Another Bill Ayers Controversy

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. Wilson appeared unaware of a 2006 case that
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.

That said,
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.

The
same applies to Ayers. The University
of Illinois
knew or
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.

The
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.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

3 thoughts on “Another Bill Ayers Controversy

  1. K.C. Johnson has written a screed against Bill Ayers that may stand as the worst thing he’s ever penned. There is so much wrong with what Johnson says, from claiming that one misguided 2006 appeals court ruling ends all discussion of what is unconstitutional, to his bizarre assertion that trustees and personnel committees should use non-academic political writings from 36 years ago, rather than academic merit, to judge the qualifications of academic candidates.
    But by far the worst part comes at the end. After noting the respect for Ayers’ views on education among many education scholars, Johnson writes, “the harm that Ayers’ approach has done to American schoolchildren will continue, without more aggressive oversight by boards of trustees around the country.” This is an incredibly frightening attack on academic freedom. Johnson is calling for trustees to purge thousands of education scholars from every college in the country for the thoughtcrime of agreeing with Ayers’ rather mild advocacy of small schools and liberatory education.
    I despise Ayers’ days with the Weather Underground, but we cannot punish professors for the politics of their past (or present). I’m not a fan of Ayers’ views on small schools and similar matters, but I hardly consider them harmful to education. Even if I did, academic freedom requires us all to defend the liberty of those we disagree with, even when we imagine their ideas are harming the country.
    We should all stand up against Johnson’s belief that trustees need to exercise “aggressive oversight” of the ideology of professors and ban controversial thinkers from academia.

    1. au contraire. Ayers political writings from 36 years ago are his academic merit. They are his “badge” of honor he wears night and day. The same stuff he spouted off 36 years ago he spouted off night and day in academia. They are one and the same.

      So the Board of Trustees can hold his feet to the fire about what is in print. Professors in academia should be held to account for what is in print. They wrote it. If you write it then defend it. Own up to it. Except that Ayers will only own up to some of his writings. When it is convenient. Then dismiss he wrote some of his writings when it is not. His pathology is stunning.

      Ayers was convicted of numerous crimes. Served his time. Some say he should still be in jail for them. I am one of them. That is opinion. But Robert Kennedy’s son is not voicing an opinion when he points to Ayers writing about his father’s murderer, Sirhan-Sirhan. He is pointing to academic fact. And academic fact in the writings of Ayers is the reason, and a good one, he was denied emeritus status at U of Chicago.

      I for one am thrilled Ayers was denied the status. For too long Ayers has been able to expound on his murderous drivel at U of Chicago and other speaking engagements no doubt telling young impressionable minds that murderers like Sirhan are just “political prisoners” owing their incarceration to big corrupt government instead of murdering a sitting senator.

      This kind of obfuscation and out right lying is incitement to violence as Ayers says he would do again if given the perfect storm (July 1-3, interview, The Kelly File). So how many young impressionable minds were incited to bomb, kill and/or maim by Ayers lectures?

      NO. Ayers should never have been allowed to teach on any college campus. He should have been shown the door marked “Out” at every interview. But, academia is showing itself, particularly at U of Chicago to be tolerant of murder. That is the disturbing part of the story that he would even be allowed to be a professor and even be nominated for such a prestigious award he deserved none of it.

      I am thrilled he was denied. Denied. Denied. Denied. He finally got his comeuppance. Long over due. I am thrilled he no longer has access to young minds at U of Chicago. To incite them to hate and violence. What an immoral man who admits he would do it again under certain circumstances.

      Academia needs an overhaul if they are going to allow the type of men like Ayers to teach around young minds. It’s time to clean campus at U of Chicago again if people believe Ayers is one of the “good guys.” Nothing could be farther from the truth about this diabolical man. He hasn’t changed one bit. Is not sorry for anything. Would do it again.

      Parents beware of sending your sons and daughters to any institute of higher learning where professors like Ayers are lurking to teach your children hate and violence in the name of some obsessed need to get attention for their causes.

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