The University of Illinois Board of Trustees typically approves faculty promotions and honors -- which have been vetted by various campus committees -- without discussion. No one can remember the last time the board, for instance, rejected emeritus status when proposed on behalf of a retiring faculty member.
But last week the board did just that, rejecting emeritus status for William Ayers, who retired in August from his position as professor of education at the university's Chicago campus, where he had taught since 1987. The university's board voted down emeritus status for Ayers at the urging of Christopher Kennedy, the board chair, who cited Prairie Fire, a book Ayers co-wrote in 1974 and that is dedicated to 200 people whom the authors called "political prisoners." One of those named is Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Christopher Kennedy's father.
In his remarks at the meeting, Kennedy noted that the university doesn't award emeritus status automatically, but that it is an honor that must be requested by the retiring professor and endorsed by various campus officials. As a result, Kennedy said -- according to press accounts -- "our discussion of this topic therefore does not represent an intervention into the scholarship of the university, nor is it a threat to academic freedom."
But citing Prairie Fire, he said: "I intend to vote against conferring the honorific title of our university to a man whose body of work includes a book dedicated in part to the man who murdered my father, Robert F. Kennedy. There can be no place in a democracy to celebrate political assassinations or to honor those who do so."
The board's action has sparked yet another debate over Ayers, who was a leader of the Weather Underground who went on to be an education professor at Illinois-Chicago and who gained renewed attention during the 2008 presidential election when Republicans attempted to link him to Barack Obama (although there wasn't evidence to suggest much more of a tie than their being neighbors who both moved in academic circles). To many, Ayers's Weather Underground years were never forgivable. Especially after his past was publicized again in 2008, some of his speeches at campuses nationwide prompted protests or were even called off. But at the university, he has long been a popular teacher, and his numerous books and articles  have earned him considerable respect among education scholars.
The Illinois board's action has prompted discussion over how much the emeritus status should be considered routine, and whether, if a review is appropriate, activity that predated one's academic employment should be considered.
Ayers has not commented on the board's action or responded to requests for comment. But in a video posted two years ago on the conservative website Eyeblast.TV,  he said in response to a question at a book signing that he had been "stupid" to include Sirhan in the dedication, and that he was really concerned about all prisoners and what happens to them.
Conservative bloggers have generally praised the Illinois board's decision. Michelle Malkin wrote: "Whaddya know. Academia did something right and honorable for once." (Her blog post  also features the actual dedication page of Prairie Fire.) The page reads: "To Harriet Tubman and John Brown, To All Who Continue to Fight, and to All Political Prisoners in the U.S," with Sirhan's name appearing among the many that fill the page.
Much of the Chicago press has expressed incredulity that anyone might have found reason to dedicate anything to Sirhan. Eric Zorn, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune,  wrote: "I realize this was 36 years ago and that Vietnam-war era radicals were given to over-the-top and regrettable statements. But hanging the mantle of glory on an assassin (who murdered someone who was campaigning to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam) simply because he was motivated by political consideration? Did that ever make any damn sense? By those twisted standards, did James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., qualify for a literary nod?"
Others, however, see problems with the board's action, however understandable Christopher Kennedy's reaction might be.
Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors and a professor emeritus of English at Illinois's Urbana-Champaign campus, said that "based on his service to the university and his performance as a colleague, Ayers deserved emeritus status. Indeed emeritus status should be -- and usually is -- granted routinely." He added that "people who are denied it perceive their life's work to have been officially disparaged."
Nelson said that he could not fault Christopher Kennedy "for a vote based on deep personal feeling," but said "it would have been more professionally appropriate simply to recuse himself."
John Wilson, author of Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies, wrote on his blog College Freedom  that the Illinois board was wrong.
"Kennedy is certainly correct to condemn Ayers for bizarrely including Sirhan Sirhan among a list of 'political prisoners' listed in the dedication of a 1974 book Ayers co-wrote as part of the Weather Underground," Wilson wrote. "But if that was the basis of the denial of Ayers' emeritus status, then it is clearly wrong and unconstitutional. The University of Illinois requires merit to be the basis of emeritus status. And the First Amendment prohibits using political criteria for employment decisions at public colleges. Using a book dedication written years before Ayers became a professor cannot possibly be a judgment of his performance at UIC. This is the first time in memory that the Board of Trustees has ever rejected an 'emeritus' appointment, and the role of politics in the decision is unmistakable."
The University of Illinois at Chicago's faculty handbook  describes emeritus status as recognizing "extraordinary service," and states that faculty members must have taught at least seven years at the institution to be eligible. But several Illinois officials confirmed that the status has typically been awarded to anyone who has retired after seven years of teaching, without a review of one's statements prior to becoming a professor. And such treatment is fairly standard in academe -- with the privileges of emeritus status generally being symbolic, not financial.
There have been other instances of controversy for other, rare denials of emeritus status. As recounted in a report by the AAUP,  Antioch University in 2008 denied emeritus status to two longtime faculty members at Antioch College. The report -- which has been contested by the university administration -- states that the university board inappropriately used its own criteria to evaluate those faculty members, going beyond the norms of honoring those who had made sustained contributions to the college.
The College Freedom blog is correct that federal courts have typically backed the right of public college and university faculty members to be reviewed for employment status without regard to their political statements, finding that they enjoy First Amendment protection. But in at least one court case over the denial of emeritus status, the key reason a retired faculty member did not prevail was the court's finding that emeritus status simply wasn't worth that much -- at least at his institution.
The ruling came in 2006 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit,  which rejected a lawsuit by a retired professor who was denied emeritus status at the Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York. The professor, who owned property near the FIT campus, said that he was denied emeritus status because he had criticized the institute's building plans. The appeals court said that there was evidence that the denial of emeritus status was linked to the professor's statements. But to have a First Amendment suit, the court ruled, the retired professor needed evidence of an "adverse employment action," such as loss of pay or change in duties. Because the greatest value of emeritus status at FIT was the right to use the title, the court found, it has "little or no value" and denying the title thus does not raise First Amendment issues.
The court did offer hope for faculty members who want to be assured of First Amendment protection when they come up for emeritus reviews. Noting that "at some institutions other than FIT, emeritus status apparently carries with it specific and well-defined benefits" that go beyond what is provided to all retirees, the court said that in such cases, there could be free speech issues associated with a denial of emeritus status. "We do not determine that denial of emeritus status could never support a finding of First Amendment retaliation," the court found.