CAMBRIDGE — Nearly 100 protesters, including college students and local residents, greeted lightning-rod libertarian author Charles Murray at Harvard University on Wednesday night.
Fearing a repeat of the violent protests when Murray visited Middlebury College earlier this year, officials had barricades and a heavy police presence outside the university’s Natural History Museum, near where Murray was scheduled to speak.
But the scene — both outside and inside the address — was peaceful.
Murray’s work on intelligence, race, gender, and class has drawn crowds and sparked protests for decades. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called Murray a white nationalist, a label he vigorously denies.
As Murray spoke about IQ and the value of intelligence in the current economy Wednesday, more than a dozen students, some with signs that said “Speak out Against White Nationalists,” quietly got up and walked out.
“I appreciate the way that was done,” Murray said to the students.
Murray spent much of his speech discussing his recent work on the economic stratification of American society and the disdain that elites have shown the working classes and its impact on Donald Trump’s election.
Still, Murray acknowledged that much of the heated debate he generates goes back to his 1994 book, “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” which explored the ethnic differences in measures of intelligence. He has also written about whether economic and social success and intelligence in the United States are partly tied to genetics.
Most questions from students Wednesday night focused on his writings about race, intelligence, and genetics.
In a question submitted before the event, one audience member asked directly if Murray was a white supremacist.
“No,” he said, adding that he is “sick of the fact that I’m trying to prove a negative.”
Some students who attended said they appreciated that Murray took a respectful tone.
Erin McCarthy, a sophomore, said she was expecting Murray to say things that were much more controversial and inflammatory.
“I came in feeling heated and came out feeling a little confused,” McCarthy said.
Her friend, Eve Driver, also a sophomore, said she still disagreed with some of what Murray said, but was there to support an open dialogue.
Outside, protesters chanted “Don’t give in to racist fear — everyone is welcome here.” Some held signs that said, “Say no to fascism” and carried an antifa flag, which is a symbol for far-left-leaning militant groups that have resisted neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations and other events.
Nicholas Whittaker, a junior and a member of Harvard’s Black Caucus, who helped organize the protest, said he wanted to make sure objections to Murray’s views were heard. He said he would have preferred if the Murray event had been a panel discussion, where the author’s view could be more vigorously debated.
“There is a lot of talk about free speech thrown around,” he said. “We wanted to throw our speech out there.”
Scott Gilbert, a resident from the Greater Boston area with Refuse Fascism, said Murray shouldn’t have been invited.
“Charles Murray is a known white supremacist, a pseudo scientist — all his literature has been debunked in the ’80s and ’90s, but he’s still spewing his [research] out and being promoted by places like Harvard,” Gilbert said.
At Middlebury College in Vermont this past March, student protesters interrupted Murray’s speech and injured a professor as she escorted him out the building.
A political scientist and a Harvard graduate, Murray’s controversial books, in addition to “The Bell Curve,” include “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” published in 2012.
He was invited to speak at Harvard by the Open Campus Initiative, a student organization that says it was launched last year to promote free speech on college campuses by inviting controversial speakers to events.
Also Wednesday night, the undergraduate Black Caucus and the school’s Black Student Alliance held a panel discussion nearby, with speakers who focused on why inviting Murray to speak at Harvard was a mistake and discussed flaws in his work.
Walter Johnson, professor of African and African-American Studies, called Murray’s appearance “performance art, a spectacle to trigger a response.”
The event drew about 100 people.Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.