On Campuses, Who’s in Charge?

University Administrators: Do Your Jobs

Charles Murray speaking at the 2013 FreedomFest in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore)

By Benjamin Decatur

Milo. Shapiro. Coulter. D’Souza. Murray.

We have all heard the story by now: student groups on college campuses invite prominent conservatives to speak, only to see them shouted at, mocked, and in some cases physically abused. This has unfortunately become the new norm as university presidents and administrators refuse to step up and defend the First Amendment.

One particularly egregious example occurred last March when student protesters at Middlebury College shut down a speaking event featuring American Enterprise Institute scholar and political scientist, Charles Murray. Murray, the author of the controversial book, The Bell Curve, was invited to discuss his 2012 book, Coming Apart, which describes economic divisions present among white Americans. The students who invited Murray urged their peers to listen to his points and then challenge his ideas. Unfortunately, this never happened.

Students proceeded to “shut down” the event, forcing Murray to answer questions via a live video feed out of fear for his own safety. Students even resorted to physical violence, as they surrounded Murray’s car and even injuring a professor that tried to hold them back. Such a scene was a shameful day for the First Amendment and for all those who believe in and have died for free speech.

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Right Way to Protect Free Speech on Campus,” Middlebury president, Laurie L. Patton, had the chance to respond to the crisis and to offer her suggestions regarding freedom of speech and the right to protest.

Patton argues that universities should work to build inclusive and welcoming communities, but that this cannot come at the cost of free speech and intelligent debate. “We must prepare young Americans, whatever their background, to take on arguments that offend them; to enter the public square with better ideas supported with better reason, better research, better logic, and better data; to risk being offended and to argue back even when they might feel afraid,” Patton writes.

Patton also offers advice for how schools can protect free speech going forward. Her ideas for other universities include embracing “freedom of expression and inquiry as an educational value for everyone” and moving “beyond the false dichotomy between free speech and inclusiveness.”

She also suggests that schools ensure that all students have an understanding of the First Amendment and urges presidents to “reflect on who is and is not included in different public debates, and ask why.”

It is safe to say that we are in desperate need of more college presidents and administrators like Patton. I commend her commitment to protect free speech on college campuses and her willingness to admit that
Middlebury, and many other colleges and universities, have a free speech problem.

However, we must ask ourselves: how did Patton let this all happen in the first place? How did she allow a distinguished scholar and author to be shut down and abused?

Patton wrote that in her inaugural address as the new president of Middlebury a year and a half ago, she made it known that she “wanted Middlebury to be a community whose members engage in reasoned, thoughtful debate openly and without fear…and are resilient in argument and generous to those we disagree with.”

So much for that.

Many college presidents and administrators have forgotten who is in charge of running their respective institutions. In many cases, administrators fail to discipline students who interrupt speeches, steal event materials, and threaten speakers. In some cases, administrators and professors even defend students who interrupt events, particularly where conservative thought is involved.

In an extreme example of college presidents losing control of their own institutions, one only needs to look at Evergreen State University, a small liberal arts college in Olympia, Washington. Recently, students have seemingly taken over the school. They have launched a witch hunt against Professor Bret Weinstein, accusing him of racism and demanding his resignation. These “student protesters”–to use a euphemism for the ages–have occupied the library and even the president’s office.

While Middlebury and other universities may not have the suffered the same ridiculous fate as Evergreen, it is not inconceivable that similar events could occur at universities across the country. If university presidents continue to show lackluster leadership and a failure to stand up for a university’s principles, the
madness will only continue as we approach the 2017-2018 school year.

College presidents have a duty to protect the First Amendment on their campuses. Other university presidents should join Patton in her calls to protect free speech, or else risk losing control over The Academy entirely. Additionally, student governments must work with administrators to draft legislation to protect free speech.

The shutting down of conservative speakers at Berkeley, Middlebury, NYU, and dozens of other colleges across the country should serve as a reminder for university presidents to do their jobs.

If Patton is serious in her calls for defending free speech on college campuses then that is a good start. But let us just hope that it is not a case of too little, too late.