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They Call This Higher Education?


Civilized debate appears to be an endangered species.

Speaker Alex Epstein, moderator Brittany Rivera, and organizer Julian Hassan – at the Vassar lecture
Speaker Alex Epstein, moderator Brittany Rivera, and organizer Julian Hassan – at the Vassar lecture

Vassar College is located 75 miles north of New York City. Founded in 1861, it played a pioneering role in women’s education. Today, 2,400 students are enrolled there and it describes itself as “a highly selective, residential, coeducational liberal arts college.”

But Julian Hassan – who will graduate from Vassar next year with a major in cognitive science – has discovered that not all his fellow students value intellectual freedom and open debate.

First, a bit of background. Climate crusader Bill McKibben‘s latest initiative involves equating fossil fuels with South African apartheid. We’re supposed to regard people who produce gasoline as contemptible as racists. We’re supposed to treat them like pariahs.

This, of course, is an ugly smear. Building oil pipelines is not morally equivalent to denying people the vote due to the colour of their skin.

Are there downsides to fossil fuel use? Of course. Do oil spills (aka industrial accidents) occasionally happen? Yes. Is coal mining aesthetically unattractive? Yes.

But every form of energy has its shortcomings. The mining required to construct wind turbines is also unattractive. Wind energy harms whales and massacres bats. In the real world, nothing is pure and perfect.

A grown man like McKibben should know this. Instead, he’s encouraging impressionable young people to believe in a fantasy world. He’s urging them to pressure their schools to pull their investments out of fossil fuel companies, just as they once divested from South African corporations.

This is ironic since one of the most influential voices in the green movement – the founder of Earth Hour, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – enjoyed cozy relations with South Africa’s white ruling class during the apartheid era. While the rest of the world was shunning South Africa’s elite, the WWF was a bosom friend.

In late February of this year, the Vassar Student Association voted 23-1 in favour of withdrawing school investment funds from fossil fuel companies. The problem is that little meaningful campus debate took place beforehand.

What happened is that the Vassar Greens “partnered with environmental organizations like Bill McKibben’s 350.org” and then secured endorsements from other campus groups such as the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition, the Feminist Alliance, and the Vassar Young Democratic Socialists.

Did any of those groups organize a structured debate so that multiple points-of-view could be explored? (Higher eduction is, after all, supposed to expose a person to new and challenging ideas.) Was the student body at large given an opportunity to hear a variety of perspectives before this important vote took place?

Apparently not. Afterward, 22-year-old Hassan, the president of a campus group called the Moderate, Independent & Conservative Alliance (MICA), booked a room and scheduled an event for March 29.

It took the form of a lecture by Alex Epstein – the founder of the Center for Industrial Progress – called Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet. That happens to be the title of a book written by Epstein, electronic copies of which may be downloaded here for free.

An account by Stanley Kurtz alleges that posters for the event were ripped down, that the lock on Hassan’s dorm room was mysteriously vandalized, that Hassan was urged to cancel the event, and that an unnamed student threatened on Facebook to “walk in on Epstein’s talk and do physical damage to himself, horrifying the audience as a way of disrupting the lecture.”

Later, in the student newspaper, Hassan explained that the moderator had been flown in from another university “because all of our members, including myself, felt too intimidated to host the lecture.”

About a third of the less than 100 individuals who entered the event room were protesters. Some wore masks the entire time and, according to Hassan, only sat down when confronted.

There was no curiosity in their minds, no respect for diversity in their hearts. They were there solely to make a political statement and had prearranged to “stand up and denounce Epstein’s ideas” before “quietly and powerfully” walking out.


We know this because the Vassar Greens circulated an e-mail the day before. It suggests that students at this eminent institution aren’t being taught to value civilized debate.

According to the e-mail, Epstein thinks “climate change doesn’t exist.” This is absolutely not the case. On page six of his book he acknowledges that “one degree of climate change” has occurred since the end of the Little Ice Age.

The e-mail further says that Epstein “is neo-colonialist, racist, sexist, and classist.” No evidence for any of these vile accusations is supplied.

Surely a student can’t make it past the admissions office of a college such as Vassar if they aren’t smart enough to know that unfounded accusations aren’t just morally reprehensible, they’re legally risky.

But since we’re on the subject, divestment activists are invited to examine the male-dominated leadership of green NGOs before casting sexism stones elsewhere. Renewable energy is the most expensive energy out there – so anyone who cares about the poor should not be supporting its expansion.

And if the topic is racism/neo-colonialism, tough questions desperately need to be asked about the activities of green groups in politically oppressive and/or poverty-stricken nations around the world (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

According to the Vassar Greens, Epstein:

claims to be an “energy expert” yet his only credentials are a philosophy degree from Duke (puke).

The last I heard, Bill McKibben’s undergraduate degree was in political science. If a philosophy degree disqualifies Epstein from focusing on energy issues in his work life, by the same logic McKibben shouldn’t be saying anything at all about the scientific aspects of climate change. Yet he’s been writing about exactly that for decades.

Then comes the most disturbing statement in the Vassar Greens’ e-mail:

While we respect MICA’s right to express their views, we believe that someone as meritless and oppressive as Alex Epstein should not be spewing lies on our campus.

Either you cherish free speech or you don’t. Saying you do, but acting otherwise doesn’t cut it.


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