#students | #parents | Controversial Speaker, His Event Canceled by Middlebury College, Finds an Audience in a Campus Seminar

Matthew J. Dickinson says a colleague at Middlebury College who dubbed him “the rogue professor who held the underground class” is giving him too much credit.

Dickinson, a tenured professor of political science, said on Friday he had no idea that his seminar this week on the American presidency would end up featuring a live question-and-answer session with a controversial speaker that the Middlebury administration had just sent packing.

He wasn’t even sure why the appearance, by Ryszard Legutko, a right-wing Polish politician who had angered many with incendiary comments about gay rights, had been canceled. Legutko is also a professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University, in Kraków.

When Dickinson got to the seminar, which started at 1:30 on Wednesday, students told him the administration had decided to cancel Legutko’s talk. “It wasn’t clear to me why,” Dickinson said. “We talked about how this was going to play in the national press. Students were very afraid, and I think rightly so, that they would be blamed for shutting it down.”

One student in the seminar worked with the Hamilton Forum, the speaker series that had invited Legutko. “He said, ‘This guy is probably sitting in his hotel room. Would you like him to come here?’”

That seemed to Dickinson a reasonable way to allow students to critically engage with Legutko, but he said he wouldn’t do it if it would make anyone uncomfortable. Dickinson conducted a secret vote, and all nine voted to invite him.

“I saw this as a teaching moment in a classroom involving my nine students.”

“I saw this as a teaching moment in a classroom involving my nine students,” he said. “I had no reason to think anyone else would know about it.”

“I had no idea he’d be coming until literally the last minute, but I take full responsibility for doing something that I feel is consistent with what we’re trying to instill in our students at a liberal-arts institution,” Dickinson said.

The Vermont college was still recovering from the public-relations hit it took in 2017, when some 70 students were disciplined for their roles in a disruptive protest of an event featuring Charles A. Murray, a political scientist who espouses views some consider racist. Allison Stanger, a political scientist at Middlebury, was injured during a scuffle that broke out.

‘Skilled and Evasive Non-Answers’

Middlebury’s provost, Jeffrey Cason, said that he had no idea Legutko would be appearing on campus, and that if Dickinson had asked, he would have warned against it for safety reasons.

While they waited for him to arrive, Dickinson had students research Legutko’s positions and formulate questions for him.

Legutko arrived shortly after 3 p.m., about halfway through the two-hour-and-45-minute seminar. He started with an abbreviated version of the opening remarks he’d prepared for the canceled evening presentation.

Dealing With Controversial Speakers on Campus

College officials generally do not want their campuses to become venues for hate speech. The 10 articles in this collection give an overview of how college leaders, and their campus communities, have responded to speakers with unpopular messages. Download the collection here.

When Dickinson opened up the floor for discussion, many of the questions posed by the nine students focused on Legutko’s positions on same-sex marriage and gay rights. The speaker often responded as the politician he is, Dickinson said, with “skilled and evasive non-answers.”

Meanwhile, dozens of students who weren’t enrolled in the seminar but who may have been tipped off to Legutko’s appearance by emails from students sitting around the seminar table, began filtering into the classroom and sitting in the back. Dickinson allowed them to join the discussion, “fingers crossed that it wouldn’t become confrontational.”

At one point, Dickinson asked someone who had begun live-streaming the discussion on Facebook to stop because he felt that was violating students’ privacy.

Dickinson responded by Twitter on Friday to students and alumni who had thanked him for allowing the conversation to take place.

“Kudos go to the seminar students who agreed to critically engage with the speaker,” he wrote. “One of the best teaching experiences I’ve had.”

Legutko could not be reached for comment, but students interviewed said the discussion remained civil.

‘A One-Size-Fits-All Model’

The controversy comes at a time of heightened national scrutiny of campus responses to controversial speakers.

Safety concerns also prompted Beloit College, in Wisconsin, last month to cancel a lecture by Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, a private security company whose employees were implicated in the 2007 deaths of Iraqi civilians.

In an email to Middlebury students on Monday, Keegan Callanan, an assistant professor of political science, wrote that while many would criticize the college for allowing Legutko to speak, “The Hamilton Forum takes a different view. We treat all Middlebury students as independent thinkers with a right to and capacity for free and open inquiry …. We believe that Middlebury students deserve to hear a multiplicity of perspectives, including the views of influential scholars with whom we might disagree strongly.”

The lecture would have focused, Callahan said, on the relationship between liberty, democracy, and totalitarianism, and the question of whether Western liberal democracy provides “a one-size-fits-all model for the rest of the world.”

A Middlebury spokeswoman, Sarah Ray, wrote in an email that the college had moved the planned public event to a larger venue when it became clear that crowds were expected to attend the talk and the planned protests. But as those estimates topped 500, the concerns grew, she said.

Organizers of the planned protest issued a statement Wednesday saying they had no intention of disrupting the event and explaining why they felt the speaker’s “hateful rhetoric” was so damaging to marginalized people.

Ray agreed there was no reason to think the protesters would be out of line. “Our concern was not with the well-intentioned organizers of that event, or the equally well-intentioned students who planned to attend the lecture,” she wrote. “Rather, it was the potential that two groups of hundreds of people might create a spontaneous confrontation in a heated moment, or to protect them from outside individuals arriving.”

Cities and large public universities can draw on the local police to help ensure safety, but that’s not possible for a small college in a rural setting, she said. “In light of the increased number of participants and heightened tensions on our campus, it became clear that we didn’t have the capacity and resources to adequately ensure everyone’s safety,” she wrote.

Dickinson said he didn’t want to second-guess the administration because it had other concerns, in canceling the public event, that went beyond the immediate teaching considerations. Still, “by not allowing these protesters to protest, we haven’t helped our campus heal the way I would like after the Murray incident,” he said. “This just ignited the flames.”

Sam Zieve-Cohen, a senior in the seminar, disagreed with Legutko on many points, but he added that the speaker had “treated us and our opinions with respect.”

“I learned a lot in class on Wednesday, and I feel more confident in my ability to defend my views after our discussion than I did before,” Zieve-Cohen wrote in an email.

Middlebury’s president, Laurie L. Patton, said in a campuswide email that the decision to cancel the lecture had been “both difficult and necessary,” especially given recent tensions surrounding free speech on campus. She wrote that Legutko had been invited to return in the fall.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an advocacy group for free speech on campus, praised Dickinson for allowing “a grappling with ideas” and “vigorous debate” to take place.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.

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