Those of us whose ceilings are not silicates mostly know that raucous protestors this past Thursday–some, though probably not all, students—prevented Charles Murray from speaking at Middlebury College, and confronted him in ways that amounted to assault (injuring a professor who was with him) when he tried to leave.
There’s no lack of commentary on this; I have little to add to its substance. Like many, I think that judging Murray a poor scholar and a vicious racist (not far from my own opinion) does not constitute even a weak case for shouting him down or trying to beat him up. But less attention has been paid to how we talk about invited speakers in the first place.
Consider how Time described a letter from alumni, put out before the event, deploring the Murray invitation
In a letter published Wednesday, more than 450 Middlebury graduates called the college’s decision to host Murray ‘unacceptable and unethical.’
The college’s decision to host Murray. I understand how a tweeter or journalist trying to save words would say for short that Middlebury “hosted” Murray. (Later in the piece, Time similarly paraphrases Middlebury’s spokesperson as defending “the decision to host Murray”). But that locution is completely misleading and extremely pernicious.
Colleges and universities officially host commencement speakers and a handful of other speakers (e.g. when a speaker series is called a “university lecture” or is part of a “Presidential lecture series”). But otherwise, universities don’t host speakers at all. The hosts are, on the contrary, the independent entities that essentially do the actual educating at universities and to which universities supply, in effect, a common bureaucracy, some imperfect quality control, and a crucial brand. Those entities include academic departments; university- or grant-supported centers and academic programs; and—as in this case—student groups. Only such units, and not “the university,” should be held responsible for their diverse and independent judgments regarding whom they decide to invite.
Though most accounts of the event bury the fact, no university budget was harmed in the making of this speech. The invitation was extended—and wholly funded—by a student group, the American Enterprise Institute Club. (Murray is affiliated with AEI.) The political science department offered the same matter-of-course co sponsorship, with no money attached, that it apparently extends to any talk that is related to political science and is likely to attract student interest. Middlebury’s president decided to attend, as she apparently attends all outside talks when her schedule permits (having taught at a small, remote college, I can attest that this happens), but with the explicit proviso that her attendance constituted no endorsement. “Middlebury,” the collective and corporate entity, “hosted” or “invited” precisely no one.
The alumni protest letter cited above awkwardly reflects awareness of this. It abounds with the passive and impersonal constructions that, as I tell my students, show the writer unable or unwilling to state precisely who or what is making things happen. Murray “has been invited to speak at our alma mater”; he “has been granted a platform”; “the decision to bring Dr. Murray to campus is unacceptable and unethical.” To be sure, the letter does at one point embrace the active voice: “We believe in a Middlebury that invites, and pays, those guests who will most enrich the education of every student.” But if one thinks that statement through, its strangeness becomes clear. Do the alumni really think that speaker invitations should be centralized, and ranked for their educational value? Who would make these decisions? By which criteria? What if the Chemistry Department and the Drama Department can’t agree on which speakers “will most enrich the education of every student”? (And what if the student humor magazine disagrees with both?)
If we’re being honest: except at a few intensely religious or otherwise mission-driven institutions, nothing but outrage would greet any university administration that tried to arrogate the right to decide which speakers’ viewpoints were such as to maximize students’ education. And politically active alumni would be the first to join the outrage.
In other words, talk of Murray being “granted a platform” (by agent or agents unknown) gets things badly wrong. There is no single platform, and no one agent deciding who may hold forth. When it comes to invited speakers—and, I’d argue, in other respects too—universities are less like club owners booking gigs than they are like convention-center managers making room for hundreds of booths, jostling and competing for our attention.
Confusion on this point is pervasive. It is not accidental but systemic, institutional. College administrators are loath to admit that the loyalties and identities of many (probably most) faculty track our disciplines, not our university affiliations. Because of that, and the desire to piggyback on the prestige of well-known speakers, administrators often do make it seem, in campus and outside communication, as if inviting various speakers were their idea—and their decision—rather than the ideas and decisions of departments, academic programs, or student groups.
And because alumni donations track school spirit, a sense of the whole, alumni are constantly encouraged to misunderstand how pluralistic—not to say semi-anarchic—university life is. And the development office will be the first to do the constant encouraging. (Small liberal arts colleges are indeed less anarchic, and evoke stronger institutional loyalty, than bigger, more anonymous places. As a result, the former offer students more nurturance than the latter—and less freedom.) Finally, students at private universities are often, as Dara Lind pointed out in a great piece, sold a portrait of college as home-like, a “little paradise.” As a result, the inevitable strains of leaving home and encountering alien views come to seem like breaches of contract, or of faith.
But these myths have costs that we now are paying. The truth is that universities cannot possibly be as corporate, as institutionally responsible, as capable of being held responsible for “decisions” to invite speakers, as either their own P.R. or student and alumni expectations imagine.
That is as it should be. Student groups make up their own mind about whom they want to hear from. Academic departments and programs may differ regarding which ideas are worth taking seriously (or they may, as Middlebury Political Science apparently does, decide to leave that judgment up to students). Anyone at the university—whether an individual or a group— who regards a given entity’s invitation decisions as foolish, or racist, may freely try to impose the requisite, not trivial, costs: imposing on that entity a reputation as fools, or racists.
The result, to be sure, is that no central decision maker can be held responsible for vindicating, through intellectual and moral vetting, the collective purpose of the academic community as a whole. That is surely a good education in how free societies work too. Others’ judgments of whose ideas are worth hearing are subject to our condemnation but not to our control.