William Ayers is back in the
news—after the University of Illinois-Chicago Board of Trustees denied his
designation as professor emeritus. The issue arose after Christopher
Kennedy—the late senator’s son and the chairman of the UIC trustees—noted
that Ayers had dedicated a 1974 to (among others) the assassin Sirhan Sirhan, who Ayers also
described as a “political prisoner.” Kennedy (correctly) noted that emeritus
status isn’t automatic at UIC, and also that the trustees have authority under
the UIC bylaws to have final word on which professors receive the title, which
appears to be mostly honorific.
The predictable voices have
sprung to Ayers’ defense. Cary Nelson conceded that the Trustees have the power
to deny emeritus status, but nonetheless suggested that Kennedy should have recused himself. (Nelson didn’t say if all the other
trustees who voted against Ayers should have recused
themselves as well.) John Wilson, last encountered making bizarre mis-readings
of my Bayoumi post, chimed in that the
denial was “unconstitutional” and even “illegal,”
in part because Ayers wrote his book before UIC hired him.
had suggested denial of emeritus status can be deemed constitutional. More
important, his odd view of academic personnel matters seems to be that trustees
(and, by inference, personnel committees) can’t take into account publications
of candidates written before the candidate joined the institution. I know of no
college or university’s personnel policy that has such a view. Certainly, as
Eric Zorn has argued, an academic claiming that
Sirhan Sirhan is a
political prisoner hardly reflects well on the academic’s intellectual abilities.
the best comparison to the Ayers case is that of disgraced ex-Colorado
professor Ward Churchill. After Churchill’s “little Eichmanns”
comment, the university launched an inquiry into his scholarship, and
discovered myriad instances of dubious (or much worse) academic behavior. The
university pointed to the findings of this inquiry to fire Churchill. I disagreed at the time with the decision to terminate Churchill, since it seemed
to me impossible to separate the decision to investigate his academic
misconduct from his offensive essays; and also because Colorado, which hired
Churchill under a “diversity” hiring initiative that seemed tailored to hire underqualified faculty with extremist views, knew or should
have known what it was getting when it hired Churchill.
same applies to Ayers. The
should have known what it was getting when it hired Ayers—and yet the
Trustees signed off on his hire, and whatever promotions or pay increases he
received while employed at the university. It seems a little late in the game
to be ruling his previous actions disqualifying for appointment.
real Ayers scandal isn’t his (incidental and basically irrelevant) connection
to then-state Sen. Barack Obama. Or whether or not Ayers
should receive emeritus status at Illinois-Chicago. It’s that, as Inside Higher Ed‘s Scott Jaschik correctly points out, Ayers’ “numerous books and articles” have earned him
considerable respect among education scholars.” If Chairman Kennedy wants to
perform a lasting service to his institution, he and his colleagues should do
more to ensure that actual merit—rather than politically correct pablum of the type that characterized Ayers’ career—serves
as a precursor for employment in UIC’s Education
program. Ayers’ career is done. But the harm that Ayers’ approach has done to
American schoolchildren will continue, without more aggressive oversight by
boards of trustees around the country.