In a bizarre, Internet-fueled conflagration, University President Richard Levin became the target of an angry letter-writing campaign from conservative Christians on Wednesday over what he says was a misquotation in a Washington Post column.
In Wednesday’s edition of the Post, columnist Michael Gerson wrote that at a panel discussion last week as part of the launch of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, Levin “casually asserted that religious Americans who support pro-life restrictions on international family planning aid are as doctrinaire and exclusionary as Saudi extremists.”
“Pro-life Catholics and evangelicals? Wahhabi extremists? What’s the difference?” Gerson wrote. “Clearly, mutual religious sympathy has a ways to go in places such as Yale.”
Bloggers and the prominent anti-abortion news Web site LifeNews.com picked up the story by midday, with the latter noting that Levin “made a comment sure to upset the majority of Americans who are pro-life.”
“Tell Yale University President Richard Levin you’re not an extremist by opposing taxpayer funding of abortions,” the Web site told readers, providing Levin’s Woodbridge Hall contact information.
But the entire uproar may have been for naught. In an e-mail message to the News late Wednesday, Levin said Gerson’s column was incorrect in what it claimed he had asserted.
“I never made any such statement nor would I,” Levin wrote. “I said something to the effect that religious views impinge upon politics everywhere. For example, even in the U.S., the religious right has hijacked the foreign aid agenda.”
Gerson, the former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush ’68, did not quote Levin word for word in his column, and the columnist did not respond to an e-mail message asking whether he had recorded Levin’s exact remarks. The panel discussion, held in New York City, was not covered in detail by any major news organization, and neither a transcript nor a video was readily available to provide a record of what Levin actually said.
But if Levin’s non-comment travels further, he may find solace in the experience of another Yale president.
On April 24, 1970, in the run-up to the Black Panther trials, then-University President Kingman Brewster famously said, according to news sources at the time, that he was “skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.”
The comment enraged part of Yale’s alumni base — not to mention the president of the United States, Richard Nixon — as it launched Brewster, once again, into the national spotlight, just a week before May Day protests descended on New Haven.
Although the statement would follow Brewster to his death, solidifying his reputation as an architect of progressive social change, the words were actually taken out of context, according to his colleagues and some historians.
While he briefly contemplated clarifying the record, he ultimately decided to let the declaration, even if slightly misquoted and misinterpreted, to remain ringing — loud and clear. If not what he said, after all, it represented what he thought.
Levin, on the other hand, is sometimes criticized for his comparative lack of outspokenness.
Aides to the president argue that it is Levin’s discretion — in contrast to, say, former Harvard President Larry Summers, whose comments on women’s aptitude for science helped bring about his demise — that has helped make his tenure so controversy-free.
Indeed, little is even known about Levin’s political views, let alone his position on a matter as deeply polarizing and controversial as Roe v. Wade.
In an interview earlier this spring, Levin said that speaking out on matters directly related to higher education — say, federal research funding or immigration policies as they affect international students — comes with the job of leading a university of Yale’s prominence. But in other cases, the president said he picks his spots wisely.
“Speaking out on issues that are not so direct, I do have the feeling that one has to do that very selectively,” Levin said. “I don’t do it often.”