Students staged a walkout in protest of a talk by libertarian political scientist Charles Murray at the Sanford School of Public Policy Monday night.
The American Enterprise Institute—a right-wing think tank based in Washington D.C.—arranged and paid for Murray to speak at Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Duke event, which was sponsored by the campus chapter of AEI, began with an initial audience of about 60 people.
As Murray began to speak about his new book, titled “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010,” approximately half of the attendees stood up and left the room silently. The Students for a Democratic Society facilitated the process of organizing a walkout and were supported by representatives from the Black Student Alliance, the campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Duke Student Government, senior Prashanth Kamalakanthan said.
The walkout was initiated by an opinion column published in The Chronicle by Kamalakanthan, who encouraged students to leave the Murray event on the grounds of his controversial publications on wealth and intelligence in America. The five-member student executive board of the Duke AEI chapter responded to Kamalakanthan through a letter to the editor, encouraging him to stay through the event and engage in discourse with Murray. Jonathan Anomaly, visiting assistant professor of political science, also responded in opposition to Kamalakanthan’s proposal of a walkout with a letter to the editor.
Kamalakanthan noted that he does not take issue with Murray personally but rather with the impact Murray’s research has had on policy. He said Murray has a history of influencing officials such as former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as well as businessman Charles Koch, some of whose actions have negatively affected minorities.
“He might be a sweet dude and totally not racist,” Kamalakanthan said. “But that’s not really at issue. What is at issue is the policy that he sets in motion which is uncontroversially racist.... Basically anybody who’s not white, straight and male in society is disproportionately affected by the policies he not only advocates but sets in motion.”
Events on Monday night unfolded as Kamalakanthan planned and the lecture hall was half-empty less than five minutes into Murray’s speech. After the students walked out, Murray jokingly quipped about how he has experienced similar reactions at prior speaking events.
“I would sit there on the platform and I would calculate how much money per minute I was making to put up with this stuff,” he said, invoking laughter from the remaining audience.
Murray went on to address some of the topics explored in his book, including the divergence of a new upper class and a new lower class over the past 50 years. He attributed this to behaviors that promote increased interaction within rather than between class groups. For example, upper-class, well-educated Americans tend to marry and reproduce with each other and raise children who go to top universities, have highly successful careers and continue the cycle.
Before his column on Murray was published in The Chronicle last week, Kamalakanthan posted a response in the Facebook event page for the talk. The post and the entire event page was later deleted as the Duke AEI executive board took time to evaluate Murray as a speaker, said Anand Raghuraman, a junior and a member of the AEI executive council.
“Prashanth and the Facebook post made us reconsider what was happening,” Raghuraman said. “We saw Prashanth’s post on the Facebook wall, and when you see something like that, your heart skips a beat and you think, ‘Oh my God, what did I just do?’”
Raghuraman and the executive council then spent the next week considering whether to host Murray. Raghuraman said he read “Coming Apart” and communicated with the AEI base in Washington about the accusations Kamalakanthan had made. He said the group concluded after much discussion that hosting Murray as a speaker would contribute to campus discourse.
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“I wanted to engage with a different type of viewpoint,” Raghuraman said. “I want to ask, how many of the people who walked out today read the book cover-to-cover? It’s a question of intellectual honesty…. There’s something to be said about being open to new ideas.”
He noted that some of the topics discussed by Murray at the event itself were relatively uncontroversial, such as socio-economic issues that many students would be concerned about. “The Bell Curve,” Murray’s highly controversial book about intelligence quotas in relation to race, was mentioned in passing by Murray during the speech but was not the main topic of conversation.
Both those who were involved in the walkout and those who were not noted that having Murray speak on campus was a valuable opportunity for discourse.
Paul Darling, a fellow in the Counterterrorism and Public Policy fellowship program who attended the event, called the protest a “close-minded walkout” that dismissed an opposing opinion without fully considering it.
Senior Tony Gouw, a participant in the walkout, said that though he strongly disagrees with Murray’s policies, he said he believes Murray has a right to come to campus.
“He should be here if only to generate this sort of discourse,” Gouw said. “The only reason I feel that it’s appropriate for him to be speaking is if it’s getting people angry in the right ways.”
Sophomore Luke Maier, a member of the AEI executive council, noted that the students who walked out did not use the speech as an opportunity to engage in dialogue.
“I was just disappointed that the people who disagreed with him gave up the oppportunity of debating,” he said. “He opened up the floor for dialogue and debate…I wanted to hear the other side.”
Kamalakanthan noted, however, that the format of the event was problematic and not conducive to open discourse between Murray and those who disagreed with him.
“The whole obsession with this idea of discourse is sort of a smokescreen for the oppression that is unfolding day by day,” Kamalakanthan said. “The walkout is sort of an attempt to turn back the relations in power that Charles Murray exerts over our bodies by using our bodies as a symbol of protest.”