Leland Ben ’17 Aims to Invite Conservative Speaker to Campus

Several conservative students have recently expressed frustration at Choate for what they claim is its deeply engrained, activist progressive nature. They can’t express their opinion, these students say, because Choate’s ethos shuts them down. Conservative Leland Ben ’17 recently decided to take action. Ben has spent the last couple of months working to invite a conservative speaker to present at Choate, using a grant he received from Young Americans for Freedom (YAF).

Ben, the President of Young Republicans, had narrowed his choice to either political commentator Mr. Ben Shapiro or former representative Mr. Allen West. Describing the speakers, Ben said, “Ben Shapiro and Allen West are both highly qualified and renowned conservative political commentators. Some of the issues that would be discussed are the Black Lives Matter movement, white privilege, political correctness, and free speech.”

On why he is pursuing this project, he said, “My inspiration has come from people in the community who are disgruntled at the lack of diversity of viewpoints, like the conservative perspective, in our special programs. I, too, have noticed that this is a problem that needs to be addressed.”

He first tried to invite Mr. West for the Adlai Stevenson ’18 lecture series, which features a strong political figure. Head of HPRSS Department Ms. Amy Foster, who is in charge of organizing the Adlai Stevenson ’18 lecture series this year, said, “The Stevenson program exists to bring speakers that almost always are politicians who have a distinguished record of public service, who embody a lot of the integrity and values of Adlai Stevenson II ’18. We try to pick speakers who reflect that charge.”

Ben said about his endeavor, “The results have been mixed, to say the least. The people in charge of making decisions did not think Mr. West would be appropriate for the Stevenson program for many reasons.” There were also logistical reasons; the school does not allow outside donors to fund Stevenson lecturers, as it is endowed internally.

Ms. Foster said, “It certainly is an ongoing discussion, and I have to look at the charge of this particular speaker series and make sure that we choose people who fit what it was funded to do, that’s my responsibility. We’ve had a number of Republican speakers in the part, in this program. And there are other ways that speakers can be heard on campus besides this particular program.”

Director of Studies Mr. Kevin Rogers, who organizes special programs and the school calendar, also explained, “For most of our speakers, we have to work within a narrow financial reality, so we want to make sure that we get the best we possibly can. In addition, the speakers’ calendar has to match up with something that we can use. Those are the primary limitations.”

Ben added, “Upon my request to host one of those two speakers on my own terms as a Young Republicans event, I was told that I could do it with a smaller venue. I found it very interesting. We don’t limit attendance for sporting games, dances sponsored by clubs, or plays in the arts center.”

He went on, “Choate will not be hosting my requested speaker as of now.”

Mr. Rogers remarked, “I think that one of the things that the school would have an interest in, particularly with politics-oriented talks, is that the people from the surrounding area might try to get in or see that person. Sometimes that can pose as a safety and security concern.”

Ms. Foster said, “In the HPRSS department, we are about open inquiry and open discussion and trying to understand different perspectives, and give every perspective an appropriate voice as long as those things are voiced respectively.” She continued, “We have to know that people are going to disagree, but we have to disagree in a respectful and constructive way.”

The idea of inviting a conservative speaker to campus originated last year. Grace Tully ’16, the former President of Young Republicans, worked with YAF to sponsor a speaker, and Ben was in charge to continuing her efforts this year. YAF eventually agreed to help, as long as there was an audience for the speaker.

According to its website, “YAF chapters bring together students to advocate for the ideas of limited government, individual freedom, free enterprise, traditional values, and a strong national defense. YAF chapters can provide a visible presence for the Conservative Movement, energize other students, and encourage them to speak out.”

After receiving the grant, Ben reached out to Coordinator of Special Programs Ms. Leigh Dingwall, who handles the logistics of special programs. Ms. Dingwall referred him to Mr. Rogers.

Ben then reached out to Mr. Rogers in August to suggest that Mr. Shapiro speak at an all-school meeting. Every all-school meeting had been booked for the year. Mr. Rogers said, “At that point, we didn’t have the Adlai Stevenson ’18 lecture, a lecture that comes out of the HPRSS department, so I suggested that he might want to talk to Ms. Foster and see whether she had any interest in welcoming him to campus.”

About future plans, Ben said, “My conversation with administrators has been ongoing. I’ve also talked to Mr. Stanley extensively about this.” He noted that those conversations have been productive. “I am happy with the progress that is being made, and I look forward to continue working with the proper authorities.”

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