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Ben Carson visits Alma College

Chad Livengood and Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Lansing — Famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is testing the waters for a Republican campaign for president, visited Alma College Wednesday for a paid speech that was not supposed to be about his conservative politics.

Carson, a native of Detroit, was contracted by the mid-Michigan private college to speak three years ago — long before he became an outspoken critic of President Barack Obama's health care law and began exploring a 2016 bid for the White House.

"This is not a political speech, it's not a rally," said Mike Silverthorn, director of communications at Alma College. "This is just a guest speaker that we brought here and the plan is he's not going to address politics."

Carson's speech was billed as focusing on how he went from humble beginnings on Detroit's northwest side to become a ground-breaking neurosurgeon awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush. Carson spent the day on the rural college's campus in Gratiot County, Silverthorn said.

Carson met with a group of high school students touring Alma College Wednesday morning, including students from the Detroit public school that bears his name — the Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine in midtown Detroit.

Carson has gained a loyal following of conservative Republicans after he criticized Obama's health care law at the 2013 National Prayer breakfast with the president sitting nearby. He has compared the Affordable Care Act to slavery and Adolf Hitler's Nazi government.

He also has come under fire for making disparaging comments about gays. In early March, Carson publicly apologized for claiming convicts who "go into prison straight — and when they come out, they're gay" proves being gay is a lifestyle choice.

Alma College is not disclosing how much Carson is being paid to deliver the speech, Silverthorn said.

The college charged $20 per seat for Carson's speech at the 1,300-seat Hogan Center.

Carson also has come under fire for past comments and statements in a book he wrote calling homosexuality a sin and comparing same-sex marriage to bestiality and pedophilia.

Krista Chessin, a third-year student at Alma, works for the college and was pretty upset when she was assigned to coordinate a breakfast and lunch for Carson because of his comments to the LGBT community.

But she has since evolved and planned to present him with an Alma College tie during a luncheon.

"He has said some hurtful and hateful things, but that shouldn't keep us from learning what he has to teach us," said Chessin, a Troy native. "He should be allowed on campus no matter his opinion. This is college. This is where we learn how to handle these type of situations. It's better we learn how to handle people with these opinions now before we are in the workplace."

In December, Alma College President Jeff Abernathy addressed concerns from students, faculty and alumni about Carson's visit to campus. Some wanted the college to cancel the speech because of Carson's views.

"We wish to be clear that Alma College does not endorse these opinions. They are contrary to our values," Abernathy said in a Dec. 12 statement. "History has shown that withdrawing invitations, rather than combatting ideas, frequently gives them a broader stage: It allows them to circulate without giving their speaker the responsibility of articulating and defending them, and without giving opponents the opportunity to question the claims made."

Last month, Carson launched an exploratory committee for president, which allows him to raise money for a potential campaign while he lines up support. Carson, 63, is the only African-American candidate expected to enter the race for president next year.

A graduate of Yale University and the University of Michigan Medical School, Carson is credited with developing ground-breaking advances in pediatric neurosurgery. He was the first surgeon to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

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Twitter.com/ChadLivengood