Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The right thing

Officials at my alma mater late last week announced that a scholar of controversial background would be speaking on campus in November.

And then -- about 24 hours later -- they cancelled his appearance after much public outcry.

William Ayers about six months ago was probably not a common name. He is now, though, because of the connection presidential candidate Barack Obama has had with him in the past. They served together on the board of a Chicago group that works on welfare reform, affordable housing and reducing poverty.

John McCain and others have mentioned Ayers repeatedly in an attempt to discredit Obama and his associates.

Ayers in the 1960s and 70s did some bad things in protest of the Vietnam War. He bombed public buildings -- major ones. And fairly recently, he was quoted as saying he wished they'd done more to protest the war.

I do not agree with violent protests, even if the sentiment is anti-war.

I'm not for bombing. I'm a pacifist. I don't even like it when my 3-year-old pretends to shoot toy guns or hits his dad when they're wrestling.

But I'm also for free speech.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Education had invited Ayers, an education expert who teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago, to speak to graduate students as part of the college's anniversary celebration.

He was invited back in February.

University officials sent out a press release about Ayers' appearance, though, after reporters noticed his name on a calendar.

And then all hell broke loose.

There were parents threatening to pull their students from school if Ayers was allowed to come. The governor urged the Board of Regents to pull the plug. Many of the Regents publicly decried the university's invitation. One even compared it to inviting Osama bin Laden to campus. Even the NU president, while citing the need for free speech and a free sharing of ideas, said he thought it'd be best for Ayers' not to come.

My guess is the final blow was when donors -- big ones - started threatening to withhold money from NU.

In the end, the chancellor said it was a safety threat that prompted officials to cancel his talk. They'd gotten enough e-mails and phone calls, officials said, that they couldn't ensure the safety of Ayers or folks at his talk.

That might be true, maybe a little bit. But I'm not really buying it.

And it's unfortunate that at a public university, a place of learning and discourse and growing and at least hearing all sorts of views about subjects, we would disinvite someone who has valuable knowledge and experience -- whether you agree with it or not -- to the table.

UNL has played it safe, I guess, and maybe that's the smart thing.

But what about the right thing?

1 comment:

Grant said...

Well said & dead on.