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 — co-founder of the Weathermen Underground — is also a convenient bogeyman used by the Republican party to taint Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as friendly to terrorists.

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.


  1. I read this with interest, David. In reading the news link you provide it seems UNL was also worried about campus security. They didn’t want a riot. Isn’t that important to consider?

  2. That’s a fair comment, Anne, but I don’t buy the “campus security” excuse. It’s too cute and too convenient by half. Money decided to cancel Ayers, not a gun in a gym bag.
    If, however, verifiable threats were made against the Ayers engagement, then UNL had the dire responsibility to protect the free speech and to lock down the campus and continue the event.
    If the good guys don’t have better weapons and smarter plans than the small terrorists afraid of hearing someone speak — then there is no hope against the bully in the schoolyard because, “I don’t like what I think you’re going to say, so I’m going to shoot you” wins every time without firing a shot.
    If threats of violence were made, then that’s when UNL should’ve dug in and refused to be shouted down. I’m certain if a similar threat were made against the university football team on gameday, the Huskers would still be playing their game in Memorial Stadium.
    So the question now becomes larger and more dangerous in light of this cancellation: “What sort of life do we want to have and how are we going to get it?”
    Do we have a moral duty to listen to each other? Or are only some viewpoints worth expressing and protecting on a university campus?

  3. I guess I can see how the threat of violence is an easy out, David. Isn’t Nebraska a really conservative state? Maybe that’s why. They don’t like Obama and canceling Ayers is one way to make a statement?

  4. That’s an interesting thought, Anne. If Barack Obama were not running for president, William Ayers would be speaking at UNL. Nobody would know or care.
    So yes, in the essence of the undertow, the cancellation is racist in the national condition.

  5. Just goes to show you how much money talks – every time I hear of this kind of thing happening it sickens me.
    Also where do we draw the line between freedom fighter and terrorist?
    I think the line moves with time …. it did with Nelson Mandela – it has done with the Northern Ireland terrorists.
    How long will William Ayers have to wait for the line to move for him?

  6. Hi Nicola! I appreciate your international, historic, take on this and you’re right! Bad people can become better people through recantation, deeds or even doing time — but even the definition of “bad” is culturally contextual. There must eventually come a time where the person you see before you today overwhelms the husk of the person in history.
    The Ayers cancellation is most certainly about money, and for UNL to even try to play the “campus danger” card and invoke other national, historic, campus killings to somehow claim they are doing the superior thing in the name of safety to protect the students from those seeking to silence Ayers, is incredibly insensitive on the surface and ridiculous in the whole.
    As I’ve said here before — the definition of terrorist and freedom fighter depends on which side of the bomb you’re standing…
    The UNL cancellation of the Ayers speech is getting some national play in the newspapers and on television — so it will be interesting to see how it all plays out in the end.
    I have suggested UNL should have an open discussion replacing the Ayers event called “Why William Ayers Should Have Spoken on Campus” and let university leaders explain, in grand detail, why it is MORE DANGEROUS to our intellectual welfare and well-being as a society to silence free discourse than to cancel it outright out of fear and loathing.
    I don’t think Ayers will ever be allowed to move on by the crazed, right wing, of the Republican Party. He’s too easy a target to let go of too fast. He’s a useful wedge tool.

  7. It is too sad that, depending on who is getting attacked, the same person would be called either a terrorist or a ‘militant’ – call them a terrorist under all locations or not.
    Where is freedom of speech heading? To no longer actually have it? What a sad day.

  8. That’s a fine point Gordon — the danger to the UNL campus wasn’t William Ayers — it was the people in Nebraska that did not want Ayers to speak. So, who is the terrorist, again? The one speaking or the one making the threat to silence the speech with a gun or by withholding financial support?
    You cannot be a conditional donor to UNL or any college or university. You either support the entire mandate of the schooling or you do not. People that try to influence policy and decision making with their donations should not be welcomed by any university, for they are playing out their own personal demons on the rest of the campus and holding hostage the intellectual mandate of higher education.

  9. How can we show them our displeasure with their decision to censor Ayers? (I will most likely read your response Wednesday night fyi – and rest assured there are no more weekday holidays until April after this one!)

  10. UPDATE:
    UNL is trying hard to play the “safety” angle on the Ayers visit and it’s completely sad that UNL gave in to the terroristic threats being made against the university if, in fact, those threats can be substantiated.

    Following widespread public uproar over news that Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, had been invited to UNL as an education conference keynote speaker, a campus “threat assessment team” began analyzing the e-mails, phone calls and blogs that were pouring into offices across the university, Perlman said.
    For that reason — and not because of public condemnations of UNL’s invitation to Ayers by Gov. Dave Heineman and others or criticism from NU President J.B. Milliken and regents — UNL was forced to cancel Ayers’ speech, Perlman said.
    I hope UNL turned over all the “threats” the to FBI for investigation and prosecution by the federal justice system — but I sincerely doubt the “UNL threat assessment team” was little more than a group of self-anointed administrators looking to protect their position and high paying jobs.

  11. Not only do they blackmail the University they compound it by playing the “fear factor” card. In this country that is when you know it stinks.
    I love your idea of debating that motion – I think you should return and lead it!

  12. Hi Nicola —
    It is certainly blackmail, and what bothers me about the cavalier attitude of UNL is that by calling in the cheap “security risk” card — and they think they’re off the hook!
    Why not move the event to a secure place? Why not make some sort of other accommodation for Ayers? Why play the violence/terror card and then just pretend like the invite never happened?
    UNL didn’t try very hard because they didn’t want to and the real threat the university is not Ayers, but the loss of big money donations. If UNL had admitted that upfront, perhaps they’d at least save part of their educational soul instead of entirely losing it in the fright hype.
    I wonder how the UNL campus police, the Nebraska State Patrol and the Lincoln Police Department feel about UNL’s decision that they are unable to protect the campus? The LPD recently dealt with a KKK rally in town and there was no violence. If UNL needs a more elite task force, call in the Omaha Police Department to protect the city from Ayers — they’re used to dealing with urban violence and they’re paid a lot more than the LPD, too.
    I would love to lead that discussion about why Ayers must be heard — but I’d have a surprise at the end: Bill Ayers live via satellite! He’d virtually attend his own celebration and even say a few words, too — but that would be “just as bad” as if Ayers had appeared on campus because the issue is not really security or threats — the matter is the measure of the man conservative UNL donors believe he is… and in person, or on satellite TV, or even in the newspaper… he still taints the Cornhusker State, they think, because he is living and tactile in their associated space.

  13. It really is a cheap trick to play and as you say insulting to the good law enforcement officers who manage to effectively police the state all the year round.
    One has to ask why their campus is not secure? Should staff, pupils and parents be worried that the campus is not secure?
    Maybe time for some awkward questions on that front?

  14. You really can’t go any lower, Nicola, than using the threat of violence to coerce the behavior you want, and that’s precisely what UNL did to get the Ayers event cancelled: They played the terror card.
    I agree there is danger in putting that card on the table because it expressly confirms UNL is not prepared for any sort of campus shooting or emergency or other dire circumstance that cannot be predicted because they could not even provide protection for a planned event. What a shame.
    The problem with the UNL decision is that it was made in fear and in a vacuum that no longer exists. Nebraska used to be a world unto itself. It was closed and colloquial and if you didn’t fit in with the authority mandate, you were cast as an outsider.
    UNL and Nebraska are no longer alone in the world. They’re in the middle of the country and any and every decision they make is now instantly propagated across the world for deeper examination and conflation.
    Free-thinking people no longer accept the “Because I said so” argument and they will question the intemperate mandates of authority if those decisions are seen as capricious and non-transparent.
    People want openness and exploration in their real lives because that’s what we’ve come to expect on the internet. Companies, colleges and, yes, even UNL, will have to realign their thinking to be honest and forthright from now on because the rest of us can smell a lie covering a truth from a continent away.

  15. Hi David,
    What a sad development. To see a university cravenly exchange it’s principles for money doesn’t make things better for students who hope to learn a few things in it that aren’t generally taught or valued outside.

  16. Hi David,
    When a university campus has to ban someone under pressure, it surely shows “money talks” and also marks the deviation from its mission. It’s not only sad, it’s dangerous.

  17. Yes, it’s an incredible disappointment, Dananjay — but I don’t think anything has really been learned at UNL because of this controversy. You’re required to forget it if you want to fit in and be accepted and that’s precisely why Ayers should’ve been allowed to speak against the crushing power of the middling majority mind.

  18. Dangerous is right, Katha. The UNL cancellation of Ayers was all about money — there’s no denying that — and UNL caved in so quickly to that artificial pressure that one wonders if the university ever had any values or morals that were not founded in foundation money.

  19. UPDATE:
    UNL will hold a forum on the Ayers fiasco:

    The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s political science honorary society, Pi Sigma Alpha, will host a forum Tuesday on UNL’s decision to cancel a Nov. 15 keynote speech by 1960s and ’70s radical William Ayers.
    The forum will run from 3-4 p.m. in the auditorium of the Nebraska Union, 1400 R St.
    Michael Wagner, an assistant professor of political science and Pi Sigma Alpha’s faculty adviser, will moderate the forum, which will feature Chancellor Harvey Perlman. Perlman, in consultation with other UNL leaders, canceled Ayers’ speech on Oct. 17 because of security concerns.

  20. UNL is still shamelessly playing the “terror” card:

    University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman said Tuesday he’s not second-guessing his decision to cancel a Nov. 15 speech on campus by ’60s and ’70s radical William Ayers.
    In the wake of deadly campus shootings at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University and the University of Central Arkansas — where two students were fatally shot Sunday — UNL’s threat assessment team members, not Perlman, are best trained to analyze security risks facing the campus, the chancellor said.
    And in this case, Perlman said, the threat assessment team warned UNL faced significant security risks if the Ayers speech went on as planned.

  21. Ah! Now the inappropriate heavy-hands are revealed:

    At least two University of Nebraska regents were ready to step in to try to cancel William Ayers’ speech at UNL if campus administration didn’t do so.
    And they were willing to act despite clear recommendations against such intervention from NU’s president and regents chairman.
    NU e-mails reviewed by the Journal Star show Regents Howard Hawks of Omaha and Bob Phares of North Platte made multiple calls for the board to consider disinviting Ayers from UNL’s College of Education and Human Sciences Nov. 15 student research conference.

  22. This is a good thing:

    The University of Nebraska-Lincoln English Graduate Student Association will host a “teach-in” Friday on issues of academic freedom in response to UNL’s cancellation of a speech by former radical William Ayers.
    The teach-in will be from 1-2:30 p.m. in the multipurpose room of the Culture Center, 333 N. 14th St. It is free and open to the public.
    The event will feature panel discussions, presentations on the history of defending civil rights in Nebraska and readings of works by Ayers and others.

  23. I like this idea a lot:

    Nebraskans for Peace is calling on Regent Randy Ferlic of Omaha to apologize or resign after making what the group deemed “inflammatory” comments about the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s speaking invitation to former radical William Ayers.
    After UNL announced last month that Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was scheduled to deliver a keynote address at a research conference last Saturday, Ferlic laid harsh criticism on the university, publicly suggesting that donors withhold contributions unless Ayers was disinvited.
    For a regent to make such a statement about the university he was elected to lead was inappropriate, said Nebraskans for Peace President Paul Olson, also an emeritus English professor at UNL.

  24. Finally, some cogent thinking comes to the emotional matter:

    Faculty leaders at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have requested an investigation into UNL’s decision to cancel a speech last month by 1960s and ’70s radical William Ayers.
    Tuesday, the UNL Academic Senate passed a resolution calling on Senate President Kathy Prochaska-Cue to initiate an investigation by an outside organization like the American Association of University Professors or the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
    The investigation should determine whether UNL’s cancellation of the Ayers speech violated the principles of academic freedom and also should review UNL’s policies concerning such cancellations, the faculty resolution said.

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