An Open Letter to Virginia Tech's Dean Sumichrast

Peter Wood

May 4, 2016

Robert T. Sumichrast
Pamplin College of Business
Virginia Tech University
1030 Pamplin Hall (0209)
880 West Campus Drive
Blacksburg, Virginia 24061

Dear Dean Sumichrast,

When is an invitation not an invitation?  Apparently after the fact when you decide it was not. 

Your note of May 3 to the members of the Virginia Tech Community explaining that Jason Riley had never been invited so that he could not possibly have been disinvited is a bold effort to rewrite history.  But it cannot overcome the awkward reality that Mr. Riley was in fact invited.

The evidence is the email sent at 2:16 PM, Tuesday, April 19, from Professor Doug Patterson to Mr. Riley, containing the perfectly lucid sentence:

My purpose in writing is to invite you to give the fall 2016 lecture here in Blacksburg.

In his letter, Professor Patterson accurately introduces himself as “the director of the program on ‘Exploring the Foundations of Capitalism and Freedom,’” and accurately describes the “the bi-annual BB&T Distinguished Lecture,” which his program operates.  There is no indication in the letter that the invitation was conditional on further layers of approval within the college or the university.  And there is no reason why the recipient of such a letter would regard the author as exceeding his authority to make such an offer. 

Yet you have adopted the stand that Professor Patterson’s invitation was invalid.  You write, “This faculty member does not represent the committee’s voice and this faculty member did not extend an invitation nor rescind an invitation.”

I would assume that the dean of a business school would have at least a common sense understanding of “reliance.”  When the director of a program makes an offer on a matter fully within his purview, the recipient in good faith takes it for what it is:  a genuine offer.  No matter what misgivings or regrets college administrators have after the fact, they are obliged to uphold the offer.  Exceptions might arise if the recipient did something horrendous that disqualified him for the honor.  But nothing changed in Mr. Riley’s life.  He wasn’t brought up on charges by a Special Commission on Human Rights Abuses or discovered to be an unindicted co-conspirator in the Great Train Robbery. 

What changed was not Mr. Riley’s profile, but the public relations sensitivities of administrators at Virginia Tech.  They felt scorched by the negative publicity that ensued from President Sands’ mishandling of the protests prompted by the invitation to Charles Murray, and they felt apprehensive about the possibility of additional protests should Mr. Riley speak.  As Rachelle Peterson and I said in our article in National Review Online, we don’t need to speculate about this reasoning.  We have a first-hand witness to the discussion in Professor Patterson, who relayed the details in his letter to Jason Riley of April 29. 

Your letter to the members of the Virginia Tech Community is sad testimony to the ethics that apparently prevail at the highest levels of the Pamplin College of Business as well as the administration of Virginia Tech.  You know full well that in every meaningful sense Mr. Riley was invited.  But to save face, you have made yourself party to a fiction that the invitation was invalid.  And in your letter you add the touch of quoting from your university’s “Principles of Community,” to the effect that you “encourage open expression within a climate of civility, sensitivity, and mutual respect.”

It strikes at least this reader that those words don’t really mean much to you.  Your letter ends with your saying you are “deeply sorry to see” the characterization of Virginia Tech that has followed these events in the national media.  Your letter, I suspect, will only increase your sorrow.  Most people understand what hypocrisy, effrontery, and evasion of the truth look like.  You have just served up an example that will be attached to the good name of Virginia Tech for a long time to come.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Wood
National Association of Scholars

Image: Donaldson-Brown Virginia Tech, Wikimedia Commons



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