University of Illinois at Chicago Faculty Debates Bill Ayers' Request
for Professor Emeritus Status
06 Oct 2010
Chicago - Bill Ayers, the former Weather Underground radical, is at
the center of an academic storm over whether he should receive an
honorific at the University of Illinois at Chicago, The Wall Street
Journal reported Tuesday.
The board of trustees voted last month to deny recently-retired Ayers
professor emeritus status after its chairman, Christopher Kennedy,
argued that the title should not go to a man who was co-author of a
book dedicated to about 150 political figures -- including the man
who assassinated his father, Robert F. Kennedy.
The rejection set off a lively debate across the state and reopened
40-year-old wounds. This week, faculty members will begin formally
debating whether to ask the board of trustees to reconsider the vote.
The rejection has drawn support in hundreds of messages to the
university and newspapers.
"I must ultimately vote with my conscience," Christopher Kennedy said
in his remarks to the board before the vote Sept. 23. "And I would
ask anyone who challenges my judgment, how could I do anything else?"
In June 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was shot three times and killed by
Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant, shortly after the politician
had won the Democratic presidential primary in California.
In 1974, Ayers was co-author of a book called "Prairie Fire," along
with a handful of other members of the Weather Underground. The book
"is dedicated to communist-minded people, independent organizers and
anti-imperialists." Sirhan was one among those named.
"There can be no place in democracy to celebrate political
assassinations or to honor those who do so," Christopher Kennedy said
in his remarks.
The board unanimously rejected the honorific, and a UIC spokesman
said he did not know of any other professors who had been denied the
title in the past.
"Professor Ayers is obviously a very polarizing figure," said Philip
Patston, chairman of the university's faculty representation
committee. "There are many different ways to look at this and the
public relations aspect of this are interesting."
Another professor, Elliot Kaufman, was less circumspect, saying
Christopher Kennedy "should have recused himself from the issue. He
tried not to make it terribly personal but come on, it was a personal
issue for him ... he had a conflict of interest and his statement, I
thought, influenced the other board members. I didn't think the
process was right."
Board proves true to its trust
October 10, 2010
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- It finally happened. A board of trustees at a
state university has acted as if it had a moral trust to guard, not
just fundraising to do. That's the remarkable news out of the
University of Illinois, where the board is chaired by Christopher
Kennedy, son of the late Robert F. Kennedy. His father, the
charismatic U.S. senator, brother of John F. Kennedy, and the
Democratic Party's rising hope, was cut down in his hour of triumph
--June 5, 1968 -- after just having won a key presidential primary in
It was a year of assassinations, and of tumult and violence in
general: The greatest of American civil-rights leaders, Martin Luther
King Jr., had been killed only a couple of months before, a
demoralized president had decided not to seek re-election that year,
the country was bitterly divided over the war in Vietnam, mass
demonstrations and mutual recriminations dominated the news, and now
a leading presidential candidate had been murdered. Quite a year.
And, to think, some look back on the anarchic Sixties fondly.
Robert F. Kennedy's killer, a fanatic named Sirhan Sirhan, still
resides at Pleasant Valley State Prison in California. Permanently,
one hopes, in lieu of the death penalty he received but that was
never carried out. (The state of California would rule capital
William Ayers, the once-prominent terrorist who now leads a second
and quieter life as a professor at the University of Illinois,
dedicated a book to this same Sirhan Sirhan in 1974. A co-founder of
the Weather Underground, the professor would go on to have it both
ways -- describing himself a kind of freedom fighter while denying
that he was ever into violence. It's debatable which claim is the more dubious.
But the professor's rise in academe has been undeniable. He found his
niche at the university in education, of course, one of the more
nebulous academic specialties. After a long and well-paid career, he
was due for routine promotion to professor emeritus on his retirement.
But as luck (or maybe justice) would have it, Christopher Kennedy
turned up on the university's board of trustees and noticed that it
was about to honor the professor who'd dedicated a book to his
father's assassin. And blew the whistle. The whole board backed him
up by turning down Bill Ayers' designation as professor emeritus, a
title that hasn't been taken this seriously in years.
Emeritus status for the old terrorist (who now modestly declines that
title) is now up in the air as the university's faculty decides
whether to join ranks behind its distinguished if slightly bloody colleague.
You have to wonder if anybody would have objected to this mockery of
higher education, and justice, if a Kennedy hadn't happened to be
chairman of the university's board of trustees. In a better world,
the whole faculty would have risen in protest at the very idea of
honoring such a man. Instead it may rise to his defense.
Not just the faculty should have protested this sham. What about the
students? Or just citizens in general? Don't we all have an interest
in education? And in civil discourse? And what could endanger it so
directly as deciding that the best way to answer an opponent is to
shoot him down? Yet here is a professor of "education" who dedicates
a work to someone who conducts political dialogue with a .22-caliber
Iver Johnson. And no one protests -- not till the matter gets to the
board of trustees. Let's be thankful for that much. It's about time
somebody noticed how low the standards of "higher" education can be.
These days the man who helped found an outfit he once described as
"an American Red Army," now says it was guilty only of "symbolic acts
of extreme vandalism." The Weathermen, the talented Mr. Ayers
explains, were guilty only of "attacks on property, never on people.
. . . it was not terrorism; we were not engaged in a campaign to kill
and injure people indiscriminately, spreading fear and suffering for
Really? He could have fooled me. In his heyday back in 1969 Chicago,
aka the Days of Rage, his comrades attacked police and civilian
targets alike. Even if they had been choosier in selecting their
victims, is Mr. Ayers contending it's OK to kill and injure people
The rhetorical distance between Bill Ayers' old memoir, "Fugitive
Days," and the mild persona he now adopts on the op-ed page of the
New York Times is impressive mainly for its chutzpah. For in his
memoir, which might as well have been a confession in full, he wrote
proudly of having "participated in the bombings of New York City
Police Headquarters in 1970, of the Capitol building in 1971, and the
Pentagon in 1972."
Of the day he bombed the Pentagon, Bill Ayers recalled: "Everything
was absolutely ideal. . . . The sky was blue. The birds were singing.
And the bastards were finally going to get what was coming to them."
There's a lot more of that kind of thing in his literary works:
"There's something about a good bomb. ... Night after night, day
after day, each majestic scene I witnessed was so terrible and so
unexpected that no city would ever again stand innocently fixed in my
mind. Big buildings and wide streets, cement and steel were no longer
permanent. They, too, were fragile and destructible. A torch, a bomb,
a strong enough wind, and they, too, would come undone or get knocked
down." The closest the man can come to poetry, evidently, is to dream
Mr. Ayers once defended his terrorist past in an interview that
appeared, with perfect timing, in an interview in the Times published
on the fateful morning of September 11, 2001. The events of that day
took some of the shine off his remarks. Or were those terrorists just
practicing "symbolic acts of extreme vandalism," too?
Lest we forget, people were killed during the Weathermen's reign of
terror, notably three Weathermen -- including Mr. Ayers'
then-girlfriend Diana Oughton. They blew themselves up accidentally
in their Greenwich Village townhouse while preparing a bomb that had
been intended for an Army dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey.
Just because terrorism is incompetent doesn't make it any the less
terrorism. Or as a more honest Bill Ayers once admitted, that bomb
could have done a lot more damage if it hadn't killed the terrorists
themselves, "tearing through windows and walls and, yes, people,
too." Instead, it tore through the terrorists. There is a raw justice
in these matters.
But the greatest violence Bill Ayers has done, and continues to do,
is to the language. He now presents a campaign of terror as just
vandalism, and his old speeches as just a lot of posturing. ("Kill
all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the
revolution home, kill your parents, that's where it's really at.")
Today, thanks to his remarkable forgettery, he can't even remember
saying such things. And he was politic enough to downplay his
friendship with another Chicagoan, Barack Obama, once the
presidential campaign of 2008 took off.
Bill Ayers may be willing to twist the simple meaning of words, but
he can't seem to admit their power, and take responsibility for the
effect his own might have had on impressionable young minds. He might
have been well forgotten by now, and left free to twist history at
his leisure in public appearances as a professor emeritus, if only a
university's board of trustees hadn't proven true to its trust.
Paul Greenberg, a Shreveport native, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning
editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at Little
Rock. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.