Murray’s talk drew national attention because he became a symbol of the intense anger generated by some controversial speakers on college campuses this year.
In March, after trying to give a lecture about his most recent book at Middlebury College in Vermont, Murray was surrounded by an angry mob. Hundreds of protesters gathered, angry about a book he co-wrote in the 1990s that many people called racist, including some in masks who climbed on the hood of his car and pounded on windows as he tried to leave.
The incident became, for many, a sign of liberal intolerance, suppression of free speech and the excesses of political correctness on college campuses — and for others, proof that students would stand up to reject views they find hateful and offensive.
Some students at Harvard questioned why a speaker they say is racist would be welcomed to campus. Others urged their classmates to challenge his views rather than shutting him out.
A Harvard Crimson reporter shared fliers being handed out:
After controversial speakers have sparked violence from supporters and counterprotesters on several campuses nationally, some schools have denied people permission to hold events on campuses.
Five public universities denied requests to have white-nationalist speaker Richard Spencer hold events on their campuses in recent days, saying such events posed an imminent threat to the campus community. Last month, a woman was killed in Charlottesville when a man drove his car into a crowd of people protesting a planned rally of white supremacists.
A student brought a lawsuit against Michigan State University this week, saying the decision not to allow Spencer to speak violated constitutional rights.
The University of California at Berkeley, too, has seen violent clashes over conservative speakers this year, with far-right and far-left protesters confronting one another.
Murray, a Harvard alumnus, could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
They wrote that they believe Murray’s “blatantly white supremacist theories on race, gender, class, and IQ are fundamentally dangerous,” and called on the Harvard College Open Campus Initiative to cancel the event.
To give him an open platform “from which he can participate in and legitimize a tradition of dehumanization of marginalized people — the same tradition that is responsible for the tragedy of Charlottesville (and America’s entire history of racial trauma) — is fundamentally at odds with who we should be as a College,” they wrote.
They acknowledged that their critique was most applicable to “The Bell Curve,” which he co-authored in 1994, an analysis of IQ and class that was a bestseller and prompted fierce criticism from some — including the Southern Poverty Law Center, which labeled him a white nationalist.
“At this political moment, when the very humanity of people of color in this country is being questioned and white supremacy is at the forefront of American political discourse, students ought to stand with their vulnerable peers of color and other marginalized persons on this campus,” the students wrote.
They held a rally shortly before the talk and then hosted a counter-event that they described as “a panel of experts on sociology and race theory who will provide an in-depth explanation of where Murray goes wrong.”
A student organizer did not respond immediately to a request for comment Wednesday, but in a statement online, the Harvard College Open Campus Initiative responded to some of the concerns raised by the students from the Black Caucus. They noted that the first group to host Murray at Harvard, to discuss “The Bell Curve,” was the Black Student Association.
They wrote: “For all those who have a bone to pick with Murray, we propose joining the discussion, and interrogating him rationally instead of turning your backs on the event. To listen is ultimately an act of courage, and to speak an act of generosity. Of course, we can’t guarantee that every question will be asked within the time constraints of the event; but we promise to do our best.
“Whatever you think about Charles Murray, the situation at Middlebury should alarm you, as it alarmed us. … It was an affront to the free society that we all enjoy. There is immense value in setting a better precedent here at Harvard. We hope the Harvard Community (and the broader Cambridge/Boston community) will help us in achieving that goal.”
The event was only open to Harvard College students, out of a desire by the students hosting the event to keep it small, according to a spokeswoman for Harvard.
But given the broader national debate about controversial speakers, the event drew heated commentary online.