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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022

A Failure of Leadership

Two years after the Charles Murray incident, Middlebury finds itself again ridiculed in the national press. The Wall Street Journal and other national media outlets are portraying, with good cause, the decision makers at our college as opponents of the free and open exchange of ideas; an exchange that is vital to liberal education.

The Murray debacle, which turned violent and left one faculty member injured, epitomized a widespread and flawed understanding that freedom of speech does not apply to controversial ideas. In that episode, the opponents of free speech were protestors who exercised a “hecklers’ veto” to silence ideas with which they disagreed, even using violence to achieve their ends. I set forth the reasons why this form of protest is wrong, and especially wrong in an academic setting, in an earlier article, so I won’t reiterate them here.

Last week, however, both the organizers and the protesters of a planned lecture showed a renewed commitment to the open exchange of ideas. The lecturer was Ryszard Legutko, a Polish politician and philosopher. Legutko has made offensive comments about women, racial minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community. Previously, however, Legutko was a member of Solidarity, which courageously helped bring an end to communism in Eastern Europe. Now, he is a representative to the European Parliament and a leader of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, one of several far right parties that are rising to power in Eastern Europe and throughout the world.

[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]To understand how to deal with a problem in our own domestic politics, it is valuable to engage and refute thinkers like Legutko.[/pullquote]

Students who chose to protest Legutko’s lecture repeatedly emphasized that their event would not be disruptive. As Grace Vedock, a protest organizer, noted in The Campus, “It was never our intent to prevent the event from happening; we have reiterated at every step of the process that we did not want to impede his right to speak.” The Wall Street Journal quoted another organizer of the protest, Taite Shomo, as stating “It is unequivocally not the intent of this protest and those participating in this protest to prevent Legutko from speaking. Disruptive behavior of this nature will not be tolerated.”

Meanwhile, the sponsors of the program, including the College’s Alexander Hamilton Forum, were not endorsing what Legutko might say during the lecture or might have said in the past. Instead, the lecture provided interested Middlebury students an opportunity to actively question and debate a prominent representative of the right-wing politics that are increasingly dominant in Eastern Europe and throughout the world. Moreover, there are significant connections between the rise of authoritarianism in Eastern Europe and the American alt-right.  

Thus, in order to understand how to deal with a problem in our own domestic politics, it is valuable to engage and refute thinkers like Legutko. We can more effectively combat troubling ideas in the real world if we practice doing so in a relatively controlled setting like a college campus. I consider Legutko’s political activity and views offensive, but I should be prepared to deal with people who think like him in the world beyond Middlebury. To fight bigotry, we must understand how bigots think so that we can articulate arguments that discredit them. Some say both that “morally correct arguments do not need defending,” and that “our world is plagued by bigotry, hate, and violence.” How do we combat these ills if not through a loud, consistent, and powerful defense of our moral principles? Free discourse benefits progressives who use it to show that inclusivity and compassion are superior to intolerance and hate. 

Last week, the College had a chance to redeem itself from the Murray debacle and promote both the free and open exchange of ideas and productive protest. Middlebury was set to have a difficult, yet productive, event. Some students were committed to listen to this speaker and possibly challenge his views with hard questions. Others planned to stay outside the talk and vigorously, but peacefully, protest. The administration, however, deprived us of these opportunities. 

In the wake of the Murray incident, President Patton claimed that “free speech lies at the heart of our purpose as an institution, and we cannot allow force or disruption to undermine it.” Last week’s events, however, exposed this rhetoric as empty. Middlebury’s leaders lost sight of the College’s educational mission. They denied both those who wanted to attend the speech and those who wanted to protest it the opportunity to challenge Mr. Legutko. Mere hours before the talk, the administration canceled the lecture because of vague and unspecified “potential security and safety risks.”

[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]The administration deprived us of these opportunities. [/pullquote]

College Provost Jeff Cason and Dean of Faculty Andi Lloyd, in an email to the faculty, asserted that “our assessment of the potential safety risks of Wednesday’s planned lecture did not reflect concerns about threats from student protesters or students attending the event.  Rather, we were concerned about the safety of those participants.” However, neither Provost Cason nor Dean Lloyd, or anyone else in the administration, has provided specific evidence regarding what threatened the safety of the “participants.” My professors constantly push me to back up my generalizations with evidence. It is disappointing that, in an intellectual institution, our administrators do not adhere to the same standards. 

Even if there was evidence of security risks, it is the duty of the administration to create effective plans to ensure the safety of both those who wanted to attend Legutko’s lecture and those who wanted to protest his appearance on campus. An institution with Middlebury’s resources should be able to perform this basic function. If our school cared about the free exchange of ideas, including controversial ideas, it would undertake this duty, not shirk this responsibility. 

The administration’s email can also be seen as a subtle attempt to silence classroom discussion about its handling of this event. In the same email to the faculty, Provost Cason and Dean Lloyd admonished Middlebury’s professors that “students have reported concerns about potential retaliation by faculty whose position on the event may have differed from their own … At this time of heightened tensions, we ask all of you to pay particularly close attention to how even well-intentioned comments may be received as retaliatory or punitive.”  

What is the intended message of this warning if “even well-intentioned comments may be received as retaliatory or punitive” and possibly expose a professor as maintaining an unsupportive and disrespectful “classroom environment.” The message may reasonably be received as a warning not to talk about this incident in class. As such, it is a condescension to both the students and faculty members, all of whom are adults and fully capable of engaging in lively debate about this incident. The message could easily chill classroom discussions. Thus, it could be seen as a clumsy attempt to forestall open and free conversations about the administration’s (mis)handling of this event. 

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 2017, President Patton professed her dual commitment to free expression and inclusivity. However, her administration’s actions during the past week revealed a leadership more concerned with public relations than either of these principles. I agree with the protesters that they deserve an apology from the administration. 

Moreover, the administration should adopt the Chicago Statement so that the College’s commitment to free speech runs deeper than President Patton’s rhetoric. Thus far, sixty universities and colleges have endorsed the Chicago Statement, which states: “Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.” An endorsement of the Chicago Statement would signal Middlebury’s recommitment to the intellectual principles that make our education valuable and worthwhile.