From “Stein out as UVM commencement speaker,” a story in today’s paper (emphasis mine):
The choice of media personality Ben Stein as commencement speaker at the University of Vermont generated such a furor that Stein backed out, UVM President Dan Fogel confirmed Monday.
Stein accepted Fogel’s invitation and was to be paid an honorarium of $7,500, which UVM spokesman Enrique Corredera termed “significantly discounted.”
In other venues, Stein has expressed opinions critical of evolutionary theory and in favor of intelligent design, for which he has been sharply criticized in academic circles. He has also offered views on the role of science in the Holocaust that some have found offensive. Fogel said he had been only “vaguely aware” of these controversial views.
After UVM announced Stein’s selection Thursday, Fogel said in a written statement, “profound concerns have been expressed to me by persons both internal and external to the university about his selection.” Fogel said he received hundreds of e-mails beginning Saturday — including only about a half-dozen from people at UVM — contending, generally, that Stein’s views of science were “affronts to the basic tenets of the academy.”
“Once I apprised Mr. Stein of these communications, he immediately and most graciously declined his commencement invitation,” Fogel’s statement said.
“I did not ask him not to come,” Fogel said in an interview Monday, adding, “I was not going to let him be blindsided by controversy.
“I hugely regret I didn’t anticipate the intensity of the concerns,” Fogel said. He stressed that the issue is not one of academic freedom, or of Stein’s right to offer his controversial opinions on campus, but rather whether someone who holds views antithetical to scientific inquiry should be honored as commencement speaker.
Among those outside UVM who took issue with the choice of Stein was Richard Dawkins, an eminent British evolutionary biologist, who had an e-mail exchange with Fogel.
One: The number of people outside UVM claiming to have sent e-mails to Fogel from Scienceblogs.com and RichardDawkins.net alone is, I would guess, at least twenty or thirty. I’d be surprised, though, if Fogel really only got a half-dozen from within the school community based on banter in the same places that included a number of students and faculty members.
Two: It says something ugly about society and the collective human psychology that forms its underpinnings that a lying ass and a proven incompetent like Stein commands as much money as he does for speaking. Then again, if he can do that, maybe anyone with marginal smarts and talent can succeed with a little luck, even without stooping to Stein’s level of contentious dishonesty.
Three: So Fogel is kinda swingin’ from Sir Richard’s nutz now. Good; the rest of us are too, and have been for a while. It’s quite possible that the deluge of e-protests only started looking really ugly to Fogel in the light of Dawkins’ missive, meaning that Dawkins effectively made all the difference. In the end, though, all that matters is that people made extremely good use of the World Wide Web in this situation: Gathering in known pro-science forums composing strident and uncompromising–but respectful–e-mails, and recruiting those with known pull to the cause. Kind of makes me wonder if blogging might actually be good for something besides ranting.