Disaster at Middlebury College

Are Liberal Colleges Handing Freedom of Speech to the Conservatives?

Posted Mar 06, 2017

badalyanrazmik / pixabay
Source: badalyanrazmik / pixabay

Here is yet another incident on a college campus in which an invited speaker was treated with nothing but the utmost of disrespect. Renowned (if infamous) social scientist, Charles Murray, was invited by a student group to speak at Middlebury College recently. Dr. Murray co-authored the controversial book The Bell Curve (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994) - which summarizes a large body of scholarly literature as it relates to general intelligence, race, and society.

Not only was Dr. Murray shouted down, to the point that there was no way he could give his talk, but the moderator of his talk, an esteemed political science professor at Middlebury, Allison Stanger, was assaulted in her efforts to accompany Dr. Murray after the talk. Her hair was pulled and she had damage to her neck muscles that brought her to the ER. Think about that.

My Own Brief History with The Bell Curve

Let me go on record now as saying that I never read The Bell Curve. It came out during my graduate school years—and I guess that I was busy doing other things. But at the time of the book’s publication, I was studying (among other things) intelligence in a doctoral program in psychology (at the University of New Hampshire). So I actually have some personal history and perspective to share on this topic.

The faculty at UNH were typical of academic faculty in a behavioral sciences department in a New England school, pretty much across the board liberal, with some nuances thrown in. The work of Herrnstein and Murray came up in many conversations among faculty and students during that time. I will never forget comments by Billy Baum and Tony Nevin—two high-profile (and highly respected) behaviorists who had worked closely with Herrnstein (who was a close collaborator of BF Skinner, by the way). They both publicly said that while they did not like the implications or slant of the book, they believed it to be extremely well-researched and they found it very strong in terms of sparking important research and discussion. Others in the department were pretty much fine with this conception of the work as far as I could tell. I personally didn’t give it too much thought at the time.

To my understanding, the foundational premise of the book is the idea that general intelligence has, across many studies, consistently demonstrated a heritable component. For instance, in one highly cited article, Davies et al. (2011) found heritability to be close to 50% for intelligence markers across over 3,000 adult participants). This is a very standard finding in the field. To my knowledge, no one in the field denies this general finding (although some argue about the actual numerical estimate).

Perhaps Herrnstein and Murray pushed this issue uncomfortably into the realm of social policy. As I have already said, I never actually read the book (hey, I was busy working on my dissertation!).

This said, things have changed dramatically since 1994. I’ve reviewed dozens of manuscripts related to intelligence across my career for all kinds of academic journals – and I can confirm that you used to see Herrnstein and Murray cited with some regularity early on. I haven’t  seen them cited since about 2000, except for perhaps a passing reference to their work as an example of horrible scholarship.

For all I know, it may be horrible scholarship—again, I have not read the book. But that’s OK because this is actually not the point of this piece. Let me get to the point.

Let People Speak

To my mind, there are many scary things happening in this country right now. And this trend for non party-line liberal voices to be disallowed to speak on college campuses is right up there in my mind as among the scariest. The Middlebury incident follows on the recent Berkeley incident, in which people were so upset about the possibility of outspoken conservative Milo Yiannopoulos speaking that the protests ended up costing over $100,000 worth of damage. I don’t know about you, but I think that is an enormous amount of money.

I am a long-standing academic - and I research, write, and speak about evolution applied to human behavior. Some people don’t like this. Some people think that this area of inquiry itself is politically incorrect. And while I certainly have never been shut down from speaking anywhere, I have seen the warning signs of this kind of thing - believe me. From colleagues trying to stop my evolutionary psychology class from being on the books to an attempted shout-down of a visiting scholar whom I brought to campus, whose ideas were considered conservative by some, and more. I have seen first-hand what happens when those in an academic community rally against a set of ideas that they deem “not the right ideas.” And it can be fierce, barbed, and irrational.

The Recent Controversial Speaker of SUNY New Paltz

In fact, within the past year, our school nearly joined the ranks of Middlebury and Berkeley. You see, a conservative media figure, Cliff Kincaid, was invited to speak here last Spring. When people looked into him, they concluded that he had written and stated all kinds of things that were perceived as highly conservative, inflammatory, and politically incorrect. Many folks, largely faculty, found his ideas offensive. To be honest, I find some of his ideas offensive as well. But, again, that is not the point.

After an extended process examining how to address this issue, our campus president reached out to me and to a few other faculty to form a Free Speech Task Force - charged with helping our campus explore the issues surrounding all of this. Our Task Force worked to ultimately bring Mr. Kincaid to campus. And beforehand, we held some events and engaged in some communication with members of our community, with the goal of helping to educate people about free speech issues and with an additional goal of having the event go at least somewhat smoothly.

I am happy to say that the event went OK. Not great, to be honest. It was kind of uncomfortable, to be sure. But no organized protest really emerged. The seats were packed—and the audience, rightfully, had some difficult questions for Mr. Kincaid. He answered them. Then he left (with his family, whom he brought along), and they all went out to dinner in New Paltz. No one stomped on his car. No one shouted expletives at him. No one pulled his hair. Nothing terrible happened. So I see this as a success!

And nothing terrible should happen. If a speaker comes onto campus, and folks disagree with his or her a priori stated view, then this is a great opportunity for our students. We teach them things! We teach them critical thinking skills. We teach them how to argue, how to provide evidence. We teach them how to be respectful and how to appreciate diversity in all its forms (including diversity of intellectual perspective).

If someone wants to bring a controversial speaker to my campus, I say bring it! And in such instances, students should be encouraged to use the many intellectual skills that they are paying thousands of dollars to acquire in our classrooms. And you know, even if the speaker has said or written some terrible things in the past, he or she may well have something to offer. He or she may well have something to say that would give someone pause. In my experience, it is rare that someone is actually 100% wrong on everything.

Are the Liberals Letting Conservatives be the Champions of Free Speech?

The free speech issue is, politically, intriguing. We typically would associate champions of freedom of speech as being left-leaning liberals. But this new trend of highly liberal college campuses refusing to let certain individuals speak - this bucks the trend altogether and, to my mind, hands the First Amendment straight into the hands of conservatives. Think about that.

Bottom Line

Through life, you better plan on running into extreme levels of ideological diversity. You better plan to be offended by the ideas of others. You better plan to develop skills for dealing with others who do not share your views. To my mind, the four years that someone spends in college should be exactly the time in life when such skills are developed.

The recent trend of disinviting controversial conservative speakers from our campuses, and shouting them down, and pulling the hair of faculty who literally walk beside them, is something that needs the most heightened of reflection. As a lifelong advocate for freedom of speech, this trend is nothing short of frightening to me. Academic institutions were designed to be safe havens for ideas of all varieties. When it comes to the world of academia, I say this: Let Freedom Ring.


Davies, G.; Tenesa, A.; Payton, A.; Yang, J.; Harris, S. E.; Liewald, D.; Deary, I. J. (2011). "Genome-wide association studies establish that human intelligence is highly heritable and polygenic". Molecular Psychiatry. 16 (10): 996–1005.

Herrnstein, R. J. and Murray, C., (1994). The Bell Curve. New York: The Free Press.

Charles Murray’s account of the Middlebury incidient: http://www.aei.org/publication/reflections-on-the-revolution-in-middlebury/

Inside Higher Education article on the Middlebury incident: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/03/06/middlebury-engages-soul-searching-after-speech-shouted-down-and-professor-attacked?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=ee5e601e16-DNU20170306&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-ee5e601e16-198560037&mc_cid=ee5e601e16&mc_eid=0720480b32

CNN story on similar situation at Berkeley: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwi4vZDi98HSAhVGRSYKHQf4Ak0QFggaMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.cnn.com%2F2017%2F02%2F01%2Fus%2Fmilo-yiannopoulos-berkeley%2F&usg=AFQjCNGhbNgj5fypvrBTxL35lF-5dqVxqg&sig2=XCi42hkCt7_Jlbecx-xRAA&bvm=bv.148747831,d.eWE