Voices in Education

Controversial Speakers and Intellectual Fairness
As political polarization increases in the US, colleges and universities are often treated as ideological battlegrounds. In this context, invited speakers serve as flashpoints for controversy, especially when student protests erupt. Such controversies seem unlikely to abate, and thus campuses would be wise to consider how their responses to controversial speakers support or undermine their educational aims. While much has been written about protecting free speech in such crisis moments, we believe the educational significance of these events warrants deeper consideration. How should colleges and universities navigate campus controversies in order to better foster intellectual and civic development on their campuses?

In the Spring issue of the Harvard Educational Review, we use Charles Murray’s visit to Middlebury College in March 2017 to explore this question. Murray’s appearance—and disruptive protests in response—amplified ongoing national debates over who should be invited to speak on college campuses, which topics should be brought forward for public debate, and how protests or other opposition should be handled. Indeed, the events at Middlebury made national news, inspired a statement on truth seeking and freedom of expression signed by more than 4,500 academics and concerned citizens (George & West, 2017), and contributed to a special meeting of the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary concerning the First Amendment on college campuses.

In this case, and in others like it, we offer the virtue of intellectual fairness as a valuable framework for rethinking how to navigate campus tensions. Drawing from virtue theory and social epistemology, we develop an account of intellectual fairness that attends to the credibility of arguments being made, positive or negative biases that influence responses to knowers or their ideas, and the ongoing intellectual development of others on campus. Analyzing the Middlebury case in light of this virtue calls attention to missed pedagogical opportunities in moments like these.

We believe foregrounding the mutually supportive features of intellectual fairness may help colleges and universities prepare for the presence of controversial speakers before controversy develops. With intellectual fairness in mind, academic communities are challenged to consider: Does the speaker advance credible views that satisfy rigorous intellectual standards? Do any of the viewpoints being expressed directly or indirectly cause harm to members of the community or society writ large? Which format would be most appropriate to respect speech and support university commitments to diversity and inclusion? How will any controversy that arises be incorporated into an ongoing, productive dialogue among the campus community(ies)? Colleges and universities have a responsibility to pause and (re)consider these questions as they serve the needs of an increasingly diverse student body in the context of increasing political tensions.


George, R. P., & West, C. (2017, March 14). Truth seeking, democracy, and freedom of thought and expression—A statement by Robert P. George and Cornel West. Retrieved from http://jmp.princeton.edu/statement

Middlebury Newsroom. (2017, May 23). Middlebury College completes sanctioning process for March 2 disruptions. Retrieved from http://www.middlebury.edu/newsroom/archive/2017-news/node/547896

About the Author: Ashley Floyd Kuntz is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Rebecca M. Taylor is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Ethics at Emory University.