The president of George Mason University yesterday called the decision to bring outspoken filmmaker Michael Moore to campus for a paid speech "a mistake" by mid-level administrators on campus.
President Alan G. Merten said he did not learn that Moore, award-winning director of the movie "Fahrenheit 9/11," was to be paid about $35,000 for his Oct. 28 appearance at GMU's Patriot Center until about a week and a half after the arrangements were made.
Merten said he had been aware that Moore was touring campuses in a get-out-the-vote-themed effort called the "Slacker Uprising Tour" but assumed that Moore was on a mission of his own, with no charge to the universities.
He said he welcomed Moore's appearance until he learned of the fee, which he said would have been paid with public funds.
"I was angry," Merten said, noting that he and other administrators "looked at many options," including an effort to bring in a speaker of comparable celebrity to counterbalance Moore's liberal point of view.
After the Moore event was arranged, Merten's office was beset with calls from conservative state legislators and others who objected to using university funds to support an overtly political event.
The university decided Thursday to cancel Moore's engagement. It was the second time that a public university has canceled an appearance by Moore in recent weeks.
Moore's spokesman, Mark Benoit, said yesterday that the filmmaker still intends to speak at George Mason before the presidential election. Last night, the details of Moore's appearance had not been ironed out, he said.
In a statement released to the media Thursday night, Moore accused the GMU administration of bowing to the will of the right.
"No Republican moves to stop me will succeed," he warned.
Moore said he believes he is still entitled to the $35,000 fee, and he wants to collect it. The money, he said, would be used to establish a "free speech scholarship" for GMU students. University officials say the contract allowed either party to cancel until five days before the event, with no financial strings attached.
Students interviewed on campus were largely unaware that Moore was ever scheduled to speak. Even fewer knew that the engagement had been canceled.
Several students said they were concerned if the university had scratched the event because of Moore's liberal views.
"I'm annoyed," said freshman Kyle Brewer, 19. "Regardless of your party affiliation, you want to see something like that." Lisa Burnley, 21, of Alexandria, a nursing student, said that even though she doesn't like Moore, she might have gone to hear him out of curiosity. But she agreed with the college's decision. "I think it's okay for them to do that," she said.
GMU spokesman Daniel Walsch said that in recent days, the university has received a lot of comment from people who believe it would be "a terrible thing . . . to bring Michael Moore to campus." Since the cancellation, "we've heard from a lot of people saying we should let him speak," he said.
GMU officials said there was little precedent for them to follow regarding speakers as controversial as Moore or as expensive. The university does not have the discretionary funds that enable other, older colleges to pull in big-name speakers.
The most prominent celebrities to speak at George Mason in recent years have been former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, former Soviet president Mikhail S. Gorbachev and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani -- but all three were paid with private funds.
In the absence of a budget for speakers, most who visit GMU are authors or academics brought in by individual departments, which generally pay a small honorarium or travel costs.
Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, came to the campus this summer, but the visit was financed by their campaign.
Walsch said the decision to bring Moore to campus was made by officials in the provost's office and University Life department. Some entertainers and speakers are brought to campus through other programs, including a student-led committee, and subsidized through student fees.
But the budget for Moore's speech would have come from state money, which was what ultimately compelled officials to cancel the appearance. If the student organization had asked to bring Moore to campus using student fees, the university would have complied, Walsch said.
Moore's handlers contend that his speech would have paid for itself through ticket sales in the 10,000-seat Patriot Center. But GMU officials said the arena would have been configured to seat about 6,000. Outsiders would have been charged $5 a ticket, but students would have been admitted free, meaning the university could not have broken even on ticket sales, officials said.