In a strange move that I unfortunately recognize, but will never condone, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln played a coward’s hand by going back on their word and canceling a speech by William Ayers.
William Ayers — long before the Palin/McCain campaign branded him a “domestic terrorist” for political gain — was scheduled to speak at UNL:
Ayers, a founder of a radical group that bombed public buildings in protest of the Vietnam War, is scheduled to be a keynote speaker Nov. 15 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Education and Human Sciences’ student research conference. The conference is part of a two-day celebration honoring the college’s 100th anniversary. Ayers, a distinguished education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was invited to UNL to share his expertise on topics like social justice and urban educational reform, said Marjorie Kostelnik, dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences…. Said Regent Charles Wilson of Lincoln: “It was bad judgment to invite someone who has such a despicable history to participate in an event which is supposed to be a celebration. Anybody who thought this wouldn’t come up is probably naive…. Kostelnik defended the choice, saying Ayers was selected by a faculty committee in the spring, long before his ties to Sen. Barack Obama became a focus of the presidential campaign. At the time, Kostelnik said, no faculty member objected to the decision. But since then, she said, the college has made clear to Ayers his remarks must focus entirely on academics.
The ensuing “feigned rage” at UNL for inviting Ayers to speak on campus immediately pierces the naive heart of Midwestern politics and the namesake land grant university: Money speaks louder than quiet principle, and UNL gave up their intellectual freedom for the almighty dollar by canceling Ayers and burying free speech by fearing the loss of its biggest donors.
When a university caves in to threats from donors uninterested in listening to unpopular ideas — that is just as “terroristic” as William Ayers’ Weather Underground days — except the haunting effect of that intellectual betrayal is more incendiary and longer lasting than an ordinary bomb.
Witness the fear and loathing of the Outside Other at UNL:
Phone calls and e-mails flooded the offices of NU President J.B. Milliken, UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman, Kostelnik and the NU Foundation. Some donors threatened to withhold financial support to the university unless Ayers was disinvited. One such donor: the Gilbert M. and Martha H. Hitchcock Foundation in Omaha, which has provided millions to NU in the past 40 years. And statements from political leaders urging UNL to rethink its decision poured in. “This is an embarrassment to the University of Nebraska and the State of Nebraska,” Gov. Dave Heineman said. “Bill Ayers is a well-known radical who should never have been invited to the University of Nebraska.” Rep. Lee Terry, a Republican, and Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, also issued statements condemning Ayers’ selection. State Auditor Mike Foley also expressed concern, saying early Friday he’d sent Kostelnik a records request seeking details on the funding of the student research conference. Kostelnik had said Ayers’ appearance was to be privately funded.
Here’s why UNL’s decision to cancel Ayers is cowardly for an institution of higher learning.
UNL is teaching its students that ideas are just as frightening as actions. We have a moral obligation to listen to each other — and if Columbia University can listen to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — then UNL can certainly listen to their invited guest, Bill Ayers.
UNL is teaching that only the past matters. Ongoing deeds are moot. There is no such thing as moral or academic redemption. You are only your history. Your future does not matter. William Ayers is presently a distinguished member of the faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago — yet he is not good enough to speak at UNL? Preposterous!
UNL is teaching students that money matters more than intellectual freedom. If big donors threaten the university, it is the moral duty of the university to refuse to bend to the threat of the almighty dollar and to soldier on into the future without braying financial support from people that obviously do not understand the greater mission of a university education.
Even the appearance of allowing money to cancel an educational opportunity diminishes the university in total and hollows out the very core of a university education: The responsibility to teach each student how to hold equal, but opposite ideas in their heads at the same time and find value in each — even if you don’t agree with either.
UNL has done a shameful thing by canceling William Ayers — and UNL has tarnished the academic sanctity of every diploma they have ever provided to a graduate.
My diploma is yellowing under the callow horror of the cowardly betrayal of my undergraduate university — UNL failed me, and they failed you, too — by failing to foster the very academic freedom it was founded upon, and then vested, to protect and honor.