The higher-education disinvitation sweepstakes continue. Virginia Tech has just disinvited Jason Riley, a Wall Street Journal columnist and Manhattan Institute senior fellow. Riley had been asked to deliver the BB&T Distinguished Lecture at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business. But late last week he received an e-mail from the faculty member who arranged the lecture informing him that the head of the Finance Department, the J. Gray Ferguson Professor of Finance, Vijay Singal, had vetoed the invitation. We obtained a copy of this e-mail.
Why? Mr. Riley, who is black, has attracted some negative attention since his publication in 2014 of Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed. Professor Singal feared that whatever controversy Riley had attracted so far would be amplified once he set foot on Virginia Tech’s campus. He imagined there would be amplified controversy over Riley’s speech because Virginia Tech is still reverberating from the last BB&T Distinguished Lecture, delivered by Charles Murray on March 25.
That event was widely noted because of the exceptionally clumsy way that Virginia Tech president Tim Sands handled it. Sands sent an “open letter” to the Virginia Tech community on March 10, ostensibly upholding the invitation to Murray but doing so in such poison-pen language that he practically wrote the placards for the protesters. In Sands’s words, Murray’s work, particularly The Bell Curve, is “discredited,” “flawed,” “used by some to justify fascism, racism and eugenics,” and “regarded by some in our community as repugnant, offensive, or even fraudulent.”
It emerged that Dr. Sands actually knew little of Murray’s scholarly work, but relied instead on hearsay from Murray’s distempered critics. Murray answered Sands with a pungent open letter of his own; delivered his scheduled lecture despite some protesters; and left the campus with only one significant casualty — namely President Sands’s reputation.
What makes Jason Riley’s disinvitation notable is how little prompted it.
The link between the Murray affair and the disinvitation to Riley isn’t speculative. The letter to Riley telling him his lecture is canceled plunges right into the recent history, including Tim Sands having “embarrassed himself and the university” with his open letter. The professor who wrote to Riley clearly felt chagrined by this turn of events. He is “sure” that President Sands “never read” The Bell Curve, at which he directed such vitriol. And Sands’s remarks, he says, served as an accelerant to a protest at the business school two days before Murray’s speech. The protest turned out to be “an ugly, hate-filled two-hour attack on Charles Murray,” charging him with absurdities such as membership in the Ku Klux Klan.
The head of the finance department had not initially objected to Riley as the next BB&T speaker but later, when he realized that Riley had “written about race issues” in the Wall Street Journal, he decided Riley would have to go. The department head and others in the finance department “worried about more protests from the looney left” and were unmoved by arguments that it was wrong to give in to such intimidation.
#share#Disinvitations from college officials are becoming distressingly common and not quite as shocking as they were a few years ago. The William F. Buckley Jr. Society at Yale last week held its Second Annual Disinvitation Dinner. Last year it honored George Will, disinvited from Scripps College for expressing doubts about “rape culture” on campus. This year, it honored former New York Police commissioner Ray Kelly, who was disinvited from Brown University right at the podium where he was scheduled to speak. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education keeps a summary list of disinvitations, but even FIRE can hardly keep up with the disgraceful trend. It has yet to note, for instance, Suzanne Venker’s disinvitation by “Uncomfortable Learning,” the student group at Williams College that had invited Venker, a critic of feminism. Uncomfortable Learning exists to bring controversial speakers to campus but was overwhelmed by the backlash to Venker’s scheduled appearance.
#related#What makes Jason Riley’s disinvitation notable, though, is how little prompted it. No students threatened to protest his speech or wrote editorials denouncing his views. No one picketed the finance department. Riley’s speech hadn’t even been announced on campus. Mere fear of potential protest swayed Virginia Tech to cancel Riley’s pending event.
For the past six months, cry-bully activists on campuses from Mizzou to Princeton to Dartmouth have bowled over craven administrators who have deferred to their demands and declined to exercise jurisdiction. The Riley disinvitation shows just how low campus authorities are willing to bow to the fancies of their students. Higher education can offer intellectual freedom little more than lip service when it authorizes the heckler’s veto.