Commentators have rightly wondered how the state of discourse on campus has deteriorated such that Middlebury College professor Allison Stanger was injured earlier this month during protests sparked by Charles Murray’s invitation to speak. It’s easy to fixate on what went wrong, but we should also note what went right in a potential watershed moment for free speech on campus.
As we first noted last week, Middlebury faculty wrote and circulated a statement on free inquiry in the wake of the Murray incident. Now, 114 Middlebury faculty members — approximately a third of the faculty — have endorsed it. This impressive show of support from Middlebury professors takes its place alongside the endeavors of numerous other faculty bodies pushing their universities to reinforce protections for free speech.
Administrative rules cannot by themselves maintain free inquiry. Debate and discovery are practices, not policies. They stem from gut-level curiosity, patience, and a recognition of the benefits of open-minded discussion in academia. They are also habits that wither without mutual reinforcement. So statements like the Middlebury faculty statement are indeed valuable defenses of free inquiry.
We applaud the leadership shown by these 114 faculty, Middlebury President Laurie L. Patton, and professor Stanger against considerable opposition, affirming their belief that, regardless of politics or ideology, the college should be a place where controversial or divisive ideas can be discussed and debated in an atmosphere of free inquiry. Hopefully more in the Middlebury community, and beyond, will take stock of their wisdom and apply it.