Middlebury College's self-inflicted black eye

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Based on the unpleasant reception political scientist Charles Murray received at Middlebury College's McCullough Student Center on March 2, I am thankful that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, has been invited to address Saint Michael's College's 2017 graduating class. Who knows what kind of armed conflict might have ensued if the general was invited to speak at Middlebury?

Mr. Murray had been invited to the college by a group of politically conservative students. They were mentored by a Middlebury faculty member, professor Allison Stanger. Murray is not without controversy, especially since the mid-1990's when he and Richard L. Herrnstein published "The Bell Curve," a book on the origins of human intelligence.

The fact that the college was to be in for protesting at Mr. Murray's appearance was not a secret. What was not known until the speaker's arrival was the number of protesters who were adamantly opposed to having Mr. Murray on their campus.

The anger manifested by the students (and some outsiders) was so vitriolic that professor Stanger had to move the speaker's venue to Wilson Hall, where closed circuit TV was provided. It didn't matter; Murray's address was shouted down. While on his way to his car and escorted by Professor Stanger, Murray was verbally attacked by student mobs. Worse, professor Stanger was physically assaulted and required hospitalization.

It has been reported that Middlebury College President Laurie Patton, is conducting an investigation into the incident, as well as the Village of Middlebury Police Department. It will be interesting to see if anything develops from this.

One wonders if Bernie Sanders, Jane Fonda, or Al Sharpton were to address the student body, would similar incidents take place? Some students at Middlebury College can be tolerant when they have speakers with whom they have common ground. However, as was noted on March 2nd, such tolerance is nonexistent when a speaker does not hold to their beliefs.

The Murray fiasco at Middlebury has gained worldwide attention, having been reported in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and in the British publication, The Economist. What piqued my interest: Where was the outrage by the Middlebury faculty of the students behavior? This institution has been in existence for over two centuries and, not unlike other colleges, is the one place that freedom of expression (and freedom of assembly) is to be defended at all costs.

In fairness, two members of the faculty, professors Jay Parini and Keegan Callanan, provided the readers of the March 7 Wall Street Journal with a set of "principles" to be followed at college institutions when it comes to controversial speakers. After witnessing the behavior of the Middlebury gang, lots of luck with such principles.

In his recently published book, "What's Happened To The University," Frank Furedi, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, makes a timely and relevant observation. "Although academic freedom and free speech are still affirmed in theory, in practice it appears to have lost its vitality and relevance to the lives of many of those who inhabit the university. At times it seems that the cultural climate that prevails in higher education is far less hospitable to the ideals of freedom, tolerance, and debate than in the world outside the university gate."

Students and faculty at Middlebury should visit the bio of one of their institution's most distinguished alums — W.C. (Bill) Heinz, (Class of '37). The late resident of Dorset, noted for his authorship of "M.A.S.H" and reporting from the World War II battlefields, had the greatest tolerance for the written or spoken word — even when he fiercely disagreed.

In time, Middlebury College's black eye will heal when its community fully embraces the fact that institutions of higher education could very well be society's last bastions for the expression of one's opinion — no matter how distasteful the opinion.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.

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