Academic Freedom Wins A Round
Shortly before a band of Notre Dame students drew national attention by walking out on Vice President Pence at commencement, a Notre Dame professor’s stand against student intolerance for unfashionable views had been publicized on national television. We take note.
NOTRE DAME, IN — The photo below, which shows a Notre Dame football player being restrained by a Notre Dame police officer, headed a Washington Post op-ed criticizing university students for “intimidating” and “muzzling” speakers on various campuses. It was fake news.
No, it wasn’t photo-shopped, but it certainly led one to think that there had been some unidentified incident at Notre Dame that had involved the same sort of turbulence that attended the episodes that the author discussed.
But in fact the Notre Dame story was quite different. It was the story of how a Notre Dame professor navigated and mitigated student and faculty opposition to bring to campus a speaker whose appearance had triggered violence at another school just weeks earlier. Some students demonstrated peacefully and some faculty evidently fumed privately, but the robust intellectual inquiry proper to a university was well served.
Here’s what happened:
The speaker was Charles Murray, political scientist and W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who spoke at Notre Dame on March 28 at the invitation of political science professor Dr. Phillip Muñoz.
Shortly before his Notre Dame appearance, Murray’s visit to lecture at Middlebury College in Vermont had drawn national attention when the professor escorting him from his speaking venue was physically assaulted by protestors, some wearing masks. That professor later wrote of the event, “I feared for my life.”
At Notre Dame, some faculty and students urged Professor Muñoz to disinvite him. Murray’s antagonists say he is a white supremacist. Murray has responded in detail here. Tellingly, some 60 college professors at different schools on average labeled his Middlebury talk “middle-of-the road” when not told its author, and “no one raised concerns that the material was contentious, dangerous, or otherwise worthy of censure.”
Muñoz did not yield. Instead, he published a Real Clear Politics article explaining that he had invited Murray because his class was discussing one of his books, that he had given equal time to a speaker with different views, and that to withdraw the invitation would undermine the principle of free inquiry essential to a university. He wrote:
I have no desire to inflict unwanted stress or anxiety on any member of the Notre Dame community, especially our minority students. I appreciate the concern for student wellbeing that motivates some of the opposition to Murray’s visit. But I believe what is most harmful to students—and, to speak candidly, most patronizing—is to “protect” our students from hearing arguments and ideas they supposedly cannot handle.
Then, a week before Murray’s appearance, Professor Muñoz carried the case for free speech at Notre Dame to a nationwide audience when interviewed by Tucker Carlson on his popular Fox TV program. You can watch the interview below.
Asked about his role as a teacher, Muñoz said:
You ask, isn’t this what we’re supposed to do, and yes, this is exactly what we’re supposed to do. This is my job. I bring speakers to campus, I assign books, not because I agree with them but because that’s what I do. And we’re supposed to argue about them. I’m not going to just assign books that I agree with or the kids agree with. I assign those books that are smart, and Murray is a smart guy, and we should hear him whether we agree with him or not.
Finally, Muñoz returned to the Carlson program immediately after Murray’s appearance to recount what had happened and gave a relatively positive assessment. Click below to watch (beginning at 3:10).
In our view, on balance Murray’s visit to Notre Dame reflected rather well on the university.
On the one hand, over 60 graduate students denounced Murray in an angry op-ed in Notre Dame’s student newspaper the Observer the morning of Murray’s talk. Four doctoral students read that same letter aloud outside McKenna Hall where Murray was speaking, while some 100 faculty, students, and staff, chanted and waved signs. Inside the auditorium, a few students got up and left their seats when Murray began speaking. Several others sat in the back with signs.
On the other hand, the event itself went off without interruption, and, according to Muñoz, no senior administrators requested or pressured him to revoke Murray’s invitation. It’s too bad the administration had to provide security, but it did so. And of course it did not license protestors to display their contempt for the speaker when he spoke. That extraordinary warrant has been issued so far only for the appearance of Vice President Pence.
Notre Dame Professor of Anthropology Agustin Fuentes played the responder’s role with evident gusto if, evidently, little civility or restraint, calling Murray’s work “unsupported, unscientific, simplistic, myopic, gender-driven propaganda.” (Fuentes’ own “scientific” methodology leads him to approve same-sex marriage because, well, homosexuals engage in same-sex sex.)
Moreover, both before and after his talk, Notre Dame students defended Murray’s right to speak on campus, without necessarily endorsing his views. (One such student was recent graduate Kate Hardiman, whose thoughtful journalism has graced the pages of the Irish Rover for four years.) Additionally, the Observer’s editorial board listed Murray among controversial speakers who visited campus in late March and urged students to respond with civility and open-mindedness to such speakers.
While no Notre Dame faculty member, as far as we know, publicly supported Muñoz, neither did any openly oppose the invitation. Muñoz told Carlson in his first interview that the response of his colleagues to his Real Clear Politics piece was “almost 100 percent favorable,” and in his second interview said that “99 out of 100” comments about Murray’s visit were positive—notwithstanding some private objections leveled by faculty in the College of Arts & Letters, particularly the social sciences.
Furthermore, more than a dozen Notre Dame tenured or tenure-track faculty signed Cornell West and Robert P. George’s admirable statement, “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression,” published in the weeks following the Middlebury attack and calling for “respectful engagement with people who challenge our views.”
But principal credit obviously goes to Professor Muñoz, one of the still substantial, if much reduced, corps of outstanding Catholic professors at Notre Dame. As Tucker Carlson said, good for Professor Muñoz for doing his part to keep free inquiry and debate alive at Notre Dame.
A month before the Murray appearance another speaker who is controversial in some quarters spoke at Notre Dame, this time without the need for security but not without some agitation. Matt Walsh, a Catholic conservative blogger and speaker, discussed “How the Left Corrupts Catholicism” at the invitation of the student Young Americans for Freedom chapter. Because the YAF has a political dimension, Sycamore Trust did not finance the event as a matter of general policy; but because Mr. Walsh spoke about Notre Dame in relation to abortion, same sex marriage, and transgender issues, some Sycamore Trust members did. Mr. Walsh reported that his address, in which he criticized Notre’s policies on these issues, was warmly received by most of the students, but triggered some “angry reactions,” mostly but not all from “much older people.” (In a notably intemperate outburst, a “young woman stormed out of the room shouting ‘I’d rather go to Hell than be in Heaven with you!’”)
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