William Ayers is Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the founder of the Small Schools Workshop and the Center for Youth and Society, and he is the author of many books on education, including Teaching Toward Freedom and A Kind and Just Parent, and a memoir, Fugitive Days.
On March 30, 2010, officials at the University of Wyoming, citing “security threats” and “controversy,” canceled two talks I was invited to give in early April, one a public lecture entitled “Trudge Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action,” and the other, a talk to faculty and graduate students called “Teaching and Research in the Public Interest: Solidarity and Identity.” I’d been invited in August, 2009, but one week before I was to travel to Laramie, I was told I had been “disinvited.”
In February, as the University began to publicize my scheduled visit, a campaign to rescind the invitation was initiated on right-wing blogs, accelerating quickly to a wider space where a demonizing and dishonest narrative dominated all discussion. A wave of hateful messages and death threats hit the University, and was joined soon enough by a few political leaders and wealthy donors instructing officials in ominous tones to cancel my visit to the campus. On March 28 an administrator wrote to tell me that the University was receiving vicious e-mails and threatening letters, as well as promises of physical disruption were I to show up. This is becoming drearily familiar to me, as I’ll explain.
A particularly despicable note from Frank Smith who lives in Cheyenne and is active in the Wyoming Patriot Alliance, said, “Maybe someone could take him out and show him the Matthew Sheppard (sic) Commerative (sic) Fence and he could bless it or something.” He was referring to Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was tortured and murdered in 1998, left to die tied to a storm fence outside Laramie.
Republican candidate for Governor Ron Micheli released a letter he’d sent to all members of the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees asking them to rescind the invitation. Matt Mead, another gubernatorial candidate, said through a press release that while he is a self-described “fervent believer in free speech and the free exchange of ideas,” that still allowing me to speak would be “reprehensible.” He concluded that I should have “no place lecturing our students.”
I sympathized with the University, and told the folks I was in touch with how sorry I was that all of this was happening to them. I also said that I thought it was a bit of a tempest in a tea pot, and that it would surely pass. Certainly no matter what a couple of thugs threatened to do, I said, I thought that Wyoming law enforcement could get me to the podium, and I would handle myself from there, as I do elsewhere. I said I thought we should stand together and refuse to accede to these kinds of pressures to demonize someone and suppress students’ right to freely engage in open dialogue. After all a public university is not the personal fiefdom or the political clubhouse of the governor, and donors are not permitted to call the shots when it comes to the content or conduct of academic matters. We should not allow ourselves to collapse in fear if a small mob gathers with torches at the gates. I wouldn’t force myself on the University, of course, but I felt that canceling would be terribly unfair to the faculty and students who had invited me, and would send a big message that bullying works. It would be another step down the slippery slope of giving up on the precious ideal of a free university in a free society.
No good. On March 30, 2010 the University posted an announcement of the cancellation of my visit with a long and rambling comment from President Tom Buchanan. He begins with the obligatory assertion that academic freedom is a core principle of the University, but quickly adds that “freedom requires a commensurate dose of responsibility.” We are charged to enact free speech and thought “in concert with mutual respect.”
Nothing that I did or said in this matter was disrespectful or irresponsible, and yet, in the absence of specific references, readers are led to imagine all kinds of offenses.
The announcement is punctuated with a deep defensiveness: anyone who thinks the University “caved in to external pressure,” Buchanan writes, would be “incorrect.” Anticipating what any casual observer would conclude, he builds a strained and somewhat desperate counter-narrative. Buchanan pleads that UW is “one of the few institutions remaining in today’s environment that garners the confidence of the public,” and that a speech by me would somehow undermine that confidence.
He concludes that “this episode illustrated an opportunity to hear and critically evaluate a variety of ideas thoughtfully, through open, reasoned, and civil debate, it also demonstrates that we must be mindful of the real consequences our actions and decisions have on others.” That’s some sentence, and while it’s impossible to know definitively what he’s referring to as the “episode” (it might be the public lecture itself, but then it could be the cancellation of the lecture, or even the barbarians at the gates threatening to burn the place down, or withhold funds, that would provide the opportunity to critically evaluate matters). It has an unmistakable Orwellian ring: we cancelled that lecture as an expression of our support for lectures! And it’s eerily similar to the classics: we destroyed that village in order to save it! Work will make you free! War is peace!
One of the truly weird qualities of the Buchanan statement is a hole in its center, the deafening silence concerning why the campaign against me was organized in the first place. The reason is familiar to me as noted: in the 1960’s I was a leader of the militant anti-war group, Students for a Democratic Society, and then a founder of the Weather Underground, an organization that carried out dramatic symbolic attacks against several monuments to war and racism, crossed lines of legality, of propriety, and perhaps even of common sense. And then during the 2008 presidential campaign I was unwittingly and unwillingly thrust upon the stage because I had known—like thousands of others—Barack Obama in Chicago. The infamous charge that the candidate was “pallin around with terrorists,” designed to injure Obama, also demonized me. I’ve been an educator and professor for decades, but the hard right has accelerated the lunacy against thousands of folks— activists and artists, academics and theorists, outspoken radical thinkers—and wherever possible mounted campaigns exactly like the one in Wyoming. Often university officials stand up on principle and resist the howling mob, as they did recently at St. Mary’s in California; sometimes—as at a student-run conference at the University of Pittsburgh in March—they compromise, restricting access to talks and surrounding a speaker with unwanted and unnecessary police protection; sometimes, as in this case, the university turns and runs. It’s a sad sight.
Of course I wasn’t invited to speak about any of this, and it’s unlikely any of it would have come up without the active campaigning and noisy thunder from the relatively tiny group that is the ultra-right.
I would have focused my talk on the unique characteristics of education in a democracy, an enterprise that rests on the twin pillars of enlightenment and liberation, knowledge and human freedom. Education engages dynamic questions of morality and ethics, identity and location, agency and action. We want to know more, to see more, to experience more in order to do more—to be more competent and powerful and capable in our projects and our pursuits, to be more astute and aware and wide-awake, more fully engaged in the world that we inherit, the world we are simultaneously destined to change.
To deny students the right to question the circumstances of their lives, and to wonder how they might be otherwise, is to deny democracy itself.