Two UW-Madison organizations will host one of the nation’s most controversial political scientists for an off-campus lecture this week, and demonstrators are gearing up to confront him.
Charles Murray, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute whose appearance at Middlebury College in Vermont this spring fueled national debates about free speech after protests against him turned violent, will speak at the Madison Club on Wednesday.
Murray will be the featured speaker at the UW-Madison Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy’s “Disinvited Dinner” — an event the faculty group says provides a forum for controversial speakers who have been turned away from other colleges.
Political science professor Richard Avramenko, the center’s co-director, said organizers invited Murray to speak at the dinner before the appearance at Middlebury on March 2, in which a professor was injured during a confrontation with demonstrators who interrupted Murray’s talk. Protests have followed his lectures at other colleges since then.
The center is hosting the event along with the Tom Sawyer Society, a UW-Madison student chapter of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a Delaware-based conservative group that Avramenko said is paying Murray’s speaking fees.
Avramenko said organizers are holding the $50 per plate event in a private facility off campus — unlike the free, public lecture at UW-Madison where Murray spoke in 2006 — in an effort to reduce the potential for disruptive protests.
Activists are organizing a demonstration outside the Madison Club during Murray’s talk.
Faculty and students have sharply criticized Murray’s 1994 book on genetics, race and intelligence called “The Bell Curve.” On a Facebook page for the Madison protest, the UW-Madison Student Coalition for Progress described Murray’s work as “pseudo-science (that) is just a modern dog whistle version of long-debunked theories like eugenics and social Darwinism.”
Avramenko said he welcomes protests of the event, though he said organizers have hired private security. A question-and-answer session will follow Murray’s lecture, which focuses on his 2012 book “Coming Apart” and President Donald Trump.
“We’re providing an opportunity for people to come and further criticize his work,” Avramenko said. “If the participants at his talk would like to question him about that work, that’s fine; if they also want to bring up ‘The Bell Curve,’ that’s fine as well.”
The event comes as lawmakers consider a new bill that seeks to protect controversial speakers’ ability to present their ideas at University of Wisconsin System institutions, in part by requiring schools to punish students who engage in disruptive protests.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote in a statement that the university “will extend to (Murray) the same courtesy every guest to our campus deserves.”
Blank has faced criticism both from students of color who say her administration has not done enough to improve the racial climate at the predominantly white university, and from Republican lawmakers who say UW-Madison can be hostile to conservative ideas.
“A university’s commitment to academic freedom and free speech is a commitment that allows all ideas to be presented and debated and that calls upon us to argue back against those ideas with which we disagree,” Blank said. “Just as I support Dr. Murray’s right to speak, I also support the right of those who disagree with him to share their views.
“I would expect that we at UW can have this exchange in a respectful way.”