‘Grave concerns’ over controversial Middlebury speaker

Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, has been invited to speak at Middlebury College in March. Photo courtesy of American Enterprise Institute.

The chair of the political science department at Middlebury College is defending the sponsorship of a controversial speaker invited to the campus next month despite “grave concerns” raised by some professors and students.

Charles Murray, a libertarian political scientist and author, is scheduled to speak March 2 at the college about his book “Coming Apart.” Murray is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, DC. He was invited to the campus by a Middlebury student club under the AEI banner.

Some faculty and students have objected; one department chair criticized Murray as a “pseudoscientist” while the head of the political science department defended co-sponsoring the event, saying Murray’s talk was of value to a significant portion of the campus population. A group of faculty opposing the talk plan to meet Monday.

Murray is best known for his 1994 book, “The Bell Curve,” in which he and a co-author wrote about racial differences in intelligence. Their work was criticized by some and praised by others; Murray has said some in his field quietly congratulated him.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified Murray as a “white nationalist” who has used “racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.”

In their invitation, the student-run American Enterprise Institute Club described Murray’s lecture as part of an effort to “encourage robust discussion and expose the Middlebury Community to diverse thoughts, opinions and understandings on the important topics of today.” They cited comments from two presidents, including current President Laurie Patton, about the importance of hearing a broad range of views. The student club paid for Murray’s trip. Patton could not be reached for immediate comment.

Professor Michael Sheridan, the chair of the Middlebury Department of Sociology and Anthropology, criticized his colleagues in the Department of Political Science for co-sponsoring the event. The head of the political science department, professor Bert Johnson, defended the decision to co-sponsor the talk.

Sheridan said Murray engages in “pseudoscience” and has not recanted earlier views that Sheridan called racist.

“My critique is that he’s not really a political scientist, he’s a pseudoscience ideologue from a right-wing think tank here to promote its agenda. I am very worried about the legitimization and normalization of pseudo-social-science, which undercuts the rigor, methods, and ethical principles of the actual social science that we teach at Middlebury,” Sheridan wrote.

The political science department is “vulnerable,” Sheridan said.

Murray’s “work is not peer-reviewed, and when his books have been subject to post-publication peer review, they are found to be full of dubious claims, misinterpretation of data, and wholesale rejection of whole libraries’ worth of scholarship. Murray is a classic pseudoscientist, just one with deep institutional pockets and robust support,” Sheridan wrote.

The subject of Murray’s talk at Middlebury surrounds his book, “Coming Apart,” published in 2012, which discusses class in America, focusing on what he sees as the decline in morality and values of white Americans. In the book, he also outlines the emergence of a new upper class and a new lower class and argues that government programs cannot help some people of low intelligence.

Sheridan said he had not read “Coming Apart,” but in an email to the political science department he included a devastating review in Salon magazine that criticized Murray’s work as being “shot through with genetic fatalism, that lower IQ people are on balance lazier, more promiscuous and more crime prone, and that social policy that seeks to help them only encourages them to reproduce, worsening our problems.”

Sheridan also raised concerns that Murray is racist.

“This of course is what Murray is infamous for. You can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding. This legacy remains with Murray, no matter what else he does and says, until he recants. And he has not,” Sheridan said.

Johnson said the political science department agreed to co-sponsor the talk because it was “related” to a political science topic and because “it would be of interest to a significant part of the community.”

Johnson said the sponsorship did not indicate an endorsement of Murray’s views.

“On the contrary, a broad co-sponsorship policy like this one indicates a reluctance to allocate sponsorships based on the views of speakers. At times we have sponsored events that comport with our views and the views of the majority of the community, and at times we have sponsored events featuring speakers that are opposed to them,” Johnson told his colleagues.

He said those expressing dissent would be offered help from his department. A thread on the department website has been set up to allow those who object to raise their concerns.

Johnson said in an email to VTDigger on Saturday: “I haven’t been formally pressed to disinvite or revoke sponsorship, although I have heard from faculty members and students who clearly wish we had not granted the co-sponsorship in the first place.”

He acknowledged “grave concerns” by some regarding the upcoming visit.

“We acknowledge that this is a particularly contentious speaker with a particularly controversial record,” Johnson said.

The student American Enterprise Institute club noted the timeliness of Murray’s talk with the election of President Donald Trump and said Murray’s book was “prescient” given the political times.

Murray wrote last year that he was not surprised by Trump’s rise.

“Trumpism is an expression of the legitimate anger that many Americans feel about the course that the country has taken, and its appearance was predictable. It is the endgame of a process that has been going on for a half-century: America’s divestment of its historic national identity,” Murray wrote.

Professor Laurie Essig opposed the invitation.

“I am saddened and perplexed that a person who has no scholarly record — that is, he has never held an academic appointment nor published in peer reviewed journals — is being presented as a scholar rather than a right wing polemicist. Even a cursory look at his work shows that he uses spurious correlations to construct eugenicist arguments for class and race disparities.

“I also am saddened that someone who uses pseudoscience to make arguments so racist and classist that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled his work ‘hate speech’ has been invited to a campus that is a space that values diversity and is committed to racial and economic equity. I worry about the effects of his presence on some of our most marginalized students, faculty and staff,” she told

Essig, a professor of gender, sexuality and feminist studies, added: “I could not be more disappointed that he will be here. I truly hope that the vast majority of the community will unite against this sort of prejudice and also take the opportunity to discuss how Murray’s trade in altfacts has no place in a community dedicated to knowledge acquisition.”

In an interview published by the AEI, Murray, 74, said his most famous work, “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” was sometimes misunderstood on purpose, that the political science world was corrupt and filled with cowards.

“The reaction to ‘The Bell Curve’ exposed a profound corruption of the social sciences that has prevailed since the 1960s. ‘The Bell Curve’ is a relentlessly moderate book — both in its use of evidence and in its tone — and yet it was excoriated in remarkably personal and vicious ways, sometimes by eminent academicians who knew very well they were lying. Why? Because the social sciences have been in the grip of a political orthodoxy that has had only the most tenuous connection with empirical reality, and too many social scientists think that threats to the orthodoxy should be suppressed by any means necessary. Corruption is the only word for it,” Murray said.

“Now that I’ve said that, I’m also thinking of all the other social scientists who have come up to me over the years and told me what a wonderful book ‘The Bell Curve’ is. But they never said it publicly. So corruption is one thing that ails the social sciences. Cowardice is another,” he said in the AEI interview.

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  • rosemariejackowski

    Let him speak. College students should be mature enough to think critically and question all ideas. They should not be treated like fragile ‘snowflakes’.

  • Steve Baker

    Some faculty and students have objected; one department chair criticized Murray as a “pseudoscientis,
    I wonder if the same students and department chair would say the same thing about Al Gore the “scientist”

    Thank goodness we have at least one clear thinking professor at this “institute of higher learning” for those professors and chairs who are concerned or protesting, good thing they don’t work in the dreaded private sector because no one would care if their feelings are hurt .
    Isn’t it time for the people who claim to be for peace love, tolerance and diversity to practice what they preach for the rest of us. Thank goodness neither of my children want anything to do with one of these snowflake universities.

  • Ken McPherson

    Forty years ago my introductory economics class challenged me to devote a class to Murray’s work. I agreed, putting a lot of effort into assessing Murray’s claims. The class was incredibly powerful. About 100 students students learned the importance of approaching the claims of writers with a strong degree of skepticism. (It was a very big, boisterous and intelligent working class group.) I find it hard to believe that the esteemed Middlebury faculty cannot find a way to lead a very intelligent student body in a thorough investigation of Murray’s views. This inability – or unwillingness – to take Murray directly is an unfortunate example of why we now must refer to Donald Trump as Republican President Trump. Can we begin to show that we believe in the intelligence of the American people and that we believe that they can are capable of intelligently assessing the merits of opposing arguments. If the esteemed faculty of Middlebury College shrink from this task, how can we expect politicians to do more?

    • Christopher Daniels

      40 years ago! Regardless of today’s political environment, why would Middlebury bring in a speaker whose work has been debunked repeatedly for such a long time. I’m all for listening to speakers with controversial ideas including ones I don’t agree with, but bringing in a speaker with factually wrong (and repeatedly so) history reflects poorly on the college from an academic standing. If Murray was making these claims for the first time today, by all means, bring him to campus. But he’s not, and that’s why I think there’s debate over this.

    • Zachary Kent

      Bravo! Well said. Even the Trump part.

    • Ann Randall

      The class format you describe sounds like the type of investigation one would hope to see in an academic setting. Was Murray’s visit to Middlebury formatted to allow a similar exploration of his claims? Or was it set up in such a way that it simply provided a platform for a white nationalist, whose views depend largely on the work of discredited eugenicists? We should be careful to distinguish between a serious examination of racism and the promotion of racism.

  • In these time when people are reasonably worried that free speech will be curtailed, Middlebury has an opportunity to set a good (or bad) example – and it’s especially important to set a good example. Of course Murray should be allowed to speak. And, although it is very reasonable to disagree with him or even to demonstrate in opposition to his views, canceling his appearance or allowing his talk to be disrupted would be a terrible example – equivalent to banning certain media from a White House briefing.

    Free speech is only tested when the speech is objectionable to some. Please, Middlebury, set a good example.

    • Gus Steves

      It’s not the “free speech” that is objectionable in this situation. It is the fact that he is being presented as a scholar, even though he has never held an academic position and never published in a peer reviewed journal. People would not care if he was going to deliver a talk to the AEI club at Middlebury, or at least not as much. I feel that people, myself included, are more upset that Murray is being co-sponsored by the chair of the political science department and being presented as a scholar.

  • Daniel Burks

    What a timely and extraordinary opportunity to listen to and question the author of such a broadly condemned and challenged viewpoint. Murray’s topic continues to endure as one of the definitive and most aggressively debated 50 yard line issues among those who still consider themselves to be objective sociologists.

    Middlebury’s enterprising students should note just who deserves the label of ‘open minded academic’ (eg: NOT one of the book burners), and be looking for an alternative off-campus venue where their inspiring leadership and curiosity can continue to explore political views that are not favored by some of their challenged faculty.

    While far too many universities are busy writing speech codes and seeking ways to further stifle debate, it would appear that we have some Middlebury students that are interested in discovering the Real World….apparently on their own.

  • David Austin

    In the not so distant past, colleges were a place students went to seek intellectual challenge and develop the ability to think critically. Shielding students from thought and speech that may not fit the narrative of whatever is currently deemed as politically correct, or is otherwise objectionable may create a level of comfort. But it really does not seem appropriate at an institution of higher learning that is interested in truth and reason. And it is dangerous. Is it that institutions of higher learning have lost faith in the ability of people to think for themselves? Are today’s students really that malleable that they are unable to recognize flawed reasoning as a result of personal bias? I don’t think either of those is the case. It likely has more to do with the advancement of particular ideologies taking precedence over the actual goals of higher learning.

  • “Prof. Michael Sheridan, the chair of the Middlebury Department of
    Sociology and Anthropology”. “Sheridan said Murray engages in “pseudoscience” and has not recanted earlier views that Sheridan called racist.”

    I laughed out loud when Sheridan with his/her degrees in Sociology and Anthropology basically called Murray a “pseudoscientist”.

  • Ken Cadow

    If he doesn’t speak, I, for one, will be disappointed, and not because I share his views (which I don’t). It doesn’t do much good to poke holes in someone’s arguments from a safe distance (including referring to a school as a “snowflake university”). Already, as evidenced by this article and conversations on campus, good discourse is coming out of this already. Although she hasn’t commented on this situation directly, I applaud President Patton’s call for “hearing a broad range of views,” and this presentation will be in keeping with her leadership. Views may very well not be science-based, but they are views, nonetheless.

  • Bradleigh Stockwell

    By all means, Middlebury students should be exposed to the alt-right views of Mr. Murray. I think female college students, especially, need to hear his words. Among other things, Murray makes a strong case for women being being stupid and intellectually inferior to men:

    “. . . it is worth beginning with a statement of historical fact: women have played a proportionally tiny part in the history of the arts and sciences. Even in the 20th century, women got only 2 percent of the Nobel Prizes in the sciences — a proportion constant for both halves of the century — and 10 percent of the prizes in literature. The Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics, has been given to 44 people since it originated in 1936. All have been men. … In the humanities, the most abstract field is philosophy — and no woman has been a significant original thinker in any of the world’s great philosophical traditions. In the sciences, the most abstract field is mathematics, where the number of great women mathematicians is approximately two.”

    What’s the harm in that perfectly clear statement? If I had a daughter, I’d insist she get to the presentation early – and sit in the front row.

    • Zachary Kent

      I don’t actually see your interpretation of that passage when I read it. He is even careful to state “. . . it is worth beginning with a statement of historical fact: …” In this passage at least, he doesn’t explain the imbalance, but merely points it out. He might be making a case that there is much room for diversity in the future. Maybe I should read his book. Maybe we all should before jumping on a hate wagon based on what others have told us.

      • Steve Baker

        Great Point, but many people comment here and on FB and I wonder if they ever read the article. That’s why I wasn’t joking about the Headline of this story.

        • Zachary Kent

          In addition to reading the article I have purchased his book, Coming Apart. I haven’t read enough to comment but I want to know more before supporting or rejecting his views.

  • Robert Roper

    Coming Apart is a fascinating book. Murray’s premise is that the “elites” — people with the highest levels of education, wealth and political power — are self segregating into their own communities, leaving those with less education, money and power behind in their own de facto segregated communities. This has had profound impacts on our society, not the least of which is the polarization of our current politics. It’s hard to argue with that basic premise — the best and brightest leave their small towns to attend elite colleges and universities, marry one another, and overwhelmingly take jobs, and live in communities populated by people just like them. It brings to mind the movie Good Will Hunting (among so many other similar stories). The brilliant prodigy escapes his bad neighborhood, marries the beautiful doctor, and we are left to believe goes on to have a wonderful life. Murray explores the other side of that story: what happens to Will’s home town after it loses such people. It’s uncomfortable, particularly I’m sure for a college full of aspiring Will Huntings. But it is an important conversation to have.

  • Mike Sheridan

    Hi all. Should Murray speak at Midd? Middlebury College is supposed to be a place where we really challenge students to think, and controversial discussions are great way to do that. Should Murray’s ideas be discussed? Yes, I think so. Is this public lecture (followed by some sort of Q&A) the best way to discuss them? No, I don’t think it is. I think that Murray’s ideas are far enough away from the middle of the social science bell curve (yes playing on the title of his most infamous book) that presenting him in effect normalizes what is really an outlier. This is what I would also argue if the Biology department invited a creationist speaker, or the Geology department had a Flat Earth Society speaker. The second issue is context. Murray’s racist pseudoscience means something different in the Trump era, and Murray will be speaking to a cohort of students that is frankly scared, angry, and disgusted by the routinization of intolerance, hate, and injustice. Overall, then, I think that inviting Murray to speak – meaning to give his regular stand-up talk about his last book – gives him a much larger and more legitimate soapbox than he deserves. I think that instead of having him speak however he wants, he should be part of some sort of structured discussion, as a panel, a formal debate, etc. That way Middlebury faculty and students could demonstrate how to have a respectful dialogue, how to make an argument based on evidence, and so on – in effect turning Murray’s presence into a teaching moment. I think that Murray should speak on our campus, but that he should not be speaking alone.

    • Jim Manahan

      Murray should speak. Others think and view things differently than you. Perhaps you are the outlier. This kind of hypocritical intolerance and veiled hate is the root of the problem in today’s liberal academia. It is the left that is showing their intolerance and hate for any opposing viewpoint.

      • Christopher Daniels

        Ah, good job setting the bar extremely low. We have to accept others with racist views otherwise we are racist and intolerant. That’s hilarious.

    • Zak Fisher

      It surprises very much when fellow liberals drop liberal values the second they happen to disagree. And again we play how much do I sound like a soft fascist:

      “Hi all. Should Angela Davis speak at Midd? Middlebury College is supposed to be a place where we really challenge students to think, and controversial discussions are great way to do that. Should Davis’ ideas be discussed? Yes, I think so. Is this public lecture (followed by some sort of Q&A) the best way to discuss them? No, I don’t think it is. I think that Davis’ ideas are far enough away from the middle of the social science bell curve that presenting her in effect normalizes what is really an outlier. This is what I would also argue if the Biology department invited a creationist speaker, or the Geology department had a Flat Earth Society speaker. The second issue is context. Freedom of speech means something different when I happen to disagree. Overall, then, I think that inviting Davis to speak – meaning to give her regular stand-up talk about prison abolition and communism – gives her a much larger and more legitimate soapbox than she deserves. I think that instead of having her speak however she wants, she should be part of some sort of structured discussion, as a panel, a formal debate, etc. That way Middlebury faculty and students could demonstrate how to have a respectful dialogue, how to make an argument based on evidence, and so on – in effect turning Davis’ presence into a teaching moment. I think that Davis should speak on our campus, but that she should not be speaking alone.”

  • Ben Staley

    The field of behavioral genetics poses a great challenge to egalitarian thought. Intelligence is a heritable trait, and it would be a miracle if the aggregate effect of the thousands of alleles linked to intelligence is exactly equal for all groups around the world.

    Any chance leftists will lift their heads out of the sand for two seconds and see the world as it is rather than how they desperately want it to be?

    • Adam Maxwell

      Intelligence isn’t uniform and, like most evolutionary traits, is an accident (or allele as you rightly put it), which requires a diverse genetic pool. No one is claiming that intelligence is universally equal. Leftists simply claim that no one should live a life of pure misery (or opulent luxury for that matter) simply because of the contingency of their birth (or their genetics if you want to put it that way).

      • Steve Baker

        Other than steal from the rich and give to those who live in pure misery what is your solution. Leftists need to realize we have equal opportunity not a guarantee of equal outcome. I guarantee I get up earlier and work harder than a lot of people that have less than me, what right do they have to your pretense of equalization

        • Christopher Daniels

          Generalize much? I guarantee I get up earlier and work harder than a lot of people who have more than me. What does that have anything to do with equalization?

    • Jarrod Smith

      Researchers currently have a poor understanding of intelligence at the gene level and GWAS hasn’t really pinned intelligence variations to any alleles. One thing that’s clear is intelligence isn’t a straight line you draw from parents to children. It’s dynamic and influenced by many factors–a lot like height. The key is maximizing potential. A person with “tall” genes who is raised with a nutritionally deplete diet will likely be shorter than someone with “short” genes raised with a nutritionally dense diet. That’s not to say there isn’t natural variation in intelligence, but you DNA isn’t necessarily your destiny.

  • Julie Hansen

    In 1961 UC Berkeley banned Malcolm X from speaking. Before that they banned speakers who appeared to have Communist leanings. Let’s not return to that time. If we support banning the speech of those with whom we disagree, we set the precedent to quash other ideas. Let him reveal his insupportable ideas. Have some faith in the education Middlebury offers.

    • walter carpenter

      “Let him reveal his insupportable ideas.”

      And who pays for these ideals as the ultra right Koch Brothers, for example, fund many these think tanks and a lot of these student groups in college campuses promote their ideals.

      • Steve Baker

        I guess we agree with let him speak, crazy ideas or not.
        I find it interesting that you want to hammer the Koch brothers but I imagine through the thick hypocrisy you have forgotten George Soros?

        • Pete Andersen

          How can we forget him when you see him in every shadow and bring him every time you don’t like something?
          (maybe “Steve Baker” is actually George Soros using a fake account)

  • Steve Baker

    We’re sticking to the “GRAVE CONCERNS” headline? Nothing like fanning the flame with this type of narrative.

  • wendywilton

    Free speech and intellectual curiosity go hand in hand. Important to hear from researchers whose work may be controversial, or that we may disagree with. That’s what should distinguish a college education from K-12, but alas those days my be gone!

    • Larry Rudiger

      Charles Murray is not a researcher. There’s a difference between controversial and discredited.

      • Don Dalton

        Well, who sits in judgment regarding who is controversial or discredited? I know nothing of Murray but I would defend his right to express his point of view, and of others to form their own judgments about him.

  • Ray Mainer

    Political Science isn’t a science anyway.

    • Neil Johnson

      And real science is always open to questioning and debate, that’s how theorys become law. When people say you can’t question the science they are clearly showing their ignorance on how the fundamentals of science work. It’s all about questioning.

      Through in an ignorance on statistics and you’ve got a recipe for deceit. What we are lacking is the discussion of Morals and the values upon which our Western Civilization is based. We’re teaching everyone how to protest and whine for things they want.

  • rosemariejackowski

    I hope they invited C-span to film it. That way all of us can see it and it will be up on the Internet forever.

  • Edward Letourneau

    …“grave concerns” is an interesting word. When I was in college the grave concern was about the world leaders who might blow up the planet – and I don’t recall anyone wondering if it was wrong to hear opposing ideas about where we were headed. It appears we have taught students and professors to become far too shallow in their thinking, and far too focused on themselves.

  • Annie Flanagan

    There are significant differences between researchers who use scientific or
    empirical methods with results that are repeatable, analyzed and peer reviewed, verses someone who is paid by a “think tank” to promote ideas that are unfounded, biased and border on hate speech. People have the right to free speech but categorize this speaker for what his work represents, which is not based on any relevant scientific research.

  • Jarrod Smith

    Vermonters should be alarmed by Murray’s invitation, because it’s an indictment of our State’s values as well as Middlebury College. Free speech promotes unrestricted flow of ideas, but it doesn’t guarantee equal distribution of all ideas: local and national sentiments serve as natural bottlenecks. What comes out of that bottleneck is a spectrum of ideas generally considered of value to discuss.

    Middlebury College wouldn’t invite a regressive pro-slavery speaker under the guise of free speech to “encourage robust discussion” because Vermonters agreed a long time ago that the humanity of Black human beings isn’t open for interpretation.

    Likewise, I don’t think most Vermonters believe the intellectual capacity of minorities and women is open either.

    Wish I could say the same for some of the students and faculty at Middlebury.

  • moderatevoter

    The culture wars continues. I, as a (left leaning) moderate, am driven to despair by left and right fanatics. Watching campus lefties twist themselves into pretzels to justify giving the first amendment yet another good campus beating forces me to agree with the right about something, which is a painful act because the right makes my teeth itch, to say it nicely. The man was invited by a campus group to speak, he has intellectual credentials that are real enough, even if he has voiced ideas that the left can’t consider as possibly being anything other than pure racism. I’ve more of the left in my own history and sympathies, but watching the left fall into the same trap over and over again is dismal. Liberal Arts Education my a**.
    Below, the famous prophetic first part of Yeats, from 1919, much quoted of late:

    “Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity…. “

  • George Putnam

    In September 2016 the Atlantic published a review of two books, White Trash and Hillbilly Elegy. The second paragraph contains this:

    “Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 was published in 2012, and Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis came out last year. From opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, they made the case that social breakdown among low-income whites was starting to mimic trends that had begun decades earlier among African Americans…”

    This conveys that Dr. Murray is at one end of the political spectrum, and Dr. Putnam is at the other, and that both are worth listening to.

    Middlebury College might consider the recent words of John Etchemendy, former provost of Stanford University:

    “Over the years, I have watched a growing intolerance at universities in this country – not intolerance along racial or ethnic or gender lines – there, we have made laudable progress. Rather, a kind of intellectual intolerance, a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for. It manifests itself in many ways: in the intellectual monocultures that have taken over certain disciplines; in the demands to disinvite speakers and outlaw groups whose views we find offensive; in constant calls for the university itself to take political stands. We decry certain news outlets as echo chambers, while we fail to notice the echo chamber we’ve built around ourselves.”

  • Zachary Kent

    After reading all this flap, I decided to read his book.

  • Scott Ede

    I want to read his book as well!! Anything that the babbies at MC don’t like I KNOW is probably good!

    • Zachary Kent

      I’d like to be there today asking protesters specific questions about the material in the book and see if a single one of them have even read it. My money is on “no.”