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Student protesters disrupt speaker Charles Murray on March 2 at McCullough Student Center.

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Middlebury College Maps Plan for Moving Forward After Murray Protests

March 8, 2017

Story updated on March 10

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Nearly a week after large-scale student protests disrupted the scheduled talk of a controversial speaker on the Middlebury campus, and after a violent altercation later that evening involving students and outside protestors, students, faculty, and staff at the College are still working to confront divisions in the community and to cope with emotions brought forward by the events.

Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was scheduled to speak at the College on March 2 by invitation of the student American Enterprise Institute Club. A crowd of more than 400, most of them students, filled Wilson Hall in McCullough Student Center. Many carried signs. Hundreds of students who had waited in a line that stretched up the hill to Mead Chapel were unable to enter the hall once it was filled to capacity.

When Murray took the stage following his introduction, most of the students stood, turned their backs, and began a loud and coordinated protest that lasted for about 20 minutes while Murray stood by the podium. At that point, following a backup plan created earlier in the week, Murray and Middlebury College Professor Allison Stanger moved to another room in McCullough that had been set up as a temporary video studio. Several minutes later their conversation began livestreaming into Wilson Hall and to students, faculty and staff around campus on the Middlebury website. The loud and disruptive protest continued in Wilson Hall and was further interrupted by repeated pulling of fire alarms, which were confirmed to be false, in McCullough. Murray and Stanger ended their conversation at 6:45. A video of the talk and Q&A is available for viewing online.

About 30 minutes later, Murray, Stanger, and Vice President for Communications Bill Burger attempted to leave McCullough, accompanied by two College Public Safety officers, and walk to Burger’s car. Several protestors dressed in black and wearing masks confronted the group and attempted to block their way. Middlebury College Public Safety Director Lisa Burchard said later they believe those protestors were not affiliated with the College.

During the physical confrontation Stanger was injured, and was later treated for a neck injury and concussion.

Once in the car, Murray, Stanger, and Burger sought to leave the campus. Witnesses described seeing protestors, including students, pound, jump on, and attempt to block the car as it departed the campus.

That incident has been reported to the Middlebury Police Department.

Middlebury President Laurie Patton sent a letter to the community the next day, March 3, in which she said she was “deeply disappointed” by the events, which she said exposed “deep and troubling divisions” in the community. She said the College would respond to the “clear violations of Middlebury College policy that occurred inside and outside Wilson Hall.”

In a second letter on March 6, Patton outlined a set of steps Middlebury would take in the weeks and months ahead. She acknowledged the “anger and frustration” felt by many in the community and called on people to “reaffirm our shared values and goals and hold each other to them.” She announced that the College had initiated an independent investigation to look at what happened. Once that was complete, she said, the College would begin the “process of determining a course of action for each individual understood to be involved in some way in the events of last Thursday.”

Patton went on to say that the community needed to begin to take on the “hard work” of building true community and she extended an invitation to submit “community-building ideas for consideration.”

The protest and its aftermath have quickly become the focus of major national and international news coverage, most framing it as a free-speech issue. Other Middlebury faculty and students feel differently, and argue that Murray’s views should not be given a platform in an academic environment.

In the days following the protest, the story has been told through hundreds of media outlets, including the New York Times, Boston Globe, The Atlantic, CNN, and Fox News among many others.

On March 7, the New York Times featured a wide range of student viewpoints in a collection of short reflections related to the Murray talk. Alessandria Schumacher ’17 said she was ready with tough questions for Murray, but never got the chance to ask them.

“We could have proved our maturity and commitment to justice by asking hard, well-researched questions — something Middlebury College students tend to do really well,” wrote Schumacher. “We had let an opportunity for intellectual protest and resistance pass us by.”

Elizabeth Lee ’17 felt the format of Murray’s appearance was problematic, not allowing for equal discussion of opposing views. “While I defend Murray’s right to speak his mind, the fact that the college provided an elevated platform for him did more harm than good,” she wrote in the Times. “To that effect, I do not think Middlebury made sufficient avenues for students to engage with the implications of Mr. Murray’s ideas.”

Student Edward O’Brien wrote in the Times that he was “horrified” that Murray’s work has been cited by groups to advance white nationalism, yet felt it was important not to become insular.

“I do not consider Murray’s views scientifically or morally sound, and I condemn all white nationalist and white supremacist ends it has been used for,” wrote O’Brien. “This does not negate, however, that he is right about the educated elite and our isolation from the rest of America. As a group we need to learn to interact with, if not the views of people like Charles Murray, then at least the reality that there are people who hold these views. We must learn to communicate effectively and authentically, if for no other reason than to make progress over the next four years.”

Faculty, too, have contributed to the public discourse. Professor of English Jay Parini wrote a piece for CNN.com. Assistant Professor of Religion Ata Anzali, an Iranian native, described his reaction in an opinion piece for the Addison Independent. And Matthew Dickinson, professor of political science, drew a flood of comments to a post on his blog, Presidential Power.

Middlebury Professor of Sociology Linus Owens, writing under the name “lioness van pelt,” published two posts on Medium following the event, the first expressing his anger over Murray’s invitation and arguing that “abstract principles of free speech overrode the real effects on large numbers of the student body,” and the second stating that Murray’s appearance jeopardized Middlebury College’s diversity goals.

On March 6, a group of faculty members posted a statement online titled “Free Inquiry on Campus: A Statement of Principles by a Collection of Middlebury College Professors,” which had 89 signatories as of March 9. The statement lays out a set of “core principles that seem to us unassailable in the context of higher education within a free society.”

Professors Dickinson and Owens and two Middlebury College students, Alexander Khan and Elizabeth Siyuan Lee discussed the controversy on Vermont Public Radio on March 9.

Perhaps no two opinion pieces published by members of the Middlebury community this week better summed up the vast difference in perspectives on the event than those published by Political Science Professor Erik Bleich and College senior August Laska.

The College’s student newspaper, The Middlebury Campus, published more than two dozen opinion pieces in print and online in its March 9 issue, most arguing that the Murray event should not have been scheduled, should not have been co-sponsored by the political science department, should not have been attended by President Patton, or should not have been allowed to go ahead once the controversy emerged.

Middlebury College will continue to provide reports in its Newsroom as events and significant developments associated with the incident emerge.