Commentary in the Philadelphia Inquirer: Why Charles Murray was invited to Villanova

 

Given the recent protests of a Charles Murray lecture at Middlebury College in Vermont, and the injuries to the professor who interviewed him, some have asked why the Matthew J. Ryan Center at Villanova University has invited him to speak this week. What do we hope to achieve, they inquire, and, given the controversy, why haven’t we rescinded the invitation?

We are happy to respond to these questions.

Murray’s lecture on Thursday is part of an annual lecture series sponsored by the Ryan Center on American Political Ideas. We selected the topic – the administrative state and government over-regulation – last spring. Murray’s latest book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, examines this topic in detail, and thus he seemed a good fit for the lecture. This book builds upon the theme of his last (Coming Apart), which argued that class (not race) is the primary factor contributing to the fragmentation and polarization in American society. We should also note that Murray spoke at Villanova three years ago, without controversy.

Through this event we hope to achieve a greater awareness of the growth of the administrative state and its effects on civic discontent and fragmentation in America. This is reflected in the title Murray has given his lecture: “What Does Trumpism Mean for Liberty in the Long Run?”

In light of the events at Middlebury and the accusations there and at Villanova that Murray is a “white supremacist,” some wonder why we haven’t disinvited him.

First, we simply don’t agree with this description of Murray. Second, four other universities – Duke, Columbia, New York University, and Notre Dame – have had this conversation in recent weeks, and all concluded that Murray should be allowed to speak. They decided that, while many faculty strongly repudiate Murray’s work, his right to speak is a matter of academic freedom. We concur.

A number of members of the Villanova community believe Murray’s work to be beyond the pale, even racist, and worry that bringing him to campus makes us complicit in his moral turpitude.

Our response to these questions is clear: While the purpose of the university prohibits the stifling of views with which one disagrees, it is also true that the moral obligation of all decent people is to reject racism in toto.

As to the the allegations against Murray, some are demonstrably untrue, others are robustly controverted. Murray is not an “admitted racist and sexist,” as some claim. He himself denies the charges, strenuously, and we recommend reading his response to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s attacks. In addition, many decent and fair-minded people have maintained that his work has been unjustly anathematized and unfairly maligned. At the very least, a genuine concern for the truth would suggest that any attacks be factually accurate and based on his actual words.

Our commitment as an academic community is to engage in the search for truth by way of the critical examination of ideas, argument, and evidence. We hope that this current controversy at Villanova will not mark a turning point away from the university’s dedication to these processes, and that we as a community will reaffirm our commitment to “respect and encourage the freedom proposed by St. Augustine, which makes civil discussion and inquiry possible and productive.”

To do otherwise means abandoning our mission as a university and allowing the worst in our troubled culture to stifle and silence the better impulses of our nature. President Barack Obama was clear on this point during his commencement address at Howard University:

“Don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that – no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.”

We could not agree more.

Without our expecting or intending it, Murray’s lecture at Villanova has presented our community with a challenge. How will we respond? Will we shout down, accuse, and turn our backs on one another? Or will we use the opportunity to engage in a genuine and meaningful dialogue, taking account of our differences and respecting each others’ sincerely held views?

Will we practice the Augustinian values of veritasunitascaritas, working together in pursuit of the truth and with generosity of heart? Or will we fail of our charge? It may be that as we speak, and listen, we shall find common ground; it may be that we will continue to disagree. But perhaps in the process we may find respect for the principled commitment and even temerity of those with whom we’ve spent time in honest conversation.

Brian Satterfield is a Villanova University faculty associate at the Ryan Center. brian.satterfield@villanova.edu
Colleen A. Sheehan is a professor of political science at Villanova and director of the Ryan Center. 
colleen.sheehan@villanova.edu

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