RICHMOND — George Mason University professors say the rejection of their application to start a Phi Beta Kappa chapter on campus is linked to the school’s high-profile snub of “Fahrenheit 9/11” filmmaker Michael Moore.
After the 27,000-student school in Fairfax submitted its preliminary application to establish a chapter in the fall, the honor society’s nominating committee learned that the state university canceled the liberal activist’s appearance after conservative state lawmakers complained.
University President Alan Merten has said Mr. Moore’s appearance was canceled because his $35,000 speaking fee was too high, not because of Mr. Moore’s political views. The cancellation of the event, scheduled days before the presidential election, made national news.
“A week later, I received an inquiry about the process by which he was invited and uninvited,” said Marion Deshmukh, an associate professor of history and art history who coordinated George Mason’s application.
When Phi Beta Kappa issued a final rejection of George Mason’s application in January, it expressed concerns about the Moore incident, Miss Deshmukh said.
“In my opinion, the nominating committee saw it as political, academic freedom being impinged,” she said. “They had these issues on faculty governance.”
Phi Beta Kappa Secretary John Churchill declined to comment, saying the selection process is confidential. The organization, which is the nation’s oldest and largest academic honor society, is based in Washington, D.C.
Faculty Senate Chairman James T. Bennett said the university fumbled the Moore situation and should have honored its contract with the filmmaker even after Delegate Richard H. Black, Loudoun Republican, who has one of the General Assembly’s most conservative voting records, wrote Mr. Merten to complain.
“The university was saying, ‘We canceled the appearance because the fee was too high,’” Mr. Bennett said. “Then why did we sign the contract to begin with?”
“You don’t cave in to political pressure,” said Mr. Bennett, an economics professor. “We had no problem with him coming until some people from Richmond spoke up.”
Colleges seeking Phi Beta Kappa chapters undergo an extensive three-year review. Those making the initial cut are invited to turn in a more detailed report. Phi Beta Kappa officials then visit the campus and interview students and professors before making a final judgment.
During the previous cycle, which ended in 2003, George Mason was among 10 finalists but was turned down because Phi Beta Kappa officials had some concerns about disagreements between the university’s Board of Visitors and faculty members over curriculum changes, Provost Peter Stearns said.
Mr. Stearns said the Moore situation was strictly related to the appropriate use of state money. Mr. Stearns said he agreed to the $35,000 fee, which could be covered by ticket sales. But he said Mr. Moore then stipulated that students shouldn’t be charged to attend.
Although George Mason’s chances to establish a Phi Beta Kappa chapter in the current cycle weren’t assured, Miss Deshmukh said, committee officials should have at least visited the campus before making their final decision.
Mr. Stearns said George Mason will apply again when the next review cycle begins in 2006.
“The reason one does this is because you have a commitment to liberal arts education and a good group of students who deserve this award,” he said.