As the co-author of one of the 1990s’ most controversial works of scholarship, Charles Murray is no stranger to angry protesters.
Over the years, at university lectures across the country, the influential conservative scholar and author of “The Bell Curve” says he’s come face-to-face with demonstrators dozens of times.
But none of those interactions prepared him for the chaotic confrontation he encountered Thursday night at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt.
“When ‘The Bell Curve’ came out, I’d have lectures with lots of people chanting and picketing with signs, but it was always within the confines of the event and I was eventually able to speak,” Murray told The Washington Post. “But I’ve never experienced anything like this.”
The demonstrations began conventionally enough, with several hundred organized protesters packed into a lecture hall Thursday, chanting and holding signs. They ended with Murray being forced to move his lecture and later being surrounded by an unruly mob made up of students and “outside agitators” as he tried to leave campus, according to witnesses and school administrators.
After swarming Murray, a faculty member and a school official, the protesters shouted profanities, shoved members of the group and then blocked them from getting to a vehicle in a nearby parking lot. Witnesses said the confrontation was aggressive, intimidating and unpredictable and felt like it was edging frighteningly close to outright violence.
In a message to the campus community Friday, Middlebury President Laurie L. Patton said her administration plans to respond to the “clear violations of Middlebury College policy” that occurred the night before without providing more specific information. Patton — who was on hand Thursday night — said she was “deeply disappointed” by the events she witnessed and called the night “painful” for many at Middlebury, a top-tier liberal arts college with about 2,450 undergraduate students.
“Today our community begins the process of addressing the deep and troubling divisions that were on display last night,” her message said. “I am grateful to those who share this goal and have offered to help.”
“We must find a path to establishing a climate of open discourse as a core Middlebury value, while also recognizing critical matters of race, inclusion, class, sexual and gender identity, and the other factors that too often divide us,” the statement added. “That work will take time, and I will have more to say about that in the days ahead.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled Murray a white supremacist and a eugenicist who uses “racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.”
“Murray, a statistically minded sociologist by training, has spent decades working to rehabilitate long-discredited theories of IQ and heredity, turning them into a foundation on which to build a conservative theory of society that rejects equality and egalitarianism,” the SPLC states.
Murray bristled at the SPLC’s characterization of him and blamed it for provoking protests among college students who have failed to scrutinize his work.
“White supremacist?” he said Friday. “Let’s see: if you have a guy who was married for 13 years to an Asian woman and who has two lovely Asian daughters, wouldn’t that disqualify him from membership in the white supremacist club?”
Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was not invited to Middlebury to discuss “The Bell Curve,” but instead to talk about his latest book: “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.”
His lecture was co-sponsored by Middlebury’s Political Science Department. The other sponsor was the AEI Executive Council at the college, an outreach program by the Washington-based group that operates on dozens of campuses.
“Our goal was not to create a controversy, but to start a discussion and a dialogue,” said Alexander Khan, a member of the AEI Executive Council. “Many members of our own club here don’t agree with everything Dr. Murray has to say, but we still believe in the importance of robust discussion and the free exchange of opinions.”
“That is a cornerstone of what it means to receive a liberal arts education,” he added.
The Associated Press reported that more than 450 alumni signed a letter calling Murray’s visit “unacceptable.”
“In this case, there’s not really any ‘other side,’ only deceptive statistics masking unfounded bigotry,” the letter said.
“Both students and other community members came out to show that we are not accepting these kind of racist, misogynistic, eugenist opinions being expressed at our college,” Elizabeth Dunn, a student protest organizer, told the AP. “We don’t think that they deserve a platform because they are literally hate speech.”
Video from the lecture in Wilson Hall showed hundreds of students turning their backs to Murray once he took the stage and began speaking.
Chants including “Hey hey, ho ho, Charles Murray has got to go” and “Racist, sexist anti-gay, Charles Murray go away” followed as Murray remained at the lectern for close to 20 minutes. The students held signs that said “No Eugenics” and “Scientific racism = Racism.”
Anticipating that the lecture might be interrupted, administrators attempted to relocate the event and a Q&A with Middlebury professor Allison Stanger to a location where the exchange could be live-streamed. Some of their discussion was recorded, but the dialogue was interrupted by loud protesters who slammed chairs, chanted and periodically pulled fire alarms, which shut down the building’s power, according to Middlebury spokesman Bill Burger.
“It became very difficult to hear in there where they were recording,” Burger said. “Nonetheless, there was a principle at work in that we were determined to continue the event. Both sides felt like they were standing for principle.”
Murray said he felt like students were protesting a perceived persona more than a person, one they’d labeled “a racist, sexist pseudo scientist.” Asked why he thinks he continues to arouse such passion 23 years after “The Bell Curve” was published, Murray said he could only speculate.
“I think there is this rage on campuses about Donald Trump and — as someone who has written pretty explicitly about my disapproval of Trump — I can sympathize with that.”
“But if you have someone that they can say, ‘This is one of those people who is the problem,’ then they latch on to that person,” he added. “That’s who I was to them.”
Burger said Stanger’s hair was pulled before she reached the car, twisting and injuring the professor’s neck. Burger said she later went to a hospital and was fitted with a neck brace. (Stanger could not be reached for comment.)
By the time Murray, Stanger and Burger made it to their car with a campus security escort, the vehicle was mobbed by masked demonstrators who climbed on the hood, pounded the windows and blocked the car’s exit while security struggled to clear a path, witnesses said.
At one point, a stop sign with a concrete base was laid in front of the vehicle to block its path. After close to 10 minutes, the car managed to separate from the mob, witnesses said. Minutes later, the group was forced to leave another campus building where a catered dinner had been arranged after security informed Murray and the others that more protesters were on their way.
Murray said he harbored no ill will toward Middlebury and praised campus administrators for not backing down from protesters as the night intensified.
He said he didn’t want to dramatize the events or present his final interaction with protesters as a “life-or-death situation,” but noted that the crowd was “out of control.”
“Had there not been those security guards, I would certainly have been pushed down on the ground,” he said. “Maybe nothing more would’ve happened after that, but certainly that would’ve happened.”
“I was glad to get the hell out of there,” he added.