Charles Murray talk sparks student protest and frustration during talk and Q&A session

100 students dressed in all black protested a talk by Charles Murray this past Tuesday at the Swarthmore Quaker Meetinghouse. The talk centered on his new book “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” and was co-sponsored by the Swarthmore Conservative Society and the college’s chapter of the American Enterprise Institute.

“The Bell Curve” is arguably Murray’s most infamous work, which he co-authored with Richard Herrnstein in 1994. The book received widespread criticism from major media outlets and academia for his discussion of the relationship between IQ, class, race, and economic success. The majority of criticisms stemmed from Murray’s discussion of racial differences in intelligence and subsequent policy implications, which called for the government to severely cut back on welfare expenditures, to end of affirmative action, and to enact more restrictive immigration policies. Advocacy groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center classify Murray as a white nationalist.

“Charles Murray has become one of the most influential social scientists in America, using racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women, and the poor,” says the SPLC on its website.

Student protesters dressed in black occupied the entire middle section of the Quaker Meeting House. Many students not affiliated with the protest, various administration, and some faculty members were also in attendance.

Before Murray came on stage, an official affiliated with the meetinghouse and Society of Friends religious group announced that they were not co-sponsoring the talk. The official stressed respect and dignity at both ends. Next, Ben Termaat ’18, co-president of the AEI executive council at Swarthmore spoke, mentioned that the organizers expected Hillary Clinton to be elected president before Murray came to campus. AEI is a conservative public policy think tank, of which Charles Murray has been a fellow since 1990. Termaat is co-president of the AEI executive council at Swarthmore, as well as the president of Swarthmore Democrats.

As reported in a previous Phoenix article, however, Swarthmore Democrats had pulled their sponsorship of the event a week before Murray’s arrival, according to the Facebook event page. Swarthmore Democrats denied any past involvement, however. Maggie Christ ’17, former president of Swarthmore Democrats and current board member, said that Swarthmore Democrats had never officially sponsored or helped organize the event.

After a short introduction from the President of The Swarthmore Conservative Society and Co-Chair of AEI on Campus, Patrick Holland ’17, Mr. Murray examined the signs from protesters and walked to the podium. As Murray began to speak, the entire middle section of protesters stood up and turned their back to Murray, holding up signs that read statements like “intellectualized bullshit,” “racism with a PhD still racism,” and “civically engaged welfare recipient.” About 15 minutes into Murray’s talk, the protesters left the meeting house.

Response to the protest was mixed from students who attended the event but did not participate in the demonstration themselves.

“I think that the protest was really well done in the sense that it was well organized and peaceful, and I think that they made their point. I didn’t participate in the protest because I hadn’t read his literature beforehand, and so I didn’t have a sense of what his views were on everything. I had heard things from other students, so I was very understanding of why there was a protest and also a need for a protest. I’m happy that students were able to organize in a peaceful manner,” said Nikhita Luthra ’17.

Min Zhong ’19, however, expressed doubt about the productiveness of the protest.

“I’m convinced that the protest was the best way for some people to react to the talk and the speaker, but I thought it was unproductive, which is why I didn’t participate. I saw the talk as a chance to understand why Murray thinks the way he does, not as a chance to convince him from it,” she said. “I think the protesters missed out on that opportunity to interact with the primary source of some very controversial ideas.”

Desta Pulley ’17, one of the lead organizers of the protest, shared her thoughts on how the protest went, why she personally chose to protest, and her opinions of Murray’s work.

“I think the protest went very well, lots of people showed up (more than I expected) and the protest itself went seamlessly. I think it definitely sent a statement to those in the audience,” she said in an email.

“Personally, when I found out Murray was coming to campus, I was shocked, angry, and betrayed that my fellow students and administrators were letting this happen without batting an eye. This is a guy who thinks that I, as a woman and African-American, is inherently disadvantaged because my genetics make me less intelligent,” said Pulley.

“That sort of ideology is harmful and hateful. I wanted people to know that this wasn’t acceptable, and shouldn’t be acceptable, and a protest happened to be the best way to accomplish that,” she added.

During his talk, Murray started by condemning the president-elect Donald Trump, calling him an extremely insecure man. Murray further condemned Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist. Bannon is a former executive of Breitbart, a popular media platform for the alt-right, a movement known for its white-nationalist, nativist, and anti-feminist ideologies.

Murray discussed what he viewed as a growing, culturally divergent upper class that has a fundamentally different lifestyle than those of average Americans. Citing a rise in mean SAT verbal scores, he spoke about Harvard’s increasing meritocracy. He said it concentrated people at Harvard into a critical mass of people with views different from others. Murray said this widening divide in culture and lifestyle between the “cognitive elite” and working class Americans is not a question of good or bad but difference. He concluded his talk by defining the key to American exceptionalism as the presence of a civil society through egalitarianism between classes. He speculated on a new “secular great awakening,” akin to the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

The question and answer session followed the talk, moderated by Holland. The questions asked by the audience mainly focused on Murray’s controversial positions surrounding IQ, race, gender, and class structure. Many questions received a chorus of snaps from the audience before Murray answered them. Frustrations grew as some students voiced concerns that he was dismissing controversial statements he had made in the past. While answering questions, Murray admonished students for not reading full quotes from his books, and he twice asked students reading quotes from their phones to bring them up to the podium so he could read them for himself.

Student response to the talk and Q&A session was mixed.

Luthra asked Murray about his position that genetic differences explain his observation that there are far fewer influential female mathematicians. She felt dissatisfied with his answer and understood other students’ frustration with the question and answer session.

“I understand why the Q&A session ended up the way it did. I was a little bit frustrated because I felt like he wasn’t necessarily answering questions very directly. It was difficult to have an academic debate when people were justifiably really offended by just his presence on campus. I guess in that sense, I understand why there was a lot of anger and resentment for him being on campus, and that is why the Q&A session kind of got diverted,” she said.

Zhong shared that she thought students asking the questions should have been more prepared.

“I think the audience, myself included, should have done more homework about Murray’s ideology prior to the talk. I had only read Murray’s Wikipedia page and a few articles discussing quotes, which may or may not be taken out of context, from his books. If we had been more prepared, I think we could have asked more quality questions with less of an insinuating tone to them. Some people could have definitely been more careful with their language; I thought some statements were definitely unnecessary and don’t lend themselves to creating a objective and constructive dialogue,” she said.

Holland, the lead organizer of the event, welcomed both the protest and questions challenging Murray’s views.

“The Q&A session was what I expected it to be. There were some good questions that tried to hold Murray accountable for past statements, and I think that’s really what these events are supposed to be about. I’m glad the protestors showed up to add to the discussion,” he said. Holland later mentioned he did not fully agree with the opinions Murray espoused during the talk.

Similarly, Zhong thought Murray’s talk wasn’t especially insightful.

“I thought the talk was relevant, and Murray definitely made valid points, even though he didn’t point out anything that I haven’t already read or thought about in post-election analyses,” she shared.

Following the event, the Intercultural Center hosted an open discussion about the talk and protest. While the IC was not a sponsor of the protest, many of students that participated in the protest went to the IC’s open discussion. The topic of discussion floated around from the nature of resistance and protest to personal stories.

According to the Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development, T. Shá Duncan Smith, key organizers of the event like Holland and those affiliated with the Swarthmore Quaker Meetinghouse had not fully researched Murray’s work before having him come speak on campus.

“All that Patrick was familiar with were panels where he had seen Charles Murray speak …  with two other speakers that had alternative views. I believe it was Robert Putnam and Julius Wilson. It wasn’t until our final meeting, which was recently, when Patrick really started to read into Murray’s work and question what he felt about Murray’s work,” said Smith.

She agreed with the characterization that Holland grew more apprehensive about having Murray come to campus after further research into Murray’s more controversial work.

The student event organizers, however, thought that this characterization was an exaggeration.

“Dean Smith’s comments are a bit of an exaggeration. If we were to repeat this process again, we still would have made the same decision to bring Murray to campus. The biggest regret we have about the event is the poor timing of the lecture in relation to the outcome of the presidential election,” the group organizers affiliated with AEI and SCS said.

Smith later explained that, because many people and speakers use the space each day, the staff at the meetinghouse did not research Murray and his work before allowing him to use the space at the meetinghouse for the talk.

After the event, Murray also responded to the student protest.

“I am old school when it comes to what universities are for. I love the idea of the college and university, where there is an exchange of opposing opinions, but you’ve gotta document them, you’ve got to give reasons for why you’re saying what you’re saying, you’ve got to be civil and respectful,” he said. “Within that framework, nobody should need safe spaces, nobody should need trigger warnings, and nobody should try to intimidate either the speaker or the rest of the audience. Frankly, it’s not pleasant to go into a place where people are acting as if listening respectfully to the speaker is somehow a wrong thing to do.”

Murray further explained his policy hopes for the Trump administration.

“I have no hopes! For someone with my political views, I’m happy that he will be appointing supreme court justices, not because I think he has any principled devotion to limited government, but I think that his feet will be held to the fire, and there will be people who are more strict constitutionalists than Hillary Clinton would have appointed. I’m happy about that,” said Murray.

According to Holland, Murray had expressed interest in speaking at the college before. Additionally, Murray tweeted about a controversial column, “The Admissions Office Doesn’t Care About Your Values,” written by a student at the college. Specifically, he responded to Swarthmore students’ responses to the op-ed.

“Swarthmore was once a Quaker college. This, trust me, is not Quakerly,” read the tweet.

On why he came to the college, Murray expressed that he doesn’t speak at colleges as much as he would like.

“I like speaking to college audiences. I really do. I wish I did it more often — It’s fun!” he exclaimed.

Murray later reiterated that he found protest irritating.


Ganesh Setty

Ganesh studies economics & art history, and hopes to be a financial journalist one day. He enjoys reading non-fiction, running, tennis, and collecting gray shirts. Seriously. He has a lot.

1 Comment

  1. “Within that framework, nobody should need safe spaces, nobody should need trigger warnings, and nobody should try to intimidate either the speaker or the rest of the audience.”
    I’d love to hear more from Mr. Murray about exactly what part of the protest he found “intimidating.” All I saw was a group of students peacefully turning their backs on Murray, holding up signs that criticized his views, then leaving the meeting house.
    If he really felt so threatened by being called racist or reminded that his actions have done real harm to working-class people and people of color, maybe he should restrict himself to presenting his work at AEI and other safe spaces for white conservatives.

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