On 9/23/10 the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois denied the honorific designation of “Professor Emeritus” to a former university colleague in Chicago, Bill Ayers, who retired on 8/31/10.
According to an article in Chicago Breaking News and other press reports, Christopher Kennedy, the chair of the U of I Board of Trustees and son of former US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) stated:
“There are times like today when we must make difficult decisions and perhaps those that are controversial or simply create a spectacle.
In my decision-making capacities as a trustee, I am not given the luxury of taking a poll on every issue and simply voting with the majority.
Instead, like those leaders of our republic who serve our community in a representative democracy, I must ultimately vote my conscience.
Today we take up the topic of emeritus status.
There are provisions for emeritus status in the university-organizing documents.
The emeritus status is an honorific status.
It is a title that is one of prestige.
It is not earned by right, but it is given as a privilege by the board of trustees.
I need to point out that this is a purely optional act.
While the process of conferring emeritus status may end with the board of trustees, it is important to note that it must begin with the individual faculty member who must request this honorific status for themselves.
Apparently, Mr. Ayers, who has been a teacher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has asked for this privilege and honor to be bestowed on him.
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.
It is, rather, simply a response to his request.
In my role, I am simply responding to something which has been presented to me.
I am guided by my conscience and one which has been formed by a series of experiences, many of which have been shared with the people of our country and mark each of us in a profound way.
My own history is not a secret.
My life experiences inform my decision-making as a trustee of the university.
In this case of emeritus status, I hope that I will act in a predictable fashion and that the people of Illinois and the faculty and staff of this great institution will understand my motives and my reasoning.
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 is nothing more antithetical to the hopes for a university that is lively and yet civil, or to the hopes of our founding fathers for their great experiment of a self-governing people, than to permanently seal off debate with one’s opponents by killing them.
There can be no place in a democracy to celebrate political assassinations or to honor those who do so.
We are citizen trustees whose judgments should be predictable to the community that we serve, and I would ask anyone who challenges my judgment, ‘How could I do anything else?’”
From: selected remarks of Christopher Kennedy as reported by the 9/24/10 Chicago Sun-Times.
Trustee Kennedy was referring to a 1974 book co-authored by Ayers, Prairie Fire, which was dedicated to, among others, the Robert Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan.
According to news accounts, U of I trustees then either abstained or voted against the emeritus honor for Ayers.
I have only been in the proximity of Prof. Ayers twice, once at a civic banquet over a decade ago, and another during a university senate executive committee meeting a few years ago, during which I answered a question he posed to me pertaining to senate business. I do not think this, nor the fact that Facebook keeps suggesting that I “friend” Bill Ayers, qualifies me for the Palinesque accusation of “palling around with a terrorist.” But I have long considered writing a short essay on Bill Ayers and the Mark of Cain.
According to the biblical book of Genesis, God marked Cain so that no one would kill him on sight for the crime he committed. In one use in common parlance, a person possessing the Mark of Cain is known as one who has been somehow cursed by an association with evil, remains an outcast, but is somehow also cursed with an aura of indestructibility.
An amazing number of people love and admire Bill Ayers. His mentors saw in him something extraordinary worthy of special consideration. Some students are drawn to his work to integrate social justice into education, and his encouragement of students to break down barriers in themselves and their surroundings to become better educators; these speak of his disarming charm and apparent transparent sincerity, especially in his raising the child of an imprisoned fellow fugitive. His peers in the education field have elected him to leadership positions in national education organizations, citing his social justice and small schools efforts, and have voted him an honorific title at his own university. Foundations apparently found his education work worthwhile, and directed millions toward his initiatives. His acolytes among Wikipedia editors have kept the entries for Bill Ayers and the Weathermen carefully scrubbed of references to bombing and murder, as have a number in the press.
But one does not have to look very far into the history of Ayers’s life to see that people around him were hurt, and that some died. Bill Ayers’s world now extends to Mexico and Venezuela, and to the dictator Hugo Chavez’s educational system, an item not reported very much during the 2008 presidential election. Accusations against Ayers framed in the most personal terms appear on the Internet. A police group in San Francisco still seeks to pin the bombing murder of a young police sergeant many years ago on Bill Ayers.
Yet today, one generally very quiet and unassuming man who has often eschewed the limelight spoke out, recalling a murder of international and historic significance, the murder of his own iconic father. One man said no to Bill Ayers, when so many others had said yes.
Trustee Kennedy made his statement after perceptive discernment. In a very important way, Ayers was denied emeritus standing not because of what he taught at UIC, but what he didn’t: In many writings over a period of years prior to coming to the University, Ayers called for violent acts. Ayers did not grace his decades at the University with a definitive rejection or unequivocal statement against his own calls for violence, but stayed within the boundaries of academic plausibility and generally maintained his silence on this issue.
For the very reason that Bill Ayers did not speak this essential truth of unequivocally rejecting violence, Trustee Kennedy realized that he must speak this truth himself in order to maintain the moral and intellectual credibility of the University in a democratic society.
Kennedy knew that the University isn’t the mythical Vegas, where what one “does there stays there,” and only faculty get to vote on what is decided based upon internal considerations alone. The University is a public trust that seeks the truth and witnesses to it. Trustee Kennedy understood he must both witness to a truth, that violence is not the answer, and repudiate an untruth, that violence is. In doing so, Trustee Kennedy taught more about the truth of non-violence in a minute than Bill Ayers taught in a lifetime.
And now that Ayers is no longer Professor Ayers, the Mark of Cain, somehow immanent, may be there for all the world to see: Denied honor’s veil, such a man may be cursed to live with himself for all eternity.
© Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved