Why colleges don’t “host” speakers—and why it matters.

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 [the link to the letter has since been moved to here—AS], 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.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

6 thoughts on “Why colleges don’t “host” speakers—and why it matters.”

  1. +1000 to this. Let me add that students are not a centralized entity either. A lot of commentary has focused on the putative idiocy of students…but only a small portion of the students were involved AND some students were there because they wanted to hear the lecture.

  2. Boy, this was a fairly mincing essay. For one thing, there's an assumption of In Loco Parentis that people pay $50,000 a year for. The university, as an organic whole, has responsibilities to its students as a whole, its alumni as a whole, and all the parents or indentured loan slaves paying them a shit-ton of money. To parse it into "oh, who knows which groups wants which thingamajig" is to deny the responsibility, every bit as much as to say about an Exxon oil spill, well, we can't blame the tanker captain, we can't blame the marketing department, we can't blame the shipbuilders, so there's nobody truly responsible.

    Secondly, if the White Supremacy Society at Williams wants to invite David Duke, you whine all you want about varying viewpoints and free speech, but that student group should bear every single red cent of paying for security, and, more appropriately, renting an off-campus venue so that they won't disrupt the rights of other students and faculty to not be subjected to the shitshow that will inevitably result. To then handwring about Duke getting hit with rotten eggs and tomatoes misses the point, no matter how finely you try to wax discursive about who's deciding what. The President of Williams College can and should tell The White Supremacy Society to hear from David Duke at a rented convention hall in Fitchburg or Springfield, but not on my campus, not on my watch, I have a duty here, on behalf of the entity called Williams College. And if Noam Chomsky would cause a riot, the same principle would apply. Yelling fire in a theater.

    1. But how do you know if they are going to cause a riot? And what role should the university play in trying to get their students to not riot like idiots? Maybe none – but maybe allowing the riot-oriented events to take place make for good opportunities for other, more sensible groups to try and persuade more productive, civilized activities.

      1. Yeah…I know….it's a fine line. It just seems as though some of the punditry is ignoring the deliberately provocative nature of the invitation. And location is relevant. If you invite Louis Farrakhan to speak in front of a synagogue, or Benjamin Netanyahu to speak in front of a mosque, or Mike Tyson to speak in front of a rape victims' support house, you're an asshole, and the university at some official level has a duty to do……something…..rather than saying, oh well, freeze peach, assholes gotta bigger right than non-assholes.

    2. "rights of other students and faculty to not be subjected to the shitshow that will inevitably result."

      There's a phrase for this: "heckler's veto." There's no "inevitably" about it, and the example of an Exxon oil spill portrays students as having all the agency of inanimate machines. Students who regard the speech as racist have a responsibility (and, in some of the cases you cite, perhaps a duty) to protest vehemently but peacefully, outside the venue.

      I agree that universities have responsibilities to their students—including looking after the physical safety of the campus (not in question here, unless students by their own agency choose to make it so). Those responsibilities also include, however, the responsibility to teach how to deal, *peacefully* in spite of legitimately strong emotions, with the hateful ideas that are the price of diverse, free societies.

    3. I have a better idea: sue the violent protestors themselves for "every single red cent of paying for security." They're the ones who are responsible for there needing to be security.

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