UVM’s president responds to questions about commencement speaker Ben Stein

UVM President Daniel Mark Fogel spoke with members of the media Monday, Feb. 2, about the withdrawal of Ben Stein as UVM’s commencement speaker. The following is a full transcript of the interview. To read UVM’s press release about Stein’s withdrawal, click here.

When, in the press release, you say “profound concerns,” what in particular do you mean?

Fogel: I think the fundamental concern of the people that wrote to me was that, while they are quite open to having a speaker with Mr. Steins views on campus, they felt that he should not be honored at the commencement ceremony when so many of his views seemed to be affronts to the basic premises of the academy, about scientific and scholarly inquiry and collaterally, people were deeply disturbed by his views on the roll of science in the Holocaust.

Did you know about his views before you asked him to speak?

Fogel: I was vaguely aware of them. I want to put together a much better consultative process that will help to identify such concerns in the future and I hugely regret that I did not anticipate the depth and the complexity of the concerns.

Of course I did not go see ‘Expelled,’ why would I? I am myself a believer in science.

When he spoke last year here, at the Kalkin lecture, he did not address any of those concerns. He talked about the economy. He talked about an area of his expertise.

He was received enthusiastically by the audience and, of course, the interest in those topics has intensified during this economic turbulence we have all experienced. So it seemed timely, and I was frankly insufficiently attentive to this other area.

In the press release, when you say “affronts of tenets of the academy,” what are you referring to?

Fogel: I am referring to the belief in the academic community about, let us say, the moral neutrality of science and the scientific method.

Is the correspondence between you and Professor Richard Dawkins authentic?

Fogel: It is authentic; I admire his work greatly. I have read his work and I have been deeply instructed by it, as I said to him. I was really quite honored to have an e-mail from him directly.

What was the first e-mail from him about?

Fogel: It was to discuss his dismay and concern along the lines we have already discussed.

And also to give me some of his more person background that I had certainly been unaware of. I did not know that he was shown in the movie ‘Expelled’ and that he had been manipulated by the producers and that his words had been used out of context.

Did you know Stein before he came to speak last spring?

Fogel: Oh yes. You know, I had never met him before he came. I did not know him personally, but there is a personal connection. He was the college roommate of my wife’s sister’s husband and they have been best friends ever since.

When he lectured, as invited by the business school, I developed a warmer relationship with him as a visitor to the campus than I might have otherwise, because of that personal connection. But that is the first and only occasion I have met him.

What was the reaction last year?

Fogel: No. Not that I know of. I think the film had just come out and the depth of his affiliation with viewpoints that were so disturbing to so many members of the academic community had not been fully in focus for people. There were one or two questions from the audience about the movie, although it was not in his talk.

Did you call him and ask him to withdraw?

Fogel: I did not ask him to withdraw. I wrote to Ben and, because his talk last spring was about the economy, I had always assumed that that would be the subject of his talk.

And I simply wrote to him and said it would be helpful to me, in view of the concerns of faculty here and members of the academic community elsewhere about his views on creationism and intelligent design and the Holocaust, to confirm that he was going to speak about the economy.

That being said, Jon, I do have a better appreciation at this moment, and one I should have had earlier, about the symbolic importance of the commencement and of the commencement speaker.

Obviously this should be a time where we celebrate the graduating seniors and their accomplishments and we should be identifying speakers who pull the community together, not who divide it amidst heated controversy.

I clearly erred in doing what I did and I am very sorry. I did not appreciate fully all of these dimensions of the situation. I think a better process that is more consultative going forward and selecting the commencement speaker will serve us well in the future.

Will you have a committee with some faculty representation?

Fogel: Well, we do have a committee with faculty representation. When I arrived here, I was told that the selection of the speaker was the president’s prerogative.

And I had personally invited people every year and, by in large, the speakers had been fairly well received. I think that members of the community were extremely proud that we brought people like congressman John Lewis, an others.

But clearly, in this case, we would have been much better served by a consultative process and clearly that is what I intend to put in place in the future. There are faculty, students, trustees and alumni on the honorary degree selection committee now.

Which faculty in particular made concerns that were persuasive to you?

Fogel: I am very attentive to the views of all faculty members.

They wrote to me, personally. I’m not sure that I should say that some carry more weight than others. I can say that I heard from faculty senate officers. I heard from faculty that I have team-taught courses with and have very strong relationships with.

And, of course, I heard from very distinguished members of the scientific community like Richard Dawkins as well.

What was the tipping point?
When did the reaction become significant?

Fogel: Well, let me be clear, I did not ask Ben Stein not to come. I had invited him and I was not going to retract the invitation. But I was not going to let him be blind-sided by the controversy. And, as I said, I asked him to confirm that he would speak about the economy and it was at that point that he withdrew.

So he had accepted the invitation?

Fogel: Yes. It was at that point that he said, “Look, I’m not going to come, you have plenty of time to find another speaker.” Personally for me, I think the tipping point was Saturday morning, when I got a lot of e-mails.

How many e-mails did you receive?

Fogel: I would say hundreds. I have not counted them. I did compose a response and someone has been responding to them for me with the response that I composed.

I only got a few from UVM, but I understand that there is a great deal of conversation about this on faculty listservs that I am not on, notably the United Academics listserv that I am not on.

So, the faculty members that wrote to me were perhaps half a dozen. The hundreds came from blogs and websites that were bemoaning this misstep.

But I have to say, the issue here, and this is important, is not freedom of expression. Ben Stein has come to our campus to speak, and some of the faculty that are colleagues here wrote to me to say that they have no objection to him coming here to speak.

It was the legitimate concern among members of the community regarding the implications of granting an honorary degree to someone whose ideas fundamentally ignore the basics of scientific inquiry.