Doublespeak at the University of Wyoming
By WILLIAM AYERS
April 7, 2010
On March 30, 2010, officials at the University of Wyoming, citing
"security threats" and "controversy," canceled two talks I was
invited to give in early April, one a public lecture entitled "Trudge
Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action," and the other,
a talk to faculty and graduate students called "Teaching and Research
in the Public Interest: Solidarity and Identity." I'd been invited in
August, 2009, but one week before I was to travel to Laramie, I was
told I had been "disinvited."
In February, as the University began to publicize my scheduled visit,
a campaign to rescind the invitation was initiated on right-wing
blogs, accelerating quickly to a wider space where a demonizing and
dishonest narrative dominated all discussion. A wave of hateful
messages and death threats hit the University, and was joined soon
enough by a few political leaders and wealthy donors instructing
officials in ominous tones to cancel my visit to the campus. On March
28 an administrator wrote to tell me that the University was
receiving vicious e-mails and threatening letters, as well as
promises of physical disruption were I to show up. This is becoming
drearily familiar to me, as I'll explain.
A particularly despicable note from Frank Smith who lives in Cheyenne
and is active in the Wyoming Patriot Alliance, said, "Maybe someone
could take him out and show him the Matthew Sheppard (sic)
Commerative (sic) Fence and he could bless it or something." He was
referring to Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was tortured and
murdered in 1998, left to die tied to a storm fence outside Laramie.
Republican candidate for Governor Ron Micheli released a letter he'd
sent to all members of the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees
asking them to rescind the invitation. Matt Mead, another
gubernatorial candidate, said through a press release that while he
is a self-described "fervent believer in free speech and the free
exchange of ideas," that still allowing me to speak would be
"reprehensible." He concluded that I should have "no place lecturing
I sympathized with the University, and told the folks I was in touch
with how sorry I was that all of this was happening to them. I also
said that I thought it was a bit of a tempest in a tea pot, and that
it would surely pass. Certainly no matter what a couple of thugs
threatened to do, I said, I thought that Wyoming law enforcement
could get me to the podium, and I would handle myself from there, as
I do elsewhere. I said I thought we should stand together and refuse
to accede to these kinds of pressures to demonize someone and
suppress students' right to freely engage in open dialogue. After all
a public university is not the personal fiefdom or the political
clubhouse of the governor, and donors are not permitted to call the
shots when it comes to the content or conduct of academic matters. We
should not allow ourselves to collapse in fear if a small mob gathers
with torches at the gates. I wouldn't force myself on the University,
of course, but I felt that canceling would be terribly unfair to the
faculty and students who had invited me, and would send a big message
that bullying works. It would be another step down the slippery slope
of giving up on the precious ideal of a free university in a free society.
No good. On March 30, 2010 the University posted an announcement of
the cancellation of my visit with a long and rambling comment from
President Tom Buchanan. He begins with the obligatory assertion that
academic freedom is a core principle of the University, but quickly
adds that "freedom requires a commensurate dose of responsibility."
We are charged to enact free speech and thought "in concert with
Nothing that I did or said in this matter was disrespectful or
irresponsible, and yet, in the absence of specific references,
readers are led to imagine all kinds of offenses.
The announcement is punctuated with a deep defensiveness: anyone who
thinks the University "caved in to external pressure," Buchanan
writes, would be "incorrect." Anticipating what any casual observer
would conclude, he builds a strained and somewhat desperate
counter-narrative. Buchanan pleads that UW is "one of the few
institutions remaining in today's environment that garners the
confidence of the public," and that a speech by me would somehow
undermine that confidence.
He concludes that "this episode illustrated an opportunity to hear
and critically evaluate a variety of ideas thoughtfully, through
open, reasoned, and civil debate, it also demonstrates that we must
be mindful of the real consequences our actions and decisions have on
others." That's some sentence, and while it's impossible to know
definitively what he's referring to as the "episode" (it might be the
public lecture itself, but then it could be the cancellation of the
lecture, or even the barbarians at the gates threatening to burn the
place down, or withhold funds, that would provide the opportunity to
critically evaluate matters). It has an unmistakable Orwellian ring:
we cancelled that lecture as an expression of our support for
lectures! And it's eerily similar to the classics: We destroyed that
village in order to save it! Work will make you free! War is peace!
One of the truly weird qualities of the Buchanan statement is a hole
in its center, the deafening silence concerning why the campaign
against me was organized in the first place. The reason is familiar
to me as noted: in the 1960's I was a leader of the militant anti-war
group, Students for a Democratic Society, and then a founder of the
Weather Underground, an organization that carried out dramatic
symbolic attacks against several monuments to war and racism, crossed
lines of legality, of propriety, and perhaps even of common sense.
And then during the 2008 presidential I was unwittingly and
unwillingly thrust upon the stage because I had known-like thousands
of others-Barack Obama in Chicago. The infamous charge that the
candidate was "pallin' around with terrorists," designed to injure
Obama, also demonized me. I've been an educator and professor for
decades, but the hard right has accelerated the lunacy against
thousands of folks- activists and artists, academics and theorists,
outspoken radical thinkers-and wherever possible mounted campaigns
exactly like the one in Wyoming. Often university officials stand up
on principle and resist the howling mob, as they did recently at St.
Mary's in California; sometimes-as at a student-run conference at the
University of Pittsburgh in March-they compromise, restricting access
to talks and surrounding a speaker with unwanted and unnecessary
police protection; sometimes, as in this case, the university turns
and runs. It's a sad sight.
Of course I wasn't invited to speak about any of this, and it's
unlikely any of it would have come up without the active campaigning
and noisy thunder from the relatively tiny group that is the ultra-right.
I would have focused my talk on the unique characteristics of
education in a democracy, an enterprise that rests on the twin
pillars of enlightenment and liberation, knowledge and human freedom.
Education engages dynamic questions of morality and ethics, identity
and location, agency and action. We want to know more, to see more,
to experience more in order to do more-to be more competent and
powerful and capable in our projects and our pursuits, to be more
astute and aware and wide-awake, more fully engaged in the world that
we inherit, the world we are simultaneously destined to change.
To deny students the right to question the circumstances of their
lives, and to wonder how they might be otherwise, is to deny democracy itself.
It's reasonable to assume that education in a democracy is distinct
from education under a dictatorship or a monarchy; surely school
leaders in fascist Germany or Albania or Saudi Arabia or apartheid
South Africa all agreed, for example, that students should behave
well, stay away from drugs and crime, do their homework, study hard,
and master the subject matters; they also graduated fine scientists
and musicians and athletes, so none of those things differentiate a
democratic education from any other.
What makes education in a democracy, at least theoretically, distinct
is a commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal: every
human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a unique
intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and creative force.
Every human being is born free and equal in dignity and rights; each
is endowed with reason and conscience, and deserves, then, a sense of
solidarity, brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect.
Democracy is geared toward participation and engagement, and that
points to an educational system in which the fullest development of
all is seen as the necessary condition for the full development of
each, and conversely, that the fullest development of each is
necessary for the full development of all.
In a vibrant and participatory democracy, we might conclude that
whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their
children is precisely the baseline and standard for what the wider
community wants for all of its children. If children of privilege get
to have small classes, abundant resources, and a curriculum based on
opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue
answers to the furthest limit, if the Obama kids, for example, attend
such a school, one where they also find a respected and unionized
teacher corps, shouldn't that be good enough for the kids in public
schools everywhere? Any other ideal for our schools, in John Dewey's
words, "is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy."
We want our students to be able to think for themselves, to make
judgments based on evidence and argument, to develop minds of their
own. We want them to ask fundamental questions-who in the world am I?
How did I get here and where am I going? What in the world are my
choices? How in the world shall I proceed?-and to pursue answers
wherever they might take them. Our efforts focus not on the
production of things so much as on the production of fully developed
human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their
own lives, citizens who can participate fully in civic life.
Teaching in a democracy encourages students to develop initiative and
imagination, the capacity to name the world, to identify the
obstacles to their full humanity, and the courage to act upon
whatever the known demands. Education in a democracy is always about
opening doors and opening minds as students forge their own pathways
into a wider world.
How do our schools at every level-K-16-measure up to the democratic ideal?
Much of what we call schooling forecloses or shuts down or walls off
meaningful choice-making. Much of it is based on obedience and
conformity, the hallmarks of every authoritarian regime. Much of it
banishes the unpopular, squirms in the presence of the unorthodox,
hides the unpleasant. There's no space for skepticism, irreverence,
or even doubt. While many long for an education that is transcendent
and powerful, we find ourselves too-often locked in situations that
reduce schooling to a kind of glorified clerking that passes along a
curriculum of received wisdom and predigested and often false bits of
information. This is a recipe for disaster in the long run.
Educators, students, and citizens must press for an education worthy
of a democracy, including an end to sorting people into winners and
losers through expensive standardized tests which act as
pseudo-scientific forms of surveillance; an end to starving public
schools-including public higher education-of needed resources and
then blaming teachers for dismal outcomes; and an end to the rapidly
accumulating "educational debt," the resources due to communities
historically segregated, under-funded and under-served. All children
and youth in a democracy, regardless of economic circumstance,
deserve full access to richly-resourced classrooms led by caring,
qualified and generously compensated teachers.
We might try now to create open spaces in our schools and our various
communities where we expect fresh and startling winds to blow,
unaccustomed winds that are sure to electrify and confound and
fascinate us. We begin by throwing open the windows. We declare that
in this corner of this place-in this open space we are constructing
together-people will begin to experience themselves as powerful
authors of their own narratives, actors in their own dramas, the
essential architects and creators of their own lives, participants in
a dynamic and inter-connected community-in-the-making. Here they will
discover a zillion ways to articulate their own desires and demands
and questions. Here everyone will live in search of rather than in
accordance with or in accommodation to. Here we will join one another
and our democratic futures can be born.
A primary job of teachers and scholars and journalists, and a
responsibility of all engaged citizens, is to challenge orthodoxy,
dogma, and mindless complacency, to be skeptical of all authoritative
claims, to interrogate and trouble the given and the
taken-for-granted. The growth of knowledge, insight, and
understanding depends on that kind of effort, and the inevitable
clash of ideas that follows must be nourished and not crushed.
As campuses contract and constrain, the main victims becomes truth,
honesty, integrity, curiosity, imagination, freedom itself. When
college campuses fall silent, other victims include the high school
history teacher on the west side of Chicago or in Laramie or
Cheyenne, the English literature teacher in Detroit, or the math
teacher in an Oakland middle school. They and countless others
immediately get the message: be careful what you say; stay close to
the official story; stick to the authorized text; keep quiet with
your head covered.
In Brecht's play Galileo the great astronomer set forth into a world
dominated by a mighty church and an authoritarian power: "The cities
are narrow and so are the brains," he declared recklessly.
Intoxicated with his own insights, Galileo found himself propelled
toward revolution. Not only did his radical discoveries about the
movement of the stars free them from the "crystal vault" that
received truth insistently claimed fastened them to the sky, but his
insights suggested something even more dangerous: that we, too, are
embarked on a great voyage, that we are free and without the easy
support that dogma provides. Here Galileo raised the stakes and
risked taking on the establishment in the realm of its own authority,
and it struck back fiercely. Forced to renounce his life's work under
the exquisite pressure of the Inquisition, he denounced what he knew
to be true, and was welcomed back into the church and the ranks of
the faithful, but exiled from humanity-by his own word. A former
student confronted him in the street then: "Many on all sides
followed you...believing that you stood, not only for a particular
view of the movement of the stars, but even more for the liberty of
teaching- in all fields. Not then for any particular thoughts, but
for the right to think at all. Which is in dispute."
This is surely in play today: the right to talk to whomever you
please, the right to read and wonder, the right to pursue an argument
into uncharted spaces, the right to challenge the state or the church
and its orthodoxy in the public square. The right to think at all.
This is some of what I would have discussed in Wyoming, but that will
not happen, at least not this week. Canceling this talk underlines
the urgency of having multiple and far-ranging speeches, dialogue,
and discussions at every level and throughout the public square.
[plus lots of comments!]
Lawsuit targets UW over blocked Ayers speeches
Denver attorney representing professor, student
BY TREVOR HUGHES
April 16, 2010
A University of Wyoming student on Thursday sued the university after
officials blocked controversial professor William Ayers from speaking
Ayers and student Meghan Lanker said UW violated their First
Amendment rights by cancelling two speeches and by blocking Ayers
from speaking on the Laramie campus April 28. An attorney for Lanker
and Ayers, Denver-based David Lane, said UW administrators cannot bar
Ayers simply because they don't like him.
Ayers, a distinguished professor of education and a senior university
scholar at the University of Illinois, Chicago, was a founding member
of Weather Underground, a radical antiwar organization that detonated
bombs at government facilities during the late 1960s and early 1970s,
including the Pentagon.
Ayers' initial invitation to speak was rescinded by organizers after
administrators urged them to reconsider. Lanker in the complaint said
she then tried to schedule a new on-campus venue but was told by
administrators that none would be available for Ayers.
University spokeswoman Jessica Lowell declined to comment on the suit.
In a statement made after Ayers' first appearance was canceled, UW
President Tom Buchanan said he was "satisfied" Ayers' initial
invitation had been rescinded.
"The University of Wyoming is one of the few institutions remaining
in today's environment that garners the confidence of the public. The
visit by Professor Ayers would have adversely impacted that
reputation," Buchanan said. "While this episode illustrated an
opportunity to hear and critically evaluate a variety of ideas
thoughtfully, through open, reasoned, and civil debate, it also
demonstrates that we must be mindful of the real consequences our
actions and decisions have on others."
Responded Lanker and Ayers in their complaint: "The First Amendment
requires that the university must allow the public forum to occur on
April 28, 2010, notwithstanding the likelihood that university
officials will disagree with Prof. Ayers' speech, notwithstanding the
possibility that some who hear his speech may be made uncomfortable
by it, and even assuming that some listeners may respond
inappropriately or disruptively. The First Amendment tolerates no
Ayers' lawyer threatens to sue the university
By AARON LeCLAIR
April 14, 2010
A Denver attorney has threatened to sue the University of Wyoming for
refusing to allow his client, University of Illinois-Chicago
professor William Ayers, to speak on campus at the request of a student.
Denver attorney David A. Lane sent an e-mail both to The Associated
Press and UW on Monday that says he will file a lawsuit against the
university for denying UW student Megan Lanker's request to have
Ayers speak at a venue on campus on April 28.
"Today, a student wanted permission to bring William Ayers to speak
at the University of Wyoming," the e-mail says. "Wyoming replied that
the campus was not open to Professor Ayers."
In an attachment to the e-mail, Lane warns UW he successfully
represented professor Ward Churchill against the University of
Colorado in a case involving First Amendment rights.
"It is my belief and that of every court which has heard similar
cases that your action is violative of the First Amendment to the
United States Constitution," he says. "You are prohibiting Mr. Ayers
from speaking in a public forum commonly used for such purposes and
you are preventing those interested members of the student body and
community at large from hearing his message based solely upon the
content of that message.
"As you undoubtedly know," Lane continues, "the government is not
permitted to censor free speech based upon its content."
Lane says he would proceed with filing a suit in U.S. District Court
of Wyoming if UW does not permit Ayers to speak on campus.
"I am confident that the court will rule for free speech and against
repression," he says.
Lane gives UW until noon today to respond.
Ayers is a former 1960s radical anti-war protestor and co-founder of
the Weather Underground.
Currently, he is a professor of social justice and education at UIC.
AYERS TO VISIT APRIL 28
Lanker said the pending lawsuit resulted from UW's reported refusal
of her request to allow Ayers to speak in the UniWyo Sports Complex.
The UniWyo Sports Complex is where former President Bill Clinton
spoke two years ago when he was campaigning for Hillary Rodham
Clinton as she was seeking the Democratic nomination for president.
Just 48 hours after the announcement March 30 of the cancellation of
Ayers' visit to UW, which had been sponsored by the Social Justice
Research Center, Lanker said she had raised more than $2,000 from
private citizens who wanted to bring him to Laramie.
Lanker said she also had found a student group the Secular Student
Alliance of Wyoming to sponsor Ayers' visit to UW on April 28.
However, the Secular Student Alliance "backed out" on Monday, Lanker said.
Since the Secular Student Alliance withdrew its sponsorship, Lanker
said she and several Laramie residents have been working on renting a
venue on campus for Ayers' public lecture.
"We found the UniWyo (Sports Complex) dome, where the girls practice
volleyball," she said. "I called to schedule it, and they told me it
Lanker said the scheduler, Athletics Financial Aid Coordinator Pam
Shuster, told her that she had to make some phone calls.
About 45 minutes later, Lanker said she received a phone call from UW
legal counsel Susan Weidel, who told her that the UniWyo Sports
Complex would not be available to rent for Ayers' public lecture.
"I asked her, 'What if I get another student organization to
sponsor,'" Lanker recalled. "She said, 'No.'"
Lanker said she offered to pay full price to rent the UniWyo Sports
Complex, but Weidel still refused and said the facility was unavailable.
Lanker said it seems UW doesn't want to host Ayers for who he is as a
person, not because they do not have available venues for him to speak.
Whatever happens with the lawsuit, Ayers is coming to Laramie, Lanker said.
"He is is going to come here on April 28 regardless," she said.
If UW refuses to allow Ayers to speak on campus, Lanker said she
would rent a private venue somewhere in Laramie with the $2,600 to
$3,000 she has raised.
"We're thinking of contacting the Unitarian churches and St. Paul
Newman's Center, that kind of thing," she said. "There's the
fairgrounds, there's Laramie Country Club … the Hilton Garden Inn …
that kind of stuff."
Ever since the news broke that UW had refused her request for Ayers
to speak on campus, Lanker said she has received e-mails from across
the state and country from people willing to donate money to bring
him to Laramie.
Ayers, however, will not be paid to speak by Lanker and her partners.
She said what she raises will be used to pay for advertising and for
renting a venue.
"The rest will be donated back to the community," she said.
Ayers was paid a $5,000 speaking fee by the Social Justice Research
Center for the public lecture that was cancelled on March 30,
according to the AP.
Lanker joked she would give Ayers a tour of campus, even though UW
has apparently refused to allow him to speak there.
"Take him on a tour where he's been banned," she said. "They can't
stop him from setting foot on campus."
Lawyer seeks injunction to allow Ayers speech.
A Denver lawyer for Vietnam-era radical William Ayers and University
of Wyoming student Meghan Lanker on Thursday filed a court request
for an injunction to override school officials' decision to cancel
Ayers' scheduled April 28 speech. The request claims a violation of
First Amendment rights.
Ayers was co-founder of the Weather Underground, a radical anti-war
group that claimed responsibility for several bombings. He is now an
education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
UW Student Files Federal Lawsuit Against University
"He's moved on. He's become a successful Professor of Education,
world renowned, Chicago Citizen of the Year in 1997..."
University of Wyoming student Meg Lanker chose 1960's radical William
Ayers to speak at her college not because of his violent anti-war
past, but because of his growth and turnaround into the University of
Illinois-Chicago professor he is today.
"We had raised private money and I offered to pay full price for the
venue as a community member...which was, according to the scheduler,
available from 7:00 to 9:00 p-m," said Lanker.
But Monday, Lanker got a phone call from the University Board saying
the college would not be available as a venue at all.
That's when she found Denver lawyer David Lane.
"I called him and he said, 'Are you willing to fight?' and I
said,'Yeah!' and I said, 'Should I book another venue?' and he said
'Only if you have no backbone.'"
"The University of Wyoming is sworn to preserve, protect and defend
the Constitution of the United States.," said Lane, Lanker and Ayers
lawyer handling the case. "Instead, they are violating the
Constitution by not allowing William Ayers to speak on campus because
they're offended by him."
Campus officials refuse to comment, but students are having no
problems sharing their opinions on what Lanker is calling "a lawsuit
to defend the First Amendment."
Multiple Facebook groups have been started in opposition to Lanker's
lawsuit with hundreds of members harassing her with profanities and
publicly humiliating her over the Internet.
"This facebook group that's out there, I don't think that they should
be shut down unless they start threatening me," she said, adding it's
just another example of what she stands for...freedom of speech.
"This is not me as a liberal wanting to bring a liberal in. This is
not me versus the conservatives. This is an issue of academic
freedom," said Lanker.
"If you disagree with Ayers, don't go to the speech," added Lane.
"Find someone who will make a counter speech. That's fine. That's
your First Amendment right."
Lane is confident a Federal Court hearing will be scheduled soon.
Debate over Ayers' scrubbed visit lingers at UW
April 7, 2010
LARAMIE A week after a University of Wyoming organization withdrew
an invitation to have 1960s-radical-turned-academic Bill Ayers visit
campus amid a firestorm of protest, emotions on both sides remain high.
At a campus panel discussion held Tuesday, the day after Ayers was
scheduled to give a lecture at the UW Education Auditorium, school
administrators, professors and community members said they were
startled at the backlash against his appearance. Many wondered how
the cancellation would affect academic freedom and future controversies at UW.
But opponents of Ayers' visit maintain that the decision to revoke
the invitation was the right one, given his radical past as the
co-founder of the domestic terrorist group the Weather Underground.
Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois at
Chicago, was invited to campus by the Social Justice Research Center
(SJRC) to give a lecture on education theory, then hold a
teleconference with Wyoming school principals. But after news of his
appearance spread late last month, UW administrators, professors and
officials were bombarded with e-mails and phone calls outraged that
the school would welcome someone with such a controversial past. Some
made unspecified threats of violence if Ayers came to campus.
SJRC Director Francisco Rios said he decided to withdraw Ayers'
invitation last week after being bombarded with protest e-mails and
phone messages. While he wasn't threatened personally, Rios said, he
worried that Ayers' visit would threaten campus safety.
"(It's) a decision that I'm sure I will question for the rest of my
professional life," he said.
UW Provost Myron Allen said the cancellation hurt the school's
invaluable reputation as a "neutral forum" for intellectual debate.
"Universities function best when their nonacademic constituencies
refrain from using the academy for battles that are best left for the
political arena," Allen said.
Allen specifically targeted those who threatened to cut off funding
to the university if Ayers showed up on campus, jeopardizing academic
programs that are unconnected to Ayers' visit.
"In my opinion, anybody who cares deeply about the state's future has
to question the sense of proportion that these critics have to
threaten major parts of the university on the basis of a two-day
visit by an outside scholar," he said.
Gregg Cawley, a political science professor at UW, wondered why
Ayers' planned visit brought so much criticism when other
controversial speakers, such as black power activist Angela Davis,
came to campus with hardly a peep in protest.
The difference, Cawley said, is that while Davis has faded from
public memory during the past 30 years, Ayers returned to the
headlines in 2008 for his ties to then-presidential-nominee Barack Obama.
Some audience members at the panel discussion said Ayers should be
brought to campus to rectify the error.
But Brian Profaizer, president of the University of Wyoming
conservatives, said that would be a bad idea.
"I think that bringing him back would just fan the flames," Profaizer
said. "Particularly to an unbalanced individual, I think that might
be something that would push somebody over the edge and maybe turn
those threats serious. If they go back on their word on what they've
done already, that would really stir up some very bad feelings in
Profaizer dismissed claims that canceling Ayers' visit was a blow
against free speech. Virtually no one questioned Ayers' right to
speak, or even opposed the topic of his lecture. What people did
oppose, he said, was the message that UW would have given by allowing
a figure such as Ayers to appear on campus.
Canceling Ayers' visit, Profaizer said, was a victory for democracy,
as the voice of Wyoming residents triumphed.
"They should be really proud that they're doing what the whole basis
of America is: the people govern," he said.
Ayers himself came to the opposite conclusion.
"We want to know more, to see more, to experience more in order to do
more to be more competent and powerful and capable in our projects
and our pursuits, to be more astute and aware and wide-awake, more
fully engaged in the world that we inherit, the world we are
simultaneously destined to change," he said in a prepared statement.
"To deny students the right to question the circumstances of their
lives, and to wonder how they might be otherwise, is to deny democracy itself."
Rios said he intends to remain at UW, despite calls by some for him to resign.
The SJRC, founded in 2008 and funded through an anonymous endowment,
will hold its 14th annual Shepard Symposium on Social Justice today,
Thursday and Friday. Named after Matthew Shepard, a gay UW student
murdered in 1998, the symposium's keynote speaker is eco-activist
"I used to be fearful that nobody would know about the Social Justice
Research Center," Rios said Tuesday. "But I think everybody knows
about it now."
Contact Jeremy Pelzer at email@example.com or 307-632-1244.
Threats resulted in cancellation
By AARON LeCLAIR
April 07, 2010
Threats of violence were the main reasons why a University of Wyoming
professor said he cancelled a public lecture featuring William Ayers,
a former radical anti-war protestor who is now a professor of social
justice and education.
Francisco Rios, head of the UW Educational Studies Department and
director of the Social Justice Research Center (SJRC), was one of
four panelists who spoke about the events surrounding the Ayers
public lecture that had been scheduled for Monday but was cancelled March 31.
The panel also included UW Provost Myron Allen (who stood by his
statement on March 26 that a university should always welcome new
ideas and controversial points of view), elementary and early
childhood associate professor Steve Bailostok and political science
professor Greg Cawley.
The reason for the panel discussion was to talk about the invitation
from the University of Wyoming to have Ayers visit. Ayers, 65, is a
tenured professor at the University of Chicago at Illinois (UIC) and
was co-founder in 1969 of the Weather Underground.
A radical anti-war activist group, the Weather Underground conducted
a series of bombings of government buildings, police stations and
banks in the early to mid-1970s that killed no one.
Since his radical days, Ayers has become a leader in education reform
theory. He has written extensively on urban educational reform,
narrative and interpretive research, children in trouble with the law
and social justice in education.
Ayers had been scheduled to speak Monday in the College of Education
Auditorium. His public lecture would have focused on the importance
of caring, compassionate teaching and how education differs in a
democracy as opposed to other social arrangements.
In addition, Ayers was to have participated in a teleconference with
Wyoming high school principals on Tuesday in which participation was optional.
Rios said the SJRC's invitation to Ayers was no different than its
invitation to other educators who are experts and leaders in their
respective fields of social justice research.
"I came to UW 10 years ago. In that time, one of the tasks I've taken
on is bringing to campus a variety of experts with national and
international reputations in an effort to sustain and advance the
conversation about diversity, cultural linguistics and pursuit of
social justice," Rios said. "These weren't always without controversy."
Rios said the SJRC's criteria for a qualified speaker include a
scholar who writes about social justice in an academic discipline, is
active and highly respected in their field and has completed some
academic work, usually in the form of a book or collection of scholarly papers.
As far as the charges that the SJRC kept Ayers' invitation secret
until the final week, Rios said the public lecture had been scheduled
for months without any form of protest from the public.
Then, on March 26, Rios said the SJRC began receiving dozens of
e-mails and phone calls from people who were vehemently opposed to
Rios admitted the animosity in the e-mails and phone messages shocked him.
"While I was expecting some people to reject his visit," Rios said,
"we were absolutely surprised at the number of people expressing
objections and the intensity of their objections."
While a "small handful" of people sent e-mails or left phone messages
to ask questions about Ayers' public lecture, the majority were
hostile attacks, Rios said.
"Almost everyone used the word 'terrorist,'" he recalled. "They also
included references to Hitler, al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, Charles
Manson and (Lynette) Squeaky Fromme. It was incredible."
In the e-mails and phone messages, Rios said people attacked him
personally, as well as the dean of the College of Education, the
board of trustees and UW President Tom Buchanan.
"They were difficult to read and to listen to," Rios admitted.
With the public debate spinning out of control, Rios said he realized
Ayers' visit had turned into something other than being about social
justice in education.
"I soon realized that this talk was no longer about social inequality
in schooling," he said. "I began to fear that an intellectual
exchange … and a constructive dialogue undertaken in a climate of
respect would not be possible."
Rios said the threats of violence he and the SJRC had received
presented a danger to the UW Lab School students, who would have been
in the building rehearsing for a performance at the same time as
Ayers' public lecture in the auditorium.
One audience member, UW Veterinary Science professor Donal O'Toole,
said the threats had included the bombing of the College of Education building.
"I felt that putting them in harm's way was too much to ask," Rios said.
The atmosphere was so heated Rios said UW Police Chief Troy Lane had
told him they had ordered bomb-sniffing dogs to be in the College of
Education Auditorium before and during Ayers' public lecture.
In addition, the Office of Homeland Security had been contacted due
to the threats of violence, Rios said.
"At this point, I knew things had gotten out of hand," he said. "I
made the decision to cancel this event, one of the most difficult
decisions I have ever made … as an educational professional."
In hindsight, Rios said there needs to be a broader discussion about
what it means to be a university, the concept of the freedom of
speech and how UW will respond in the future to hate and threats of violence.
"We need to be clear about what we are and what we are not about," he
said. "Questions abound."
Moreover, Rios called for a discussion on how the divisiveness and
hatred that has shaped politics on the national level particularly
the health care reform debate had seemed to erupt in Laramie with
the announcement of Ayers' visit.
"How is the current mood of the mostly conservative groups of the
country, especially … over the health care debate a reflection of
what occurred when some folks heard about Dr. Ayers' invitation to
the UW campus?" he said. "And, how does what occurred here impact the
mood of the country?"
Allen, meanwhile, said Ayers was not the first public figure with a
controversial past to have been invited to UW to speak.
He recounted there wasn't much opposition to Angela Davis, who was
invited to UW to speak during the Martin Luther King Jr. Days of
Dialogue in 2006.
Davis is known for having been arrested and tried as an accomplice in
the murder of a Marin County (Calif.) Superior Court judge in 1970.
She was acquitted two years later.
Allen also noted there was little opposition to Salman Rushdie being
invited to speak at UW, even though he is a controversial figure who
once had a fatwa issued on him by the Supreme Leader of Iran for the
novel "The Satanic Verses."
One of the lessons Allen said he and others have learned is a
university should be a place for the free exchange of ideas, not to
be used as a stage for political or ideological battles.
"A university is a poor stage for political theater," he said.
"Institutions of higher learning should be centers for the
examination and creation of ideas. Polemic and, frankly, partisan
rhetoric belong elsewhere."
In addition, Allen said people should not hold an entire university
accountable for the actions of one department in this case which
is a privately endowed center.
"The second lesson that I've learned is that it's a sad fact that
some of the very people who can't restrain themselves from using the
(university) for these battles would be willing to harm the entire
university as retribution for a single academic unit's perceived
affront to their political sensibilities," he said. "There were
messages from external constituents that included veiled comments
implicating campus safety and explicit threats to the university's budget.
"The vitriol of these critics entered critically into the calculus
that led to the cancellation of the visit," Allen added.
Allen said he was fearful the events that surrounded and resulted in
the cancellation of Ayers' visit "set back any claim that Wyoming
might have to serve as a national exemplar" of freedom and equality.
"We ought to be stronger in our beliefs," he said, "than to feel like
a visitor coming to talk is a threat to our way of life or to our principles."
About 100 people gathered in the Union Ballroom on Tuesday to listen
to the panel discussion. The group included UW students, faculty and
staff, as well as Laramie-area residents.
The event's organizer, Angela Jaime, an assistant professor in the UW
Educational Studies Department, said she was happy so many people
turned out for the panel discussion.
At the same time, however, she said she was disappointed it appeared
that no one who had opposed Ayers' public lecture had shown up for the event.
"I think that we had an incredible turnout," she said. "(However) I
think it was the choir that we were talking to."
Aaron LeClair's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org