Middlebury: A College Crisis Case Study

By Gene Grabowski

Photo via Middlebury College

Libertarian political scientist Charles Murray, author of the controversial 1994 sociological study The Bell Curve, ignited a crisis recently when he spoke at prestigious Middlebury College in Vermont.

Murray only made it a couple of words into his talk when more than half the students, faculty members, and outside protestors in the audience stood, turned their backs on him and read in unison a prepared statement attacking his views.

As Murray and a Middlebury professor walked to a car afterward, the crowds jostled him and injured her. The incident touched off a tornado of criticism toward the college and its students for shutting down free speech at an institution of higher learning, where open debate and expression of ideas of all kinds should be welcome.

What’s important to note, however, is how swift, compassionate and effective Middlebury’s response has been to what could have developed into an even more embarrassing national crisis for the liberal arts school, coming as it did after 2016 anti-free-speech protests at Yale, Rutgers and the University of Missouri.

First, recognizing how important it is to communicate with its students, faculty and alumni, Middlebury President Laurie Patton sent an almost immediate open message to the campus community. In that message, Patton acknowledged the sensitive nature of the issues involved, but she called for everyone to “keep listening and connecting” so that together, they can grow the school “into a better place” that is truly considerate and understanding of all points of view.

Shortly afterward, Patton and Vice President for Advancement Colleen Fitzpatrick shared with alumni, faculty, students, employees, donors and the news media a two-page guide that succinctly answered the most frequently asked questions about the incident.

The college’s alumni, who are among the most loyal and influential groups at Middlebury or any other school in the country, have since been sharing those materials and many have been tweeting and blogging favorably about the school’s communication efforts. Significantly, Middlebury has empowered the alumni to act as ambassadors for the school, and they in turn are virally working to keep the incident and its aftermath in perspective.

Meanwhile, Patton and other leaders at Middlebury continue their efforts on campus to create an atmosphere of listening and understanding. Prominent Middlebury professors Jay Parini and Keegan Callanan presented a public “statement of principle” in defense of Murray’s right to free speech even though they disagree with his views. The document was shared on social media and published in The Wall Street Journal.


To be sure, Middlebury’s reputation has suffered from this crisis – as any school’s reputation would. Witness the fact that media pundits continue to seize on the Murray incident to blast the school as a bastion of liberal elitism.

But crisis at any college or university today is inevitable. Ultimately, people will judge Middlebury not on the fact that it has encountered a crisis, but rather on how well it manages it under pressure.

So far, Middlebury is earning an A.

If you’re looking for someone with over 25 years of crisis communications + issues management experience who can help you build and protect your reputation, contact Gene directly.


Gene is a Partner at kglobal. He is focused on creating and managing successful campaigns for corporations, trade associations, non-profits and universities. Gene was named Crisis Manager of the Year for his effective work on numerous high-stakes issues and speaks frequently on strategic crisis management. He writes about trends in issues management and public relations. You can follow him on Twitter @crisisguru, read his tips on the kglobal blog or e-mail him.