The independent news organization of Duke University

​Grading the bell curve

On Tuesday Charles Murray spoke on campus at event organized by students involved with the American Enterprise Institute and the Duke College Republicans. While our student body’s response was not on par with Middlebury’s mobilization to Murray’s visit on their campus, his visits always stoke conversations about free speech and protests. Those who support Murray’s coming to campus this year and in 2013 often cite an interest in free speech, and Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, expressed that the university had “no reservations whatsoever.” However, Murray’s previous work merits much closer scrutiny than the average speaker. In our view, AEI and DCR were wrong to invite him to speak on campus, and his presence is an affront to the very students his previous works diminish as well as the educational mission of our University, especially its commitments to diversity and academic excellence.

In 1994, Murray authored "The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life" and was roundly criticized for his subtle but widely noted discussion of how intelligence could be tied to race, echoing the ideas of eugenists of years past. Although Tuesday’s visit did not concern "The Bell Curve," his continued commitment to it after much peer criticism along with its inseparability from his career and academic reputation should not be disregarded. The book’s implications fly in the face of work done by Duke’s very own faculty to dispel theories of race-based intelligence, notions of racial inferiority and specious work that lends itself to such conclusions. The idea that IQ is genetic and linked to race is a dangerous one that actively challenges the safety and qualifications of students of color across society and especially at universities.

Contrary to what conservative and free speech groups across the country may argue, Murray’s talk does not symbolize a desire for an open public forum but rather a reaction to the increasingly loud voices of marginalized students on campus. Bringing a figure that has been documented as a white nationalist to Duke so that he can speak in a closed, ticketed event is not in line with the principles of free speech. Neither is ignoring our calls for scrutiny of his past work and an answer from the student groups that invite him to campus time and again.

Moreover, it would be intellectually lazy to assume that dissenting students are blindly picketing anything and everything that happens on campus. His reputation is a tarnished reminder of a dark history of academia, only so many steps removed from phrenology and the academics who once condemned mixed race children as a harm to society. The invitation extended to him is another tacit endorsement of "The Bell Curve" that fails to recognize that some theories and research remain on the fringes of academia for good reason.

Ultimately, Murray and his outdated, white supremacist ideals—or certainly his continued adherence to "The Bell Curve"—have no place on a campus that prides itself on equity, academic rigor, and diversity. As at Middlebury, it was a poorly thought-out decision for the platform of a university to be turned over even for an evening to a thinker like Murray. Opposition to Murray is not about attacking free speech so much as it is considering an academic’s work and evaluating their merits as fully as possible. It would benefit Duke and those who support Murray to consider the fact that some opinions are controversial not because they have been shouted down by “politically correct liberals,” but because they are patently false or feed into dangerous historical trends that only hindsight will reveal.

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