The Spectacle Blog

The Fresh Purge of Bill Ayers

By on 10.20.08 | 4:27PM

Bill Ayers won't be speaking at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln after all. Here's an email sent out by the chancellor to the faculty (sorry for the length -- the "after the jump" links aren't active yet). The basic point is that "reasonable people can disagree about Ayers" (yeah, okay), but note what Chancellor Perlman feels is unacceptable. It's not Ayers's terrorist past, but instead the (justifiable) outrage that would make the appearance into a "three-ring circus." You see, becoming a professor and doing community service is actually a sufficient means by which terrorists should bypass prosecution. I've added some comments amidst the email to clarify the contents.

From: All UNL faculty and staff [mailto:UNLFACSTAFF@listserv.unl.edu] On Behalf Of UNL Announcements
Sent: Monday, October 20, 2008 10:30 AM
To: UNLFACSTAFF@listserv.unl.edu
Subject: From Chancellor Perlman re Ayers cancellation

I regret that during the controversy regarding William Ayers' visit to campus, I was in China and thus largely absent from the discussion. I am this morning meeting with the media.

I believe the controversy about Bill Ayers visiting this campus was heightened by a confluence of events which no one really could influence or predict. In February of this year, the College of Education and Human Sciences selected a speaker for its annual student research conference. The topic was "qualitative methodology" and the committee eventually decided to invite William Ayers, a nationally recognized scholar in the field. In the 1960s Ayers engaged in violent acts in protest of the Vietnam War, for a while was a fugitive from justice, and eventually turned himself in. Prosecution of Ayers for these crimes was unsuccessful.

BOOM BOOM!!! BANG!!! BOOOM!!!

This year the research conference featuring Ayers coincided with a weekend in which the college also scheduled some significant events in its celebration of its centennial. Since the college expected alumni to be visiting the college, they were also invited to the conference, although the signature event for the centennial celebration was a dinner at which Ayers was to play no role.

Although Ayers' selection was widely known in the college for some time, it came to the public's attention only a few days ago in the midst of him having become a central figure in a bitterly contested presidential election. Given the national focus on his past and the appearance that his visit to Lincoln was related to the election, many people in Nebraska were furious. Although I do not agree with this reaction, I can understand it and the concerns expressed. Given Ayers' background, reasonable people could regard him with disgust, yet our traditions permit individuals to speak, even if their backgrounds or ideas are objectionable. Nebraskans care deeply about their university. We cannot have a great university if the selection of speakers, faculty, curriculum, or activities is governed by the passions of the moment or even the views of the majority.

Indeed. Academic freedom means insularity from the people who fund the university. However, the rest of us shouldn't bat an eye at the acts of lunatics who prefer violence over passive resistance. BOOM! KABLOOIE!

I want to emphasize one point as strongly as I can. I do not think the selection of Ayers to come to Lincoln to address a student research conference on research methodology was in any way inappropriate. He is an acknowledged scholar, a tenured faculty member at the University of Illinois Chicago, and a high ranking officer in the association dealing with this type of research. He was named "Chicago Citizen of the Year" in 1996 and has worked tirelessly to improve the Chicago public schools. Ayers has spoken at more than 70 universities, including Iowa State, North Dakota State, Indiana, Purdue, the University of Missouri, and Michigan State. In the final accounting of his life, there will be very negative entries for his conduct 40 years ago and there will be more current positive entries as well.

[Insert Michael Bay-esque explosion sequence]

Much is made of the "fact" that he has not repented for his acts of violence. The evidence of whether he has expressly done so is uncertain, which could lead reasonable people to think he had not. It is clear that he currently leads a responsible life, one apparently devoted to improving the lives of school children in Illinois and in the nation. Repentance can come by deeds as well as by words.

Wouldn't you know it, Chancellor Perlman is a priest and a judge. Our society clearly overlooked self-rehabilitation as an option in dealing with criminal punishment. Doesn't that make us the real terrorists?

The outrage by many Nebraskans was understandable but I think unfortunate to the extent it led them to seek to prevent him from coming. Most alarming, however, were some responses that were threatening to the security of the campus. As many of you know, we have faculty on this campus who specialize in assessing the level of threat in any situation and they informed me by e-mail in China that the tone and tenor of the e-mails, the phone calls, and the blogs, suggested that the reaction to any Ayers' visit would represent a significant threat to the safety of the campus. Moreover, it could create an environment that would prohibit the University from taking advantage of his expertise. The student research conference would turn into a three-ring circus. After consultation between Barbara Couture, myself and Dean Kostelnik, it was decided to cancel his visit. There are some who are skeptical of this explanation for the cancellation and believe we were ordered by the Board of Regents or President Milliken to cancel the visit. I can assure you that we were not ordered to cancel the event and that I would resign before following such an order. 

Apparently, Chancellor Perlman was unable to say "no" to Ayers's visit because he couldn't participate in the discussions while in China. However, he was able to pay attention to the warnings of faculty while there. Interesting. Oh, and BOOOOOM!!!

I find it difficult to accept that the actions of a few individuals can deprive this university of its right to select speakers who can contribute to the education of our students. Nonetheless I take seriously the responsibility I have for the safety of members of this community, particularly the students. It seemed cancellation was the most responsible action.

This university has always been able to invite and to host controversial speakers from all walks of life and all matters of persuasion. It is unnerving that the apparent escalating passion and violence of recent years makes the exercise of our traditional values more difficult. Once these events came together, there appeared to be no good alternative available. I hope you will understand. I am convinced this was an unusual circumstance, one unlikely to repeat itself. I am a strong believer in our students' and faculty's right to determine for themselves who should be invited to campus to speak. But I also have a responsibility for the safety of this campus. Once these events came together, there appeared to be no good alternative available. I hope you will understand.

In other words, Perlman is bowing to public pressure, but hiding behind the faculty's claim of it being unsafe to host him to maintain his university's "academic freedom" street cred. "We didn't want to cancel him, but you forced us to." I'll be calling around the faculty to find out whether it was truly the case that he was warned by professors of the threat level. I do think it's ludicrous, however, that he's essentially accusing those who dislike former bombers of being potential bombers/violence-wagers themselves.

Kaboom.

UPDATE: Upon re-reading, there's something, well, ironic in the fact that Chancellor Perlman pays more attention to the defense of a "rehabilitated" terrorist than he does to grammar when making "Ayers" possessive.

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