Central in a Jam, Betz Invites Ham
In a move to promote free speech on university campuses, University of Central Oklahoma President Don Betz has extended a new invitation to creationist Ken Ham to present at UCO after the original offer was rescinded by UCO’s Student Association earlier this month.
The decision was announced Thursday in a special Centrality from Betz, who cited concerns about the perception of the university’s stance on free speech within the media following the controversy surrounding the cancellation of Ham’s original event.
“The misrepresentations about the social commitment of UCO to free inquiry has demonstrated that we are presented with the opportunity for a teachable moment on the principles of civil discourse and the pursuit of knowledge,” Betz said.
The university found itself in the middle of this controversy earlier in the month after UCOSA had withdrawn their invitation to Ham in the middle of contractual negotiations.
The cancellation raised concerns over free speech, as Ham’s invitation was rescinded after UCOSA President Stockton Duvall claimed that members of UCO’s Women’s Research Center and BGLTQ+ Center had attempted to pressure him into cancelling the event.
The Center has denied Duvall’s claims that they had bullied him on the matter, but did admit that they had met with Duvall last month to try and convince him to cancel the event because of their concerns over using student activity fees to pay for a religious speaker who they claim has been hateful towards the LGBT community.
Duvall later clarified that the cancellation was a result of multiple issues, including the event’s co-sponsor ending their partnership with UCOSA and that the contract between UCO and Ham had yet to be finalized.
Despite statements from both UCOSA and the university that the campus administration had played no role in cancelling the event, both state media and state legislators have continued to raise concerns that UCO restricted free speech by cancelling Ham’s invitation.
“Higher education’s censorship and bigotry against Christians shows an appalling lack of accountability on how Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities spend our tax dollars,” said Rep. Kevin Calvey, R-Oklahoma City. “We fund education to teach and promote American values. Censorship is not an American value.”
In response to these lingering concerns, Betz has arranged for Ham to present his original talk on creationism on March 5 as well as for the university to host two presentations on free speech that are designed to educate the campus and community on what speech and viewpoints are protected on campus.
“As they drafted the First Amendment, our Founding Fathers drew upon the philosophies of the author Voltaire,” Betz said. “As his biographers have summarized, Voltaire’s concept of freedom of speech is expressed in this statement: I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.”
As concerns had been raised over student activity fees being used to pay for the event, no student activity fees, tuition dollars or state funding will be used to cover the $4,500 for Ham’s speaker fees and associated expenses, according to Adrienne Nobles, associate vice president for University Communications.
“Mr. Ham’s presentation is funded through unrestricted donations made to the university by individuals and organizations to be used at the discretion of the university president,” Nobles said.
Ham’s presentation, “Genesis and the State of Culture,” will be held 3-5 p.m. March 5 in Constitution Hall. The event will be preceded by a discussion on freedom of speech earlier that day and will be followed by a discussion of evolutionary science on March 6.
While UCOSA has had no part in Ham being brought back to campus, Duvall said that he supports Betz’s decision to move forward with the event.
“I think it’s a good decision in that it’s going to have the opportunity to show the true values we hold as a university, where we commit to the free flow of different ideas and perspectives, whether we agree with them or not,” Duvall said.
The event will be the first time that Ham has spoken at a publicly funded university as well as the first time that the invitation has been extended by a university president. While Ham has previously spoken at privately funded universities such as Princeton, he said that concerns such as those raised by the Center have always prevented him from presenting at universities funded by the state.
While Ham has been vocal in his criticism of UCO’s decision to cancel his speaking engagement and what he terms as the university’s failure to uphold the right to free speech, he said that he is hopeful that Betz’s decision will be a positive move in promoting freedom of speech.
“If you think about it, [the University of California] Berkeley started the free speech movement in the ‘60s and now Berkeley is shutting down free speech,” Ham said. “I think it’s good that the president is taking a stand here regardless of whether or not someone agrees with that perspective. Who knows, maybe he’ll be trailblazing a new free speech movement.”