor any event ostensibly related to political science; he was not making a judgment of Murray’s academic legitimacy. President Patton, for her part, explained that she had always been willing to give opening remarks at campus events when asked, regardless of the event, and AEI had asked. These clarifications, they believed, should assuage student concerns.
But for many of the students in attendance, the comments by faculty members only made things worse.
Allison Stanger, the political science professor who was slated to moderate the Q&A with Murray, had made clear publicly that she disagreed with Murray’s views. But she had also defended Murray as an academic and dismissed accusations of racism. Two days earlier, she had written on Facebook, “please ponder how Charles Murray can be a white supremacist when he married an Asian woman and had two children with her. How does that work?” She repeated the question at Wednesday’s open meeting.
“As an Asian woman myself, that is pretty offensive,” said Elizabeth Lee, a senior philosophy major. “It seems so obvious.” Lee made reference to Madame Butterfly, the opera in which an American lieutenant takes and discards a Japanese wife before returning to America. An Asian wife, said Lee, is not a shield from accusations of racism. “I think people got angrier as the meeting went on.”
At the beginning of the week, only a small number of students wanted to keep Murray from speaking at all. Another equally small contingent wanted to protest outside, perform a walkout or intensely interrogate Murray during the Q&A. But after a week of administrative missteps and perceived slights, student trust in their college had eroded to the point that nobody knew what would happen the next day.
“The line outside of the event stretched longer that most anything I’ve seen before at Middlebury,” said Elizabeth Dunn, one of the protest organizers. A number of locals from the town of Middlebury, which has a population under 9,000, had come in support. This wasn’t the first time students and locals had banded together. In 2002, when George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer came to campus to give a lecture, 1,500 Middlebury students and town residents protested the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq.
The lecture hall, which couldn’t hold everyone who wanted to get in, was set up with chairs below the stage and bleachers in the back. A majority of the dedicated protesters, who had waited in line for hours, dominated the front and center of the audience. Students held posterboard and cardboard signs of varying quality, from “NO EUGENICS” to “AEI MUST GO.”
Bill Burger, the college’s vice president of communications, was the first to speak. He read from the college policy, with good humor: “You’re gonna love this next part,” he said at one point, reading from a list of disallowed behaviors. Students laughed. “Noise or action that disrupts the ability of the audience to hear.” Students then drowned him out with cheers and mock applause.
When Murray walked on stage, a student yelled a friendly, “Hey, Charles!” and the audience lightheartedly laughed. As soon as he opened his mouth a majority of students stood up and turned their backs. After they finished reading in unison from a scripted statement, the chanting started. Any student who hoped the disruption would force Murray from the stage was mistaken.
Murray had told the administration beforehand that he was determined to wait out the protesters no matter how long it took. “I had an attitude of, ‘I’m going nowhere,’" said Murray. “I was standing up there and thinking, ‘I don’t want to leave this stage.’” But Burger had told Murray beforehand that they had a backup plan. For 20 minutes, students continued to chant as Murray stood still at the podium. At one point, several students were surprised to see Stanger, the professor who was planning to lead the Q&A with Murray, chanting “Black Lives Matter” along with the protesters.
Burger finally informed the crowd of their back-up plan. Stanger would interview Murray in a nearby room on a live feed. The announcement, viewed by the protesters as a trick sprung by the administration, caught students off guard. More than three quarters of the audience left—many to their dorm rooms to watch the livestream, some for the dining hall and others to start homework.
But approximately 50 people stayed inside to continue protesting. Another 20 left the hall and joined the band of protesters from the anti-fascist group that had assembled in the parking lot, hoping to intercept Murray when he emerged. Some of the anti-fascists wore masks and one of them had a bullhorn to lead the crowd.
Inside, the chanting continued and a couple of students pulled the fire alarm—three times. The administration was prepared for that because Murray, who had been the target of student protests before, warned administrators that might happen.
“I think the Middlebury students were protesting, but in some ways the outside groups were leading it too,” said Lee. “They seemed more organized and intent on continuing the protests. It was a small but organized group.”
After the live-stream ended, Burger left the student center with Murray, Stanger and two members of campus security. Burger was first one out the door, and he saw a man in all black staring at him, his face partly covered. About seven antifascists blocked Murray and Stanger’s path. “We intercepted them between the door and the car and surrounded them with signs and chanting and clapping,” said one of the antifascists. “And really, just like letting Charles Murray know that you can’t come to this campus and expect to leave without repercussions.”
Students and anti-fascists claim that school security overreacted by aggressively shoving protesters out of the way, but it’s clear that the protesters pushed back. Stanger wrote in the New York Times a few weeks later that while some protesters shoved her, another pulled her hair, causing whiplash and a concussion that still bothers her.
They finally arrived at Burger’s car, a 2013 Subaru Outback. Stanger scrambled into the passenger seat and Murray jumped into the back. The antifascists, now joined by students who had been watching nearby, surrounded the car. Burger says they were pushing so hard he feared the windows would break.
Inside the car, says Burger, nobody spoke. Looking in his rear-view mirror, which was filled with protesters, Burger contemplated his options. That is when he saw a campus security guard, and he rolled down his window.
“What do you want me to do?” Burger asked him.
“Start backing up.”
Behind the vehicle, the security guards pushed protesters aside, clearing a path for the vehicle to slowly inch backwards. The group reformed quickly, allowing the car to move only a couple of feet at a time. Every time a security guard pushed her, said one of the anti-fascists, she steadied herself, planted her feet in front of the car’s path, and waited for her turn to be pushed again. She and her comrades, as she calls them, had trained for moments like these. Their goal wasn’t violence, but the anti-fascists did want to make life hard for Murray. Almost out of the parking lot, Burger sped up to take a left turn onto the street, but he wasn’t yet completely free of the crowd.
“There was a man right in front of the car, and he didn’t get away in time,” said one of the antifascist protesters. “He could go either on top of the car or under the car, and he chose top.”
With the man holding onto the hood, Burger began driving down the street at 20 miles per hour. According to Burger, he then slowed down to let the man jump off. According to one of the outside protesters, Burger slammed on the brakes, throwing the man off, before speeding away. Pretty soon the Middlebury Police pulled up, but the man had already fled the scene and the crowd was quickly thinning.
In the following days, students at Middlebury found their newsfeeds full of articles lambasting their student body as symbolic of the worst illiberal tendencies on college campuses today. “There is a lot of anger directed outward at how Middlebury was characterized, more anger than directed inwards,” said Alex Newhouse.
For one, students and faculty feel that the “mob” from after the event has been unfairly conflated with the non-violent protest that prevented Murray from speaking. Only a fraction of that day’s student protesters—a couple of dozen, at most—attempted to stop Burger’s car from leaving the parking lot. And condemnation of the violence was nearly universal, although the debate continued over who was at fault for it.
The disciplinary process has also presented its challenges. Many students declined to be interviewed or refused to talk about certain subjects out of fear that it would be used against them. And the disciplinary proceedings have not endeared the administration to the students of color whose frustration with the college partly fueled the events on March 2.
On March 20, a black senior named Addis Fouche-Channer received a phone call from a Middlebury police officer who told her a campus security guard had testified that he recognized her as one of the protesters surrounding Burger’s car. “How is it possible that I’ve been placed there,” Fouche-Channer asked, “if I actually just wasn’t there?”
A month later, she told three inquiring private investigators hired by the college that she had statements from six friends who said they saw her working on a job application during the protests. But then in May, a Middlebury administrator ordered her to meet with him. At that meeting, Fouche-Channer learned that the campus security officer who identified her was someone she had known for years.
“I don’t think he is mistaking me,” Fouche-Channer said, “I just think he is just literally profiling me.”
Her judicial hearing was later canceled, but Addis still felt the college had profiled her for being black, and word of her story quickly made it around campus. “I will still not be donating to Middlebury College after graduation,” Addis wrote in an email. “It’s a shame that I, on top of finals and enjoying the remainder of my senior year, had to provide evidence that I was not involved with the protest. I was guilty until proven innocent, and that isn’t fair.”
On the other end of the spectrum, though the school has punished 67 students for various violations of the school handbook, commentators in national media and even Murray himself have criticized the college for not punishing students severely enough. “The disciplinary response of Middlebury is pathetic,” said Murray. “It will encourage more of the same thing to happen.”
Meanwhile, racist incidents on campus, some seemingly inspired by Trump, continue. About a month after Murray’s visit, a group of drunk, white athletes started throwing food across the dining hall on a Sunday evening. An Asian-American student went to their table and asked them to stop. Students who witnessed the exchange said an athlete replied: “Let’s build the wall!”
If there is any positive news from Murray’s visit, it is that ironically, shutting down his talk has fostered difficult conversations on campus that might not have happened otherwise. “There has never been any one topic on campus that has dominated the discourse on campus like this one has,” said Nick Garber. “Its been refereshing to see people be this engaged.”
Middlebury’s faculty, too, have used the Murray controversy as a platform for discussion. “The major thing that I think has been important, and probably constructive, although really difficult,” said Professor Michael Sheridan, “is it’s gotten the faculty to really get down to talking about what principles do we value.”
Even between the administration and students, arguably the most frayed relationship of them all, there are the beginnings of a dialogue. In early May, 40 students, along with Professor Linus Owens and a dozen other faculty members, met with the administration for an impromptu discussion of the ongoing disciplinary procedures.
“They were confronted with actual hard questions and struggled with them in real time in a meaningful way, which I think was a productive moment,” said Owens. “That was a better moment that anything Charles Murray could have produced talking at Middlebury.”