Controversial Speaker Spurs Debate At Middlebury College

Feb 27, 2017

Charles Murray, an influential writer who espouses controversial theories on race and socioeconomics, is speaking at Middlebury College on Thursday. His appearance is prompting questions about the format of the speech and the role of the college's Political Science Department in organizing the lecture.

Murray is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and author of several books including The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life and Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Murray has correlated intelligence with race, and made other arguments that have been debunked by peers in the social sciences.

"I think he's more of a scientific racist, pseudo-scientist rather than a straight up political scientist," Professor Mike Sheridan, chair of Middlebury's Sociology and Anthropology Department, told Vermont Edition on Monday. 

The student group American Enterprise Institute Club invited Murray to speak on campus. The student organizers wrote a letter in the college newspaper inviting the campus to hear the talk. "We must as an institution encourage robust discussion and expose the Middlebury Community to diverse thoughts, opinions and understandings on the important topics of today," the students wrote.

The Political Science Department's co-sponsorship of the lecture is also drawing criticism. Arguing that Murray's conclusions are unfounded and outside the norm of most social scientists, Sheridan said he opposed the event "in the same way I would be a bit upset and curious if the Geology Department were to invite a Flat Earth Society member."

Political Science chair Bert Johnson says he has an intentionally broad policy for co-sponsoring events, with just two criteria: 1) is the event related to political science, and 2) is there a community interested in hearing the speaker. Johnson repeated emphatically that a co-sponsorship is not an endorsement of a speaker's beliefs.

He explained the broad policy on sponsoring speakers to Vermont Edition: "I do not want anyone to imply that my personal view has anything to do with the department's co-sponsorship of events." Johnson elaborated that his personal opinions shouldn't determine what speakers earn the department's blessing. "Who knows what other speaker in the future could be denied under a policy that allows one's personal views to implicate that decision?"

Sheridan says he doesn't oppose Murray coming to campus, but says Murray should be on a panel with other political scientists who can challenge his arguments, rather than "having him alone with a microphone." Murray is scheduled to speak Thursday, March 2 at 4:30 p.m. at Middlebury College, and is expected to take questions from the audience. Sheridan and other critics are organizing a demonstration against the event.

Johnson says he and his colleagues in the Political Science Department will organize a discussion ahead of the lecture to explain what they say are flaws in Murray's work.