Trustees | Intellectual Diversity

U. of I. faculty members, students may ask trustees to reconsider William Ayers

CHICAGO TRIBUNE   |  October 5, 2010 by Jodi S. Cohen

Following a similar suggestion at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, faculty and students in Urbana also may ask trustees to reconsider their decision to deny emeritus status to controversial professor William Ayers.

A resolution proposed by student senator Max Ellithorpe, a member of the U. of I. Senate, asks trustees to “look only at (Ayers’) body of academic work and service” and states that Chairman Christopher Kennedy should have abstained from discussing Ayers’ request for emeritus status at last month’s meeting.

The faculty and student concern comes after Kennedy voted against Ayers’ appointment, saying he was guided by his conscience and could not support someone who had dedicated a book to the man who assassinated his father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The other trustees, without comment, also voted to deny the title to Ayers, who retired in August after joining UIC as an education professor in 1987.

“Those remarks were quite understandable given Chairman Kennedy’s family history, but I don’t think they were appropriate when considering honoring an academic. I also think that there was a bit of a conflict of interest that should have been ironed out before the meeting,” said Ellithorpe, a sophomore from Highland Park.

Ellithorpe said that while the board may not reconsider its decision, having the Senate leadership groups from both campuses weigh in “will bring up a really important conversation.”

The resolution could come before the full faculty and student Senate at the Urbana-Champaign campus next month, before the November board meeting, but would likely need the backing of one of the group’s committees to have a chance of success, said Chairwoman Joyce Tolliver.

The UIC group is considering a similar resolution.

Meanwhile, reflecting national interest over the Ayers’ decision, the president of a prominent academic group released a statement Tuesday urging U. of I. trustees to “hold the line” on their decision and praising Kennedy and other board members for being “willing to do their job.”

“Denying or granting emeritus status to a retired professor is not a question of academic freedom. It is a question of conveying an honorific title,” said Anne Neal, of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “The status should not be conveyed automatically—as it perhaps has been done in the past—and the board should not simply be a rubber stamp for the faculty’s recommendations.”

In voting against the appointment, Kennedy cited a 1974 book co-written by Ayers, a co-founder of the radical Vietnam-era Weather Underground group. The book was dedicated to a long list of “political prisoners,” including Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan.

Ayers and Kennedy have not responded to requests for comment since the decision was made.


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