In Defense of Ayers

A group of professors sign a petition supporting William Ayers, the former antiwar activist and Illinois-Chicago faculty member who has been thrust into the presidential campaign.
October 14, 2008

William Ayers has been trashed by conservative pundits and labeled “an unrepentant domestic terrorist” by Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, but the University of Illinois at Chicago professor has garnered the support of a growing number of peers who admire his scholarship and see the attacks on him as an affront to academic freedom.

Ayers, who helped found a Vietnam-era protest group that was blamed for bombing government buildings, has been a faculty member at Illinois-Chicago since 1987. In a statement signed by faculty members across the country, professors have spoken out against “the demonization” of Ayers, whose alleged ties to the Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama have made headlines.

“It’s true that Professor Ayers participated passionately in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, as did hundreds of thousands of Americans,” reads the statement, which was posted on “His participation in political activity 40 years ago is history; what is most relevant now is his continued engagement in progressive causes, and his exemplary contribution -- including publishing 16 books -- to the field of education.”

The letter is described on the Web site as an outlet for educators looking for a forum to express solidarity with Ayers, noting that its contents could be used in advertisements or press releases in the future.

Bill Schubert, a professor of education at Illinois-Chicago, said he signed the letter to show support for his longtime colleague and friend.

“I certainly support him in the sense that I think he’s an outstanding faculty member and a good colleague,” Schubert said. “I’m very disheartened by any discrediting kind of material in the news.”

The letter, which had been signed by more than 3,000 educators as of Monday, does not specifically mention the most severe allegations from Ayers’ past. The Weather Underground, which Ayers helped to found, planned a series of bombings -- mostly aimed at property damage -- that took aim, among other sites, at the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol. While deaths were attributed to the group, Ayers was never accused of killing anyone. Federal riot and bombing conspiracy charges were brought against Ayers, but the charges were dropped in 1974 because of prosecutorial misconduct.

Faculty members interviewed for this article stressed that Ayers has emerged as a prominent scholar in the field of education, and they say Ayers’s past is viewed by his colleagues as irrelevant to his current work. Active in faculty governance as well as research, Ayers was recently elected to represent his department on the Illinois-Chicago Faculty Senate for the next three years. He is described by many as a personable professor, known to invite his classes over for dinner at his home.

It’s unclear who began the Web site supporting Ayers. Faculty said they received links to the letter in widely circulated e-mails as early as a month ago, but those who spoke to Inside Higher Ed said they were unsure of where it started. A domain registry search gave no mention of the site’s originator.

The statement lumps the attacks against Ayers into a broader history of “assaults designed to intimidate free thinking and stifle critical dialogue” in all levels of education. The letter specifically cites events at the University of Colorado at Boulder as part of the problematic pattern.

Ward Churchill, a former professor at Colorado whose writings on 9/11 caused enormous controversy, was fired in 2007 amid charges of academic misconduct. Churchill’s case has been cited by many as an abridgement of academic freedom, although even some of his early supporters were troubled by the allegations of plagiarism and other misconduct that surfaced after his writings came under scrutiny.

In an interview Monday, Churchill said he sees parallels with his own case and the way Ayers has been depicted in the news media. Churchill, a fellow Vietnam protester who says he met Ayers “back in the day,” is among those who signed the letter supporting Ayers. Ayers, who has written about his days in the Weather Underground in a memoir and published papers, is being wrongfully persecuted for his political positions, Churchill said.

“This whole thing about checking whether people are crossing lines in an academic context is absolute insanity,” Churchill said. “You’re allowed to profess if you’re a professor.”

While Ayers is a continual proponent of “social justice,” he has not used his classroom as a pulpit from which to discuss his days as a ‘60s radical, according to two students who took classes under him.

“It really was less about him, and that’s another refreshing thing,” said Sofia Kokkino, who took a course in graduate school with Ayers. “He’s not a megalomaniac who wanted to talk about himself.”

Kokkino, who says Ayers invited her class to his house and cooked pasta for them, first met Ayers when she was a high school student doing community service in the juvenile justice system. Ayers was doing research for what would become his book, A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court.

“I think I became more aware of [his Weather Underground days] when I was getting my master’s,” said Kokkino, who now teaches at a Chicago elementary school. “It didn’t affect me at all. I knew him as part of Chicago and part of the community.”

Asif Wilson, who took a multicultural education course Ayers taught in 2006, said Ayers’s past “wasn’t brought up one bit in the course.”

“I feel like Bill really stressed the importance of not judging a book by its cover, and to treat every child we teach as equal, and to really strive for social justice amongst students,” said Wilson, who now teaches fifth and sixth graders in Chicago.

The support among professors for Ayers is sure only to fuel conservative criticism of academe as a bastion of liberalism.

Margaret LeCompte, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said she anticipates continued criticism of academe to come from people like David Horowitz. Horowitz is a conservative activist whose book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, derides liberal faculty.

“I’m sure that all 3,000 of those [who signed the Ayers letter] could be put on the hit list as more ‘dangerous professors,’ and David Horowitz could have a lot of fun with that,” LeCompte said. “But the people who want to think there’s a conspiracy to put more academics in higher education are going to continue to believe that.”

In addition to Churchill, the letter is signed by at least one other target of conservative criticism, Rashid Khalidi. Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, has drawn critics for his support of Palestinian causes and criticism of Israel. The professor, whose ties to Obama have been a source of scrutiny, declined an interview request, and said in an e-mail that he is declining all such requests until after the election.

It is perhaps not surprising that Ayers and Khalidi find supporters in academe, because they “fit well within the academic mainstream,” according to Robert KC Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College who has frequently criticized academe for a lack of political diversity.

“I agree with [Vice Presidential Nominee Sarah] Palin that there’s a scandal here – but it’s not that Obama, among his hundreds of other associations with academic figures, was acquainted with, and received support from, Ayers and Khalidi,” Johnson wrote on the History News Network.

“The scandal is the evolution of a groupthink academic environment has allowed figures such as Ayers and Khalidi to flourish.”

Ayers, who said he was out of the country last week and did not respond to an interview request, is currently on sabbatical from Illinois-Chicago. Faculty in his department say he’s received multiple threats via e-mail, and unwanted visitors have approached his office as news of his past has seeped into a heated presidential campaign. But Eleni Katsarou, a clinical associate professor of curriculum and instruction at UIC, said she expects Ayers to return to the university and to continue thriving as a teacher and scholar.

“He’ll come back in January,” she said, “[and] I just can’t imagine he would have any problems centering and grounding himself.”


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