Ben Stein Backs Out of Commencement Gig at Vermont Over Views on Evolution - Chronicle.com.
Ben Stein was recently invited by the University of Vermont (UVM) to speak at Commencement. Controversy ensued. Now he's not speaking, at least not at UVM.
I don't like Ben Stein (see my post about his lecturing average Americans for the economic crisis: "Are Average Americans Really to Blame for Economic Meltdown?"). But I do like UVM, which is a university I used to teach at and just happens to be in the city where I live and so it seems worthwhile doing some explaining now to avoid the chorus of "political correctness run amok" later.
Ben Stein is an economist (not a good one, from my point of view) who also happens to be a believer in Intelligent Design. Intelligent design is Creationism with a thin veneer of science, but is basically a critique of Evolutionary Theory. Stein was controversial as a UVM commencement speaker precisely because of his support for Intelligent Design.
Now here's where things get tricky. Stein came to UVM last year and gave a very well attended lecture. UVM's president, Dan Fogel, thought inviting him back for Commencement was a no-brainer. Turns out, there is a huge difference between giving a public lecture and giving the commencement speech. That difference is institutional support.
When someone gives a lecture on a college campus, they can more or less say whatever they want to say since they are protected both by the principles of free speech and academic freedom. However, when a college throws its institutional weight behind someone- for instance, by inviting them to commencement or naming an endowned chair after them, the stakes are much higher and the symbolic weight of that person's speech much heavier.
Thus Ben Stein is welcome to profess his beliefs about Intelligent Design or how average Americans are to blame for the financial crisis just as I am allowed to profess my beliefs in Evolution and how the greedy fat cats are responsible for the financial crisis. However, most institutions would want to steer clear of naming an endowed chair after either one of us, given the controversial nature of much of our speech. Maybe in a hundred years there will be a Ben Stein Endowed Chair in Intelligent Design Studies or a Laurie Essig Endowed Chair in Critical Theory, but in the meantime, no matter how many lectures you invite us to give, don't invite us to commencement.