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In early March I went to Middlebury College to give a talk about my book “Coming Apart.” It resulted in a student protest in the lecture hall and, later in the evening, violence in the parking lot that caused a concussion and neck injuries to a faculty member with me. You’ve probably heard about it.
Last Saturday, Laurie Patton, the president of Middlebury College, published her reflections on the episode in the Wall Street Journal. She included a fine statement of principles about freedom of speech on campus. I applaud those principles. But I differ with her assessment of how the administration handled the situation. To me, the aftermath of the Middlebury affair is a case study in a sickness of American higher education: Hand-wringing in the face of a toxic threat to the university.
Let’s begin by considering the consequences that Middlebury visited on the student protestors. In Dr. Patton’s own words:
In the end, the board took disciplinary action against 74 Middlebury students. Most received probation, which means that they will face more serious penalties if they violate these policies again.
No, Dr. Patton. They faced no penalty for this offense. “Probation” at Middlebury doesn’t mean a weekly meeting with your probation officer and random drug tests. It just means a temporary mark on your record that is expunged if there is no further violation. A slap on the wrist? Not even that.
A few, who took an especially prominent role in the episode, received what we call ‘college discipline,’ which places a letter in their permanent file noting their infractions. Because students often must disclose such information in applications to graduate programs and employers, it is a serious penalty, with potentially long-term consequences.
Serious penalty? Dr. Patton could write that with a straight face? Being involved in the protest will be a plus in the eyes of the admissions committees for many graduate programs. Employers? Most won’t notice, some will be amused. No one is going to say “Oh, we can’t hire this person. He was in a student protest a few years ago.”
Here’s the reality: A guest lecturer was shouted down. A senior professor, a senior college official, and the guest lecturer were assaulted. The professor was seriously injured. No one was punished. Not one single solitary person.
Now that I’ve vented, the question may reasonably be asked: How do I think Middlebury should have dealt with the situation? I’ve wanted to answer that question since the morning of March 3, but two things have kept me circumspect.
First, it was important that I make it as easy as possible for the administration to do the right thing. For me to have gone on TV calling for students’ heads would have made it harder. But now Middlebury has made its decision. That restraint is gone.
Second, I didn’t want to do anything that might make life difficult for Allison Stanger, the professor who had agreed to moderate my lecture, and Bill Burger, Middlebury’s vice president for communications, who faced that crowd of protesters in black ski masks with me, one at each elbow, while we made our difficult way to the car. Confining myself to a single, anodyne account of the affair and staying off radio and TV seemed the best way to show my gratitude.
Subsequently, however, both Burger and Stanger have been treated unkindly by some in the Middlebury community. Some students have called for Bill Burger to be punished for endangering students by his “reckless” driving (my word for it is “brilliant”) as he threaded our way through people banging on the windows and climbing on the hood. Allison Stanger, wearing a neck brace for her neck injury and suffering the after effects of a concussion, has had to read her injuries described as “alleged” and to hear explanations that it was all an accident—one of the rioters accidentally got his hand tangled in Prof. Stanger’s hair (if you believe that, check out her haircut in her Facebook photograph). Others have used the oldest excuse in the book: By appearing with me, she was asking for it. I don’t discount the many people who have been good friends to Burger and Stanger since March 2. But there has also been a dismaying amount of victim-blaming. Their lives have already been made difficult, and by this time I don’t think I will be adding to it. So now I feel free to say what I think should have happened:
To begin with, Dr. Patton’s introductory remarks at the lecture, which you can see here, seven minutes into the video, could have been improved upon. In effect, she said that principles of free speech required that this person who represents everything Middlebury abhors be allowed to speak. It was not a message calculated to make students think she would come down on them like a ton of bricks if they strayed out of line. In fact, a reasonable person could conclude that she was just going through the motions.
But, having seen what happened subsequently, she could have retrieved the situation on the following morning if she had given this announcement:
Video of the protest in the lecture hall has already identified many students who were in flagrant violation of Middlebury’s policy, as stated by both Bill Burger and me at the outset of yesterday’s lecture. They are hereby suspended for the rest of the term. The administration will seek out additional video evidence and suspend all other students who can be identified. The fact that some students will not be shown on video and thereby escape punishment cannot deter the administration from acting against students for whom the evidence is clear and unambiguous.
As of this morning, Middlebury College is cooperating fully with Middlebury and Burlington police in their efforts to bring criminal charges against those who committed assault and battery against Bill Burger, Allison Stanger, and Charles Murray, with special attention to those who injured Prof. Stanger. Any students who can be proved to have been among the protesters who committed those assaults and attacked the car carrying them away from the scene will be permanently expelled, regardless of the specific role they may or may not have played.
I am sure that Dr. Patton thinks this is far too harsh. If so, she is apparently joined by every other president of a college or university that has experienced similar offenses against intellectual freedom on the campus. To my knowledge, not a single student has been suspended or expelled for shouting down a speaker over the last few years.
I call for suspension or expulsion because we’re not talking about students acting a little too boisterously or students whose worthy motives should mitigate their treatment. In my view, preventing a person from peacefully presenting a point of view on a university campus is analogous to killing a person in a community, in this limited sense: Both acts are challenges to the most elemental functions of those institutions. A core function of a community is to keep its members safe from predators. A core function of the university is to keep its members safe from intellectual suppression. Forget about the real violence that occurred later in the day at Middlebury. What went on in the lecture hall was in itself a grave infraction. It called for a grave response.
The end of the university, its very reason for being, is to enable the unending, incremental, and disputatious search for truth.
In taking this view, I join with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who uses Aristotle’s concept of telos—the end, the purpose, that defines a thing—to think about what’s happening on America’s campuses. In Haidt’s words, “a university must have one and only one highest and inviolable good.” The telos of the university, he continues, is truth. The competing agenda of social justice is incompatible with truth. In their personal lives, students, faculty, and administrators are free to pursue social justice as they define it. But the university cannot take sides. The end of the university, its very reason for being, is to enable the unending, incremental, and disputatious search for truth. A university must be a safe place for intellectual freedom, else it has failed in its purpose. To respond to violations of that haven as the administration of Middlebury has responded is not a matter of being too soft on students. It is dereliction of duty.
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