Ben Carson visit to Valdosta State draws protests, sells tickets

Opposition to Ben Carson’s visit to Valdosta State University is similar to pushback from faculty and students at other colleges:

  • Students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, balked at likely 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's $225,000 speaker's fee for a scheduled October appearance.
  • Janet Napolitano, the former secretary of homeland security and now a college president, was heckled for her stance on immigration while giving a commencement address at Laney College in Oakland, Calif.
  • In May, Condoleezza Rice — like Clinton, a former secretary of state — backed out of a planned graduation speech at Rutgers University after students there protested her involvement over the war in Iraq.
  • Christine Lagarde, the leader of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew from a similar engagement at Smith College in May after student protests of the IMF's policies.
  • Students and faculty at City University of New York protested last year when retired Gen. David Petraeus, a former CIA director, joined the college as a visiting professor.
  • Arizona State University decided not to award President Barack Obama an honorary degree during his visit to the school in 2009 for a commencement address citing his lack of experience at that time.

The physician Ben Carson is known to many as a television commentator capable of sharp criticism.

Now, his upcoming appearance at Valdosta State University is spurring similarly tough scrutiny from faculty members and students who say it is a political event and not the educational experience that’s being advertised.

Some oppose Carson’s stances on social issues, such as gay marriage, while others question his credentials to deliver a speech outside his professional area of expertise. Still others are thrilled that he’s coming to VSU, which is now offering tickets to an overflow viewing area after regular tickets quickly sold out.

VSU President William McKinney has no plans to “run” from the controversy and cancel the event. A college campus should be a forum for the exchange of ideas, McKinney said in a letter to the faculty.

Colleges across the country have faced similar opposition this year, with students and teachers protesting high speaking fees for political figures such as Hillary Clinton. (Carson's $43,000 speaker fee is not being paid with university funds, McKinney said.) At other colleges, former leaders such as Condolezza Rice and Janet Napolitano have faced opposition over political positions they took as Cabinet officials under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively.

Carson’s rags-to-riches story and conservative views have made him extremely popular on the speaker circuit. Growing up in poverty in a single-parent home in Detroit, he had a dim outlook as a troubled youth until his mother pushed him to change his ways and succeed. The neurosurgeon and best-selling author has become a tea party darling with repeated calls to make a presidential run in 2016. For his part, Carson has formed a political action committee in case a presidential bid is in the plans.

During his visit Thursday to VSU, Carson will speak on “America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great,” from his book of the same name. The visit also includes a book signing and donor dinner. Politicians, including Gov. Nathan Deal, state legislators and county commissioners, are said to be coming, too.

Mark George, who recently resigned as a VSU professor to take an out-of-state teaching position, is one of the objectors. For him, Carson’s background in medicine disqualifies him to speak at the school’s College of Business. “We’ve asked the Business College, why bring him in if this is not just a political event and fundraiser?” George said. “And we have not gotten an answer.”

The college's sociology club is planning a campus protest during Carson's visit. The group, headed by VSU student Ashlie Prain, has started a Facebook page opposing the appearance.

“Dr. Carson simplifies complicated social issues such as poverty, and frames them as individual shortcomings, rather than social problems,” Prain said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The rhetoric that Dr. Carson espouses is harmful to the diverse student profile of Valdosta State University, and many people in this community.”

Senior Nicole Poole disagrees with that characterization of Carson.

“I don’t feel that he brings a hate message to our campus,” she said. “He’s just bringing a message about how to make America better.”

Poole, vice president of VSU’s Young Conservatives organization, has been a fan of Carson’s since reading his biography as a high school student. That Carson has been portrayed as coming with a political agenda is wrong, she said. “That’s not why he’s coming to Valdosta State. That’s not why he’s gone to any of the colleges where’s he’s gone to speak.”

In a Sept. 2 letter to faculty obtained by the AJC, McKinney acknowledges the consternation over Carson’s visit and said he’s been asked to rescind the invitation, but he won’t.

“Our public colleges and universities exist to serve the public good through the free and open exchange of ideas,” which may lead to controversy, he said in the letter. “Our purpose, however, should be neither to run from controversy nor to squelch dissent; rather, our purpose should be to keep our universities as open forums where civility, not censorship, governs the means by which we address those differences.”

As a college president in the University System of Georgia, McKinney has the authority to designate the use of school facilities for political speeches. “However,” University System policy states, “such use shall be limited to meetings sponsored by recognized organizations of the institution and shall be held only at places designated by the president.”

Carson’s lecture was organized by administrators and students in VSU’s College of Business, McKinney said, and was funded through the college dean’s discretionary foundation resources. The event sold out in three days, and ticket sales and sponsorships more than covered Carson’s speaking fee. Additional contributions will benefit VSU’s early college academy.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, has heard the opposition in Georgia and other places.

“(College) administrators nor the speakers are saying this is what I believe and this is what you should believe, also,” he said. “Having them speak isn’t an endorsement.”

Political speakers can reinforce what’s taught in the classroom, and students have an opportunity to hear new ideas, Bullock said.

When it comes to speaker fees, colleges should do a cost-benefit analysis. Paying a large fee for Barack Obama once he’s out of office is probably worth it, but “if it’s a very obscure political figure that’s charging high fees, that’s different,” Bullock said. “Maybe those funds could be better used elsewhere.”

There are no fees paid when speakers are invited to Bullock’s political science classes.

“The best I can do,” he said, “is get them a parking pass and take them to lunch.”