As I’m sure many of you are aware, this past week the Baker Institute Student Forum and the Federalist Society teamed up to host an event featuring controversial scholar Charles Murray. As many students have correctly pointed out, Murray is well known for contentious statements he made in his 1994 book The Bell Curve, in which he forwards some blatantly racist and sexist notions. Let me be clear –– I find these viewpoints outrageous and despicable. However, this does not mean BISF or the Federalist Society were out of line for bringing him to campus.
First off, Murray is hardly a fringe figure; his views are arguably as central to modern political dialogue as many of the other speakers who have been invited to campus. He is part of the American Enterprise Institute, a major think tank the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin recently described as the “dominant conservative think tank.” His viewpoints have recently been cited by former VP candidate Paul Ryan and Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott. A majority of the Rice population, including myself, may not agree with his ideas, but he is an entirely reasonable guest for BISF to invite considering the club’s mission is to encourage policy discourse.
Furthermore, Murray is not discussing the views put forth in The Bell Curve. His talk is centered around his current book, Coming Apart, which is included on the New York Times’ list of 100 Notable Books of 2012. His current work has pulled away from his focus of 20 years ago; Coming Apart is about his perception of the decline in traditional values among lower and middle class Americans, not I.Q. differences between genders and races. It has been hailed by highly-respected authors, such as David Brooks (who spoke at Rice in 2011), as an extremely important book about the state of American society. Again, like it or not, Murray is an extremely significant figure in the political world, and it is entirely reasonable for clubs intended to promote policy discourse to invite him to address his views.
Next, I would like to address Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson’s commentary about the event. In his public statement, Hutchinson condemns, in principle, the idea that someone with views he finds “ignorant or repellant” should ever be invited to speak at Rice University. Universities have an important role to play as free spaces for the exchange and critique of ideas. They are not incubators for one particular perspective, but rather places where students can be exposed to a wide range of viewpoints and consider them and react accordingly. Columbia University demonstrated this when it invited the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to speak in 2011. Those who invited Ahmadinejad probably did not agree with his abhorrent viewpoints, but they understood the importance of allowing students to gain access to a viewpoint that is present in the world and which they are often sheltered from in a liberal, academic setting. Mr. Murray’s views may be repugnant to students educated at an academic institution like Rice, but they are widely accepted by many other sectors of the population. For a university to deprive its students of any viewpoints just because they are controversial is to not prepare them for the real world, in which such views are widespread. Hutchinson’s statement is incredibly disappointing because it implies that Rice is a place that penalizes those who wish to expose students to any perspective outside of the norm.
As an officer in BISF, I find Hutchinson’s accusation that “there is a very strong implication that the invitation and advertisement implies endorsement” to be highly offensive. It suggests that our decision to provide a forum for views outside of the liberal norm makes us racist and sexist, and that is very hurtful. Does Hutchinson also suggest that we ban other forms of expression that give a forum to unpopular views? Should we ban publications like the New York Times, which publicizes controversial op-eds by figures like Vladimir Putin? Should we withhold invitations to other speakers who decades ago may have opposed marriage equality, decriminalization of abortion or other elements common to the liberal policy agenda?
Hutchinson’s remarks endanger free speech on campus by implying that students must ensure a speaker has views conforming to Dean Hutchinson’s or else risk personally-directed, public backlash by the administration. It implies that we must avoid inviting any speaker to campus who has previously made statements deviating from the liberal norm.
Again, I do not agree with Murray’s point of view, and I fully support students’ decisions to protest after they have given him a chance to speak. However, I am disappointed in the administration’s condemnation of the Federalist Society and BISF for inviting him to campus. The real world is not a liberal haven in which unpopular views are repressed, and students need to be equipped to respond to these perspectives. The invitation was not an “endorsement,” but rather a brave endeavor to allow students to hear a prevalent, while controversial, perspective and defend their values against it. It is, in fact, a university’s responsibility to provide this opportunity to students in a safe environment. If every invitation was an endorsement, BISF members like myself would be juggling a messy handful of contradictory political ideologies.
Students and administration –– be confident in your beliefs and values, and welcome the opportunity to defend them in the face of criticism. As philosopher John Stuart Mill famously pointed out, it is to everyone’s benefit to hear all dissenting views; even if your mind is made up, listening to counter-perspectives will reinforce your beliefs and equip you to defend them. A well-rounded university like Rice should provide a diverse mix of perspectives that students will encounter outside the hedges, not isolate itself as an incubator for single-perspective popular thought.