In his recent letter regarding the state of the University, President Eisgruber pointed to this year’s pre-read on free speech as an extension of the important conversations on campus surrounding academic freedom. He used Charles Murray’s failed attempts to speak at Middlebury College as an example of the breakdown of intellectual spaces for the free exchange of ideas. Eisgruber calls the incident “outrageous and unacceptable,” pointing to how Murray was “prevented from speaking and assaulted.” There is a problem with this example, though, and I believe a recent event on campus provides insight into Eisgruber’s flawed perspective into what academic freedom really is.
It is important to first understand exactly what ideas are being protected under the catch-all phrase of academic freedom. Murray is a discredited pseudoscientist noted as a white nationalist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and believes that there is a genetic basis for the socioeconomic achievement gap in the United States. Furthermore, he claims that black people are, on average, less intelligent than white people based on inaccurate and widely discredited IQ tests. Murray attributes black people’s mental inferiority to both environmental and genetic factors. Even though he defends that his work is misrepresented and not racist, by using inaccurate statistics to claim that black people are dumber than white people, and pursuing a genetic basis for this, he is most certainly racist.
It’s clear that Murray was never in pursuit of a “truth-seeking mission,” as Eisgruber states to be the purpose of academia — he was in pursuit of a truth that does not exist, that somehow white men are smarter and rightfully higher-achieving than any other demographic group. Charles Murray is not an academic or an intellectual, and he does not seek to add truth to the collective knowledge of academia. So, why is Eisgruber using Murray’s inability to speak at Middlebury as a prime example for what is going wrong in colleges?
One of the concerns surrounding the Middlebury incident is that Murray and Middlebury Professor Allison Stanger were physically assaulted during the protest. Violence certainly has no place in campus debates, but this is not my focus here. The physical assaults against Murray and Stanger were committed by a mob of both outside groups and student protesters that splintered off from the main demonstration. If Eisgruber’s critique of the incident is based on the violence, he needs to separate this out of his larger discussion on academic freedom, because he mentions this in conjunction with the fact that Murray was prevented from speaking. My point here is not that the occurrences on the Middlebury campus were justified but that discussing Murray’s inability to lecture being an affront to academic freedom is irresponsible. The debate surrounding academic freedom is an important one, but not all ideas deserve to be protected in our academic spaces, and Murray’s certainly do not
Recently, there was a protest on the crosswalk on Washington Road by an extremist Christian group, Open Air Outreach, led by Jesse Morrell, holding posters that read things like “Feminists are Whores” and “All Masturbators are Homos,” yelling at passersby that he was “not here to tickle [their] feelings.” His protest was met with anger and disbelief, sparking little debate about the merits of his arguments but rather universal disapproval. Morrell is an Open-air preacher with a sizable YouTube audience and has even written a book.
Although his views are controversial and horrifically sexist and homophobic, should he be given a space a few yards over in McCosh Hall 50 to describe his views? Most would say not. However, he has a right to his ideas and is, in his own opinion, a “truth seeker,” so, why shouldn’t he? It’s because his work holds no academic or intellectual value, and his sexist and politically motivated agenda is clear. Murray can be compared to Morrell and his unacademic protests. His views, though presented in prose and based on what seems like proper methodology, are not academic. He has a racist agenda, and intellectual institutions should not protect the ideas he espouses.
The question of what ideas should be protected and what views are controversial but academically sound, is critical. To keep our academic spaces available for the open and free debate of ideas is important for the pursuit of knowledge. There is a reason Morrell’s protest took place on a crosswalk rather than in any of our lecture halls where he would have an uninterrupted audience of students. Moreover, it’s the same reason why we need to reject the ideas and pseudo-intellectual racism of people like Charles Murray. To keep our intellectual spaces open for debate, we need to keep out the white supremacist agenda of non-academics like Murray. To do so is not to be afraid and closed off from ideas and controversy, but to stay focused on the debates that matter. We cannot use our academic spaces for the meritless ideas of people like Murray and Morrell. It would only hurt our institution to do so.
Cy Watsky is a first-year from Princeton, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.