Smith: Turmoil at Middlebury

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Smith: Turmoil at Middlebury

Sun, 03/12/2017 - 9:46pm -- tim

by Mike Smith What was supposed to be a recent protest against a controversial writer turned into a near riot and left many wondering if diversity of thought is even allowed on college campuses nowadays. Charles Murray, a political scientist and author, was scheduled to speak at Middlebury College after being invited by the American Enterprise Club. Mr Murray is controversial because more than two decades ago he co-authored the book, “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.” The authors concluded intelligence is the best predictor of success. The book became controversial when the authors wrote about differences in intelligence based on race. Many have disputed how Murray used and interpreted the data in his book, calling it flawed. Others have labeled him a racist because of his book.

When Murray attempted to speak at Middlebury College, about 200 protesters immediately shouted him down. After about 20 minutes, Murray was moved to another location where he could speak into a camera, and an attempt was made to continue his presentation by streaming video to the student center, where he originally tried to speak. But his alternative location was soon discovered, and after a fire alarm was pulled and protesters began banging on the surrounding walls of the room where Murray was located, a decision was made to end the presentation.

But here’s where it gets scary. Murray, accompanied by Middlebury’s vice president for communication and the professor who was moderating the discussion (who, by the way, announced to the entire audience that she disagreed with Murray) attempted to get to their car but the protesters blocked their way. There was shoving and pushing, and in the fracas the Middlebury professor was injured. Campus police cleared a path to the car. But then the protesters descended on the car, pounding on it and rocking it until it cleared the area.

Reports of this confrontation made national news and left many questioning what is happening on our college campuses. In the aftermath of this event, Middlebury College officials have called for an investigation.

Murray posed two questions in an internet posting recounting his experiences at Middlebury. “What is the percentage of tenured faculty on American campuses who are still unambiguously on the side of free intellectual exchange? What is the percentage of them who are willing to express that position openly?” Murray goes on to speculate: “My reading of events on campuses over the last few years is that a minority of faculty are cowing a majority in the same way that a minority of students are cowing the majority.” He concludes by saying: “What happened last Thursday has the potential to be a disaster for American liberal education.”

The incident had a profound impact on Ata Anzali, a professor at Middlebury, who fled a country where his government sanctioned the suppression of speech. Anzali wrote in the Addison Independent newspaper about his experiences as a college student in Iran, and why he chose to live and teach in the United States instead of his native country. Anzali wrote: “After finishing my PhD in the study of religion in America, I had to decide whether to go back to Iran and teach there or seek a teaching position in the U.S. It was a hard decision, but at the end of the day, it was about freedom of speech …” He concluded his op-ed with this paragraph: “As I sat in McCullough Student Center on Thursday, unsuccessfully trying to watch the live stream of Charles Murray’s speech in the middle of student protests, fire alarms going on and off, and the live stream being cut off, I saw the frozen face of a man with whom I deeply and fundamentally disagreed. As events unfolded, however, I could think less and less about my disagreements with him and more and more about how much the student protesters — who could afford to ignore Middlebury College President Laurie Patton and Professor Allison Stanger’s open and strong invitation for civic engagement and rhetorical resilience — took the tremendous amount of freedom that they had for granted. A freedom that, even after the loss of thousands of precious lives in its pursuit, still looks like an elusive dream in many countries across the globe.”

Liberal columnist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote: “We liberals are adept at pointing out the hypocrisies of Trump, but we should also address our own hypocrisy in terrain we govern, such as most universities: Too often, we embrace diversity of all kinds except for ideology.” Kristof’s column was written months before the incident at Middlebury. He went on to say, “We champion tolerance, except for conservatives and evangelical Christians. We want to be inclusive of people who don’t look like us — so long as they think like us.”

During his presidential campaign Sen. Bernie Sanders addressed approximately 12,000 students at Liberty University, a conservative Christian institution. Most students disagreed with Sanders, but he was not shouted down and there were no protests. In fact, the event was remarkable because of its civility and politeness, a stark contrast to what happened at Middlebury.

Somewhere along our way, we have lost our way. Our campuses are supposed to be places where the exchange of ideas, even controversial ones, is encouraged, not banished. For some — on both the political right and left — blocking or restricting what they perceive as unacceptable speech supersedes any obligation to protect the exercise of free speech. In essence, only the speech that conforms to one’s own political ideology and belief system is acceptable. This concept is worrisome, not only on college campuses, but elsewhere; especially if government becomes the prominent decider of what is permissible speech. But perhaps The New York Times said it best in a recent editorial about the Middlebury College fiasco, when they wrote: “True ideas need testing by false ones, lest they become mere prejudices and thoughtless slogans.” At Middlebury College a few decided what was acceptable speech. It’s a dangerous decision because constitutionally protected speech is an essential pillar to what supports our democracy. Diminish it, and a democracy becomes fragile.

Mike Smith is the host of the radio program, “Open Mike with Mike Smith,” on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1, 96.5, 98.3 and 101.9 FM. He is also a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio and is a regular contributor to Vermont Business Magazine, The Times Argus and Rutland Herald. He was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Gov. Jim Douglas.