Security Threat or Political Threat?

U. of Nebraska blocks visit by William Ayers, a professor McCain campaign can't stop talking about. University cites safety, but some are dubious and see threat to academic freedom.
October 20, 2008

Back in March, when a faculty panel at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln selected William Ayers to be the keynote speaker at a November conference at the College of Education, nobody really noticed.

But that was before Ayers -- who helped found the Weather Underground, and who has since built a reputation as a leading thinker on education reform -- became the professor most likely to be talked about by Sen. John McCain or Gov. Sarah Palin. They -- and other Republicans -- have been citing the work Ayers did on a school-reform committee with Sen. Barack Obama as evidence that the Democratic presidential nominee "pals around with terrorists."

On Friday, the university called off the Ayers appearance, citing security concerns. But the timing of the announcement -- after a 24-hour period in which Nebraska's governor and other politicians and donors demanded that Ayers be kept away -- left many dubious. Some faculty leaders say that the incident represents a serious violation of the principles of academic freedom.

Given that "there are people at the University of Nebraska with a deep knowledge of academic freedom and an equally deep commitment to it," it is "particularly painful to see this institution intimidated by politicians and donors into canceling Professor Bill Ayers's invited presentation," said Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors. "Genuine threats to campus security are rare. More common are occasions when 'security' is a code word for political or financial pressure. Academic freedom cannot survive unless we stand up to bullies with power or money."

Ayers is a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And while his past with the Weather Underground remains bitterly debated, he was never convicted of breaking any laws. Federal riot and bombing conspiracy charges were brought against Ayers, but the charges were dropped in 1974 because of prosecutorial misconduct.

His more recent activities -- teaching, publishing, serving on various school reform panels -- are typical for education professors, and he has been highly successful at them. And it is that part of his career that led to the Nebraska invitation. With Ayers in the news, the university issued a statement noting that no state funds were being used for his visit and that he would be speaking on his scholarly research, not politics. But if university leaders thought the statement would keep things calm, they were wrong.

On Friday, Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, called for the invitation to Ayers to be rescinded. "This is an embarrassment to the University of Nebraska and the State of Nebraska. Bill Ayers is a well known radical who should never have been invited to the University of Nebraska," said the governor. The state's attorney general, Jon Bruning, then followed with his own call for the invitation to be rescinded. "Academic freedom doesn’t require us to lose our good judgment and common sense. It’s time to take the invitation off the table," he said.

Alumni and donors started to send e-mails and call the university, with some threatening to halt donations. Among those who criticized the invitation was Chuck Hassebrook, chair of the Board of Regents, who was quoted saying: “Who we invite matters. In all honesty, if I were that college, I would disinvite him. In general I just don’t think it’s a good thing to go around blowing other people up.”

By Friday afternoon, the university announced that Ayers wouldn't be coming. A statement said that the "university’s threat assessment group monitored e-mails and other information UNL received regarding Ayers’ scheduled November 15 visit, and identified safety concerns which resulted in the university canceling the event."

James B. Milliken, president of the University of Nebraska system, followed up with a statement in which he said that he understood why "many Nebraskans were upset by the proposed Ayers lecture," but said that it would have been "inappropriate" to call it off because of that anger. "While the immediate controversy over Ayers' scheduled appearance may be over, the importance of recognizing that a university is a place for the open exchange of ideas, free of outside political or popular pressure, remains."

That statement notwithstanding, many professors -- and some others -- don't think the university stood up for academic freedom.

David Moshman, a professor of educational psychology at the university, called the cancellation of the lecture "a very serious infringement on academic freedom." Moshman said it was not credible to view the issue as a security threat, since the decision was made amid a huge controversy -- and a month away from the scheduled talk, meaning that the university would have had plenty of time to set up adequate security. He also noted that it was seriously detrimental to the faculty to have the regents' board chair and much of the political leadership of the state saying who could and could not be invited to campus.

"This was clearly political," said Moshman, who is on the board of the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska, "and that's not the way it's supposed to be."

Nelson of the AAUP noted that the association published a statement last year urging colleges and universities not to rescind invitations that become controversial.

Even figures who are happy Ayers will not be visiting are openly questioning the idea that the university acted for security reasons. Bruning, the attorney general, told The Omaha World-Herald that the university was "doing the right thing here, even if they can't be forthright about the reason." He explained: "If we can provide security for the president of the United States, security is a cop-out."


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