Ben Stein Backs Out of Commencement Gig at Vermont Over Views on Evolution

February 03, 2009

The pundit and actor Ben Stein has withdrawn from an engagement to speak at the University of Vermont’s spring commencement after his invitation drew complaints about his views on biological evolution.

Vermont’s president, Daniel Mark Fogel, invited Mr. Stein to speak at the university’s graduation ceremony after the commentator was praised for a lecture on economics he gave on the Burlington campus last spring, according to a statement released on Monday. But when angry e-mail messages inundated Mr. Fogel’s office, complaining among other things about Mr. Stein’s endorsement of intelligent design, Mr. Fogel called Mr. Stein, who then withdrew from the May 17 gig voluntarily.

According to the Burlington Free Press, the vast majority of protesters were not affiliated with the University of Vermont; only “about a half dozen” objections came from the campus.

Intelligent design, which holds that some form of intelligence has helped shape life and the universe, is rejected by nearly all biologists, many of whom regard it as little more than warmed-over creationism. The theory of evolution, as modified since it was proposed 150 years ago by Charles Darwin, is widely accepted by scientists as the best explanation for the natural world.

Mr. Stein, a Yale-educated economist, author, and former presidential speechwriter, recently co-wrote and starred in a documentary called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, in which he tours the country to interview people who have been ostracized for their belief in intelligent design. Mr. Stein has also made several controversial allusions to Nazism, including connecting Darwinism’s effect on moral theory to the Holocaust and comparing the scale and enthusiasm of President Obama’s audience at the Democratic National Convention to the adoration seen in Adolf Hitler’s crowds.

Mr. Fogel said he “didn’t anticipate the intensity of the concerns” about giving Mr. Stein a platform and an honorary degree. He said he planned to “use a more consultative process” when choosing future speakers. “Commencement should be a time when our community gathers inclusively, not divisively, in full celebration of the achievements of our graduates,” he wrote in his statement. —Steve Kolowich

Update (2/6): The university announced this morning that Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, would deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree in place of Mr. Stein. Mr. Dean, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, ran for president in 2004.