What makes conservative Charles Murray a lightning rod?

Charles Murray spoke in May in Madison, Wis.
Charles Murray spoke in May in Madison, Wis.Michael P. King/Wisconsin State Journal/AP/File

Charles Murray, the conservative political scientist and author, finds himself front and center in the free-speech wars roiling college campuses. Earlier this year, violent protesters who branded Murray’s opinions as flawed and racist shut down his speech at Middlebury College. A professor was injured during the melee, which led the liberal-arts college to discipline dozens of students.

On Wednesday, Murray is scheduled to speak at Harvard College. Here is a recap of what has made him such a lightning rod.

What makes Murray so controversial?

Murray, who is 74, is perhaps best known as coauthor of the 1994 book “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.” A key conclusion was that economic and social success and intelligence in the United States are partly tied to genetics. The assertion has sparked claims that Murray is racist, sexist — and worse, that he advocates eugenics (which the book does not endorse.) The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled him a “white nationalist.”

Murray has been in demand as a speaker since the 2012 publication of his book “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” which highlights the increasing class divide in American society. Some political analysts credit Murray with foreshadowing the white, working-class resentment they say fueled the election of President Trump.


How has Murray responded to the criticism?

Murray, who holds degrees from Harvard and MIT, vigorously denies that he is a white nationalist. He told the Globe last week that his writings have been misinterpreted. “The Bell Curve,” he said, does not draw a conclusion on whether intelligence tests mean the same thing for different races. Murray also told the Globe that he believes much of the recent criticism is misplaced anger that students feel over Trump’s election.

What has happened during Murray appearances since the Middlebury uproar?

In stark contrast, Murray spoke to muted responses at New York, Columbia, and Duke universities and the University of Wisconsin, according to media reports. At Villanova University, a handful of protesters disrupted a speech by Murray and were removed, and scattered protests also greeted his appearance at Notre Dame — though they did not interfere with his lecture.


At Duke, the student newspaper The Chronicle reported that he told students: “You are living a life that is in a bubble. And I go through all of this not to indict you — there’s nothing wrong with being around people who share your taste and preference. It’s important in many ways to want those common bonds, but the problem is it leads to condescension and disdain and sometimes it leads to contempt. That’s where a lot of anger comes from during the election.”

How much is Murray paid to speak?

The All American Speakers agency, which promotes Murray as a client, lists his booking fee range at $20,001 to $30,000.