MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — Students and professors at Middlebury College were ashamed and embarrassed after an explosive protest Thursday night that has forced the school to reconsider what it means to embrace free speech.
The normally peaceful campus of Middlebury College, with its mountain backdrop and elite reputation, was shaken last week after violent student protesters shut down a talk by controversial conservative social scientist Charles Murray and injured a Middlebury professor who was with him.
Many on campus, including the college president and leaders of the student organization who invited him, disagree vehemently with Murray’s views on social welfare programs and race, but on Saturday they said the campus failed in its duty to exemplify how to debate unpopular ideas with civility.
Donald Trump’s presidency formed the backdrop for the protest, students said. The election has made people on campus dig their heels in ideologically, said Sabina Haque, a junior from Westford, Mass. They’re less willing to accept conflicting viewpoints, she said.
“This is more than just a Middlebury problem, it’s a problem across the country. There’s really a great divide that people can’t bridge,” she said.
Middlebury’s president, Laurie L. Patton, said the incident demonstrates that elite schools are subject to the same dynamic that challenges the rest of the country — an inability to debate differences constructively.
“The liberal arts college is an idealized place. The actual liberal arts college is something where all of human differences are on full display,” Patton said.
Students and professors burrowed their faces into scarves as they rushed between buildings on a gray, frigid day on the Middlebury campus. They agreed the campus feels different than it did a week ago.
As they walked into the library, Elias Guerra and his friend Javier DelCid discussed the talk, which they did not attend.
“It’s essential that we be exposed to that way of thinking whether we agree or not,” said Guerra, a junior from Brooklyn, N.Y. “When people talk about the Middlebury bubble, that’s the Middlebury bubble.”
But the bubble is not unique to Middlebury. Since Trump’s election as president, and even in the long campaign that led to it, colleges across the country have struggled to balance free speech with an atmosphere that makes students feel safe and accepted.
Murray’s visit put the campus on edge even before he arrived. Patton made clear she disagreed with his views but welcomed him nevertheless. She offered remarks on stage Thursday, before chaos broke out in the auditorium.
Professors held discussions with students during the week before his visit, and some said students had questions ready to ask Murray during his appearance at Wilson Hall in the McCullough Student Center.
“This is a tragedy,” said Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor, who said Murray will now be considered a martyr rather than an extremely polarizing author.
Murray is best known as the author of “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life” and “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” He has theorized that social welfare programs are doomed to hurt those they aim to help, and, most controversially, wrote of ethnic differences in measures of intelligence. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Murray as a “white nationalist” who believes in the intellectual and moral superiority of white men.
When Murray was unable to speak because of the protesters’ interruptions Thursday night, administrators took him to a video studio in the same building and broadcast the event online.
But some protesters began pulling fire alarms, temporarily shutting off power to the live stream. When Murray finished his speech, he left the building with Allison Stanger, professor of international politics and economics, and other college officials, but was met by a group of protesters who wore bandanas to cover their faces.
College spokesman Bill Burger said he believed they were “outside agitators” who had been barred from the event, rather than Middlebury students. Flanked by security officers, Murray, Stanger and Burger moved toward Burger’s car.
By that point, more than 20 demonstrators had gathered. One threw a stop sign with a heavy concrete base in front of the car Murray was in, and several others rocked, pounded, and jumped on the vehicle. One protester pulled Stanger’s hair and injured her neck. She was taken to a hospital, where she was treated and released.
The turn of events was perhaps most upsetting to those who invited Murray to campus, the student chapter of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Club leaders said they disagree with Murray’s views but wanted him to discuss his 2012 book “Coming Apart,” which explores the white working class in America.
“Free speech shouldn’t just be free for those who are with you,” said Alexander Khan, a senior from Arizona studying political science and economics. “It should be free for everyone.”
Hoxie and other club members said there is a problem at Middlebury, and they think it’s the same problem that plagues the nation: People are afraid to talk to each other about their differences of opinion.
Students have lost the ability to challenge one another in the classroom, they said, and in some cases are not encouraged to do so by professors.
“Students are afraid to be truthful in the classroom,” said Ivan Valladares, a senior from Brooklyn, N.Y., who is also a club leader.
Patton did not dispute the students’ diagnosis. Colleges must do more to encourage open dialogue,she said.
“We’re trying to find an educational space where people can have the tough conversations, and I think that’s incredibly difficult,” Patton said in an interview with the Globe Saturday afternoon.
“What this episode, I think, has shown, is that it is even harder to do, that in fact the task of a liberal arts education is even harder to do in the 21st century,” Patton said.
Harvey Silverglate, a Cambridge civil liberties attorney, said there’s a difference between the students disrupting Murray’s lecture inside and the individuals who damaged the car.
“I draw a serious line between rioting and other nondisruptive showing of disapproval,” he said. “One hiss and one boo is free speech. Twenty-five hisses and boos in a row is disruption and is illegal.”
Stanger called Thursday the saddest day of her life but said she doesn’t regret the experience. “Please instead consider this as a metaphor for what is wrong with our country,” Stanger wrote on Facebook. “And on that, Charles Murray and I would agree.”