In the year since students protested a planned lecture by Charles Murray last March, political science professor Allison Stanger has emerged as a prominent public figure in the national debate over issues of speech and protest on college campuses.
In the immediate wake of the protests, Stanger wrote multiple op-eds, including two for The New York Times. Last October, she spoke about the protest on C-SPAN’s “Q&A” with Brian Lamb. Days later, she testified before a U.S. Senate committee in a hearing entitled “Exploring Free Speech on College Campuses.” She has also spoken publicly at a number of panels and conferences, including those at Yale University, Elmhurst College in Chicago and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
Last month, Stanger spoke at Arizona State University (ASU) in a talk entitled “Speech on Campus: When Protests Turn Extreme.” The event also featured Lucía Martínez Valdivia, a professor at Reed College whose introductory humanities class was protested last year for featuring works that students deemed “white supremacist” and “anti-black.”
President Laurie L. Patton was also scheduled to speak at the event, but withdrew two months before the talk. The Campus requested comment from Patton, but Bill Burger, the college’s spokesman, said she was unavailable for comment due to traveling.
Both Stanger and Valdivia pointed to the current political climate as an aggravator for protests like those at Middlebury and Reed and spoke to the importance of harnessing reason and engaging in difficult conversations for the betterment of these institutions.
“From my perspective as a professor of political science, if we can’t have someone like Charles Murray on campus, who’s an influential voice in the Republican Party, well we can’t be a department of political science, we become a department of indoctrination if we can only allow Democrats to speak on campus,” Stanger said. “So for me on principle it’s extremely important that he be allowed to speak and I be allowed to engage him, along with my students.”
She also called upon administrators to stand up for the university’s core mission, which she deemed the “pursuit of truth.”
Stanger additionally spoke of her frustration that there is a sentiment emerging at Middlebury that freedom of speech and inclusivity are mutually exclusive ideas.
“I myself would like to do away with the terms ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ and instead talk about pluralism, and that freedom of speech is actually a means to greater inclusivity, greater diversity, and if we respect pluralism, the idea that there can be a multiplicity of views, and it’s interesting to contend with them,” she said, adding that this practice of pluralism is conducive to civil discourse both within and outside of academic institutions.
The Campus requested comment from Stanger with a series of questions, to which she replied from her office at the Santa Fe Institute with the following:
“I have been out and speaking about the larger issues that the Murray incident raises, which have to do with the challenges to American constitutional democracy,” she said. “Audiences have been receptive, and I have received wonderful support from Middlebury students.”
Stanger was scheduled to moderate a Q&A session after Murray’s lecture. Due to the protests, the lecture never took place, and the two instead engaged in a Q&A which was broadcasted to the college via live stream. When the two left the venue, Stanger suffered a concussion and neck injury. She began a two-year sabbatical in fall 2017, and is currently a scholar in residence at the New America Foundation in Washington D.C.
The purpose of the sabbatical program, according to the faculty handbook, is “to enhance the scholarly and teaching capacity of the individual faculty member and to promote the general interest of the college.” The handbook says that sabbaticals can be either a half year or a full year, but does does not discuss the possibility of a two-year leave.
Even before she moderated the Murray talk, Stanger was a high-profile scholar. She testified before three different Congressional committees in 2010 and was a guest on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in 2011. Today, Stanger continues to deliver talks about her work around the country.
Still, many of Stanger’s public appearances within the last year have centered on Middlebury and its place in the greater national debate about free speech on college campuses, and these appearances have not come without contention. During her Congressional testimony last October, Stanger criticized the actions of her colleagues in the Sociology/Anthropology (SOAN) department in the weeks preceding Murray’s visit. This comment instigated a back-and-forth in the opinion pages of The Campus among various professors and Paul Carrese ’89, who introduced the ASU event.
The first piece, published Nov. 29 and written by the SOAN department, disputed Stanger’s accusations toward the department and emphasized that the department did not release any collective statements about the event. Stanger responded with a Dec. 1 letter of her own, in which she specifically faulted Michael Sheridan, chair of the SOAN department, for criticizing the political science department for co-sponsoring the talk.
Another Dec. 1 letter, by Russian professor Kevin Moss, replied to Stanger’s letter and called for a correction to the description of the then-upcoming ASU talk.
Referencing Murray’s talk, the ASU website claimed that “Professor Stanger was there to verbally challenge the speaker. She never got the chance, and the invited speaker never spoke.”
Moss claimed the school’s description of the Murray protests distorted the story and played into “the dominant narrative used to defame [Middlebury].” He argued that Stanger did have a chance to challenge Murray and that he was able to speak, referencing the live streamed Q&A. He also said that Stanger did not challenge Murray. Moss asked the university to correct its description.
Laurie Essig, director of the college’s gender, sexuality and feminist studies program, also reached out to Carrese via email to ask that he revise the statements.
“I would like all of these factual errors corrected as soon as possible,” Essig wrote. “I appreciate your attention to this since what you are doing is in fact spreading false information about a series of complicated events.”
In a letter to the editor published on Dec. 6 in this paper, Carrese denied that the information on the website was false.
While intra-faculty discord is not usually so apparent to students, statements like the feuding op-eds published post-Murray have made tensions more overt.
Political science professor Matthew Dickinson expressed dissatisfaction about the back-and-forth nature of the debate.
“It is clear that, for anyone seeking the truth, there are more than enough sources to understand what happened during the Murray incident. The facts are not in dispute,” he said. “In this regard, it is unfortunate that the debate has veered away from discussing the links between speech, toleration, diversity of ideas, and a liberal arts education, and toward a story about who said what to whom.”
On “Q&A,” Stanger condemned the actions of her fellow faculty more broadly.
“What disturbed me about what happened at Middlebury was that I think students were actively encouraged by some members of the faculty to do things that were not in their interest. And that upsets me,” she said when Lamb asked why she did not want to see student protesters punished. “So 18- to 21-year-olds are still developing and need to be advised in the right ways. But I think I’ll just — I’ll just leave it at that to say that I would fault some faculty more than the students for what happened [at] Middlebury.”
Moss and other faculty have said they find it problematic that Stanger’s remarks have been those which have most prominently defined the national story surrounding the Murray protests.
“The press comes and pays attention to the part where students appear to be overreacting to something, and that’s kind of the narrative that they prefer to give,” Moss said in an interview with The Campus. “And then the press moves on, and what tends to happen at the colleges is that they have a community discussion that can go on for several days and come to very interesting moments of reconciliation among themselves, and the students always tend to be much more articulate than the press makes them out to be, in part by just not quoting them.”
He acknowledged that while The New York Times quoted student perspectives in its March 7 article, “Discord at Middlebury: Students on the Anti-Murray Protests,” these perspectives remained eclipsed by the story Stanger promoted.
Sheridan, whom Stanger criticized in her Dec. 1 op-ed, expressed similar concerns.
“I think that the story of what happened last year has cohered into a single dominant narrative, but overall I think there are other stories of what happened too and a lot of those other perspectives have not gotten into that dominant narrative, precisely because they’re small, they’re local, they’re personal, they’re not amplified on the national stage,” Sheridan said.
Moss also pointed out that the narrative of Stanger being a liberal professor added fuel to the fire.
“The average person who is out there and doesn’t know what really happened will think, ‘Oh, well the students they don’t even support somebody who’s liberal and leftist, they’re so far off the scale that they’re attacking even this person,’” he said.
Other professors think that Stanger’s injury was not focus enough within the conversation about the Murray protests.
“In general, I think there is lack of empathy with Professor Stanger, actually,” said Ata Anzali, professor of religion. “Even though I might not agree completely with her position, for example I don’t think the portrayal of our differences along departmental lines like political science versus SOAN is accurate, I think it is unfair to think about her contributions without first taking a deep and long look at what we, as a community, did that resulted in her injury.”
Anzali said that although the nuances of arguments might be lost on the national media stage, he understands why a colleague would want to use such a platform to insert his or her voice into the national debate.
“I personally don’t make that choice, but I think people have justification to do that,” he said.
Keegan Callanan, a political science professor, also called attention to Stanger’s trauma from the protests.
“I think she has downplayed the heroic character of her own actions before, during, and after the event and assault,” he said, adding that he did not find her story one-sided. “She is a model for us all in her commitment to protecting freedom of inquiry within a scholarly community and freedom of speech for those with whom we disagree. She has demonstrated moral and intellectual courage of the first order.”
In many of her public appearances, Stanger has expressed worry that the media attention to the protests will fail to take into account the complexities of the situation.
“I wouldn’t want to downplay the anguish that was expressed through those protests and through the shutdown because it’s real, the emotions are real. They have to be validated,” Stanger said on C-SPAN. “But to me, the most important part is thinking about, O.K., you feel that way, what do we need to do about it so that it’s different? How can we move the needle forward and make this a better place for you?”
“I guess the main message I would want to give to your audience is that there’s a variety of views in Middlebury,” she said. “It’s not this monolithic, extremist place. It’s just that a certain small segment of the population’s voice was amplified in a variety of ways and you can draw all kinds of erroneous conclusions from that about Middlebury students.”
As the Murray story continues to cycle through the media and academia, the college community is left to come to terms with what the incident means for Middlebury going forward.
At the ASU talk, Stanger acknowledged these divisions and called for a mutual understanding between faculty.
“I really think we need to uphold a Treaty of Westphalia between different groups and departments on campus where you just respect the right of another group to put forward what they think is important to engage with, even if you are absolutely convinced that is totally worthless,” she said. “Let them do that, because the reciprocal principle that you will be allowed to do the same.”
Moss expressed worry that the media attention the college has received post-Murray has hindered reconciliation efforts.
“I think we’re starting to heal on campus, but I don’t think that things like the ASU event make that easier,” he said. “At the same time it’s provoked a lot of people to come out to address racism at the college in ways that they hadn’t before. But I’m not sure whether events like the one at Arizona necessarily make the divisions that were created at Middlebury any better.”
Though he is in agreement with the principles she has spoken to, Anzali noted that Stanger’s absence on the Middlebury campus might make it difficult for her to see the impacts of her appearances.
“My ultimate goal, and my main concern, remains our own small community. And that is why I am only interested in a kind of rhetoric that can move our small community forward,” he said. “That is why I would take some issue with the tone in some of professor Stanger’s public appearances. I think the larger goal for all of us has to be do we heal this community, how do we build this community, and I think when you are way from Middlebury like Professor Stanger is, it is really difficult to calibrate your rhetoric precisely.”
“But again, when I look at this in the context of what happened to her, and the lack of any meaningful response from our community to that, I am not sure if I would have reacted differently,” Anzali added.
Other faculty are optimistic that professors are rebuilding trust between one another.
“I have great friends all around this campus who have lots of different points of view, and even if we disagree I think we can agree to be a community and to be a faculty that respects each other. So I hope there hasn’t been fracturing that has damaged that truth,” said Bertram Johnson, chair of the political science department.
Sheridan, who was partly inspired by post-Murray discussions to have students in his “Trust: Social and Cultural Capital” class write reports on the status of trust at the college, also said that while the campus is still on the mend, he no longer sees rifts between the faculty.
“We’re not done healing, we’re not done getting over that feeling of conflict, but I think we’ve definitely turned the corner on that,” he said. “Do we trust each other? That is harder, that’s a longer term thing.”