Disinviting William Ayers

Last March, the University of Nebraska chose William Ayers as the keynote speaker for a conference to be held at the university’s College of Education in November. Yes, that William Ayers – the former Weather Underground radical who, back in his student days, thought that some bombings of public buildings would help foment leftist revolution and bring down our oppressive government. He was famous forty years ago and is now famous again for his close association with Barack Obama.

Two weeks ago, the university withdrew the speaking invitation under political pressure. Governor Dave Heineman, a Republican, called the invitation “an embarrassment.” Democratic Senator Ben Nelson sided with Heineman, saying, “His past involvement in a violent protest group and incendiary comments are not consistent with the agenda of unity that we need in America.”

James B. Milliken, president of the University of Nebraska system, gave in to the pressure from the political heavyweights. The university canceled Ayers’ talk with the excuse that it would cause safety concerns.

That’s simply impossible to take seriously. Violence against leftist speakers on American campuses, even in fly-over states like Nebraska, is unheard of.

Milliken added this parting shot, “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.”

Naturally, many people in academe were angered. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors said that the claimed security concern was “a code word for political or financial pressure Academic freedom cannot survive unless we stand up to bullies with power or money.”

David Moshman, professor of educational psychology at Nebraska, said that the decision to disinvite Ayers was “a very serious infringement on academic freedom.” (The comments quoted above can all be found here.)

The Ayers/Nebraska kerfuffle led to a Wall Street Journal column on October 24 by Naomi Schaefer Riley, “When Academic Freedom Lost its Meaning.” Ms. Riley surveyed some academics who aren’t fond of Professor Ayers’ theories about education, but more importantly question whether he is a good poster child for academic freedom since his own teaching appears to be far from the AAUP’s standard of objective scholarship. His education courses start with the assumption that America is a racist, oppressive society and then go on to tell students that they need to become change agents committed to “social justice.” (Jay Schalin recently wrote about Ayers’ educational theories for the Pope Center here.)

Can we make some sense of all this?

First of all, the intense zealotry of presidential politics tends to bring out the worst in people. Let’s face it – conservatives in Nebraska would not have paid the slightest bit of attention to an education conference with William Ayers if it weren’t for the fact that he is linked with Barack Obama, whom they want desperately to keep out of the White House. Would there really have been any problem if he had been allowed to say whatever he has to say on the University of Nebraska campus?

Of course not. Ayers is detested by many people, but however unpopular the speaker or his message, that isn’t a good reason to cancel an invitation. When conservative Nebraskans got all hot and bothered about having Ayers at their flagship school, the politicians should have either ignored them or said, “Simmer down – it’s just not that important.”

But is this case one of abridging academic freedom? I don’t think so. No one is demanding that Professor Ayers stop saying and writing what he believes. The University of Nebraska’s decision to disinvite him is bad manners, but it no more attacks his academic freedom than if he had never been invited in the first place. Academic freedom does not entail a right to speak wherever you might want to.

This tempest in a teapot does no credit to the University of Nebraska and state political leaders, but neither does it for those who cry that academic freedom is in peril.