The University of Wyoming’s handling of former 1960s radical William Ayers’ campus appearance has sparked discussion and concern among faculty and administrators about free speech and academic freedom at the college and how to address similar situations in the future.
“I think clearly people are concerned about the image of the University of Wyoming and what that represents,” engineering professor Jay A. Puckett, who ended his chairmanship of the UW Faculty Senate this week, said Friday.
UW invited Ayers to speak on campus in early April but then canceled him after receiving vocal protest from people concerned about his anti-war past. It then tried to prevent a second speech by Ayers on campus, but a federal judge forced the school to host him on Wednesday.
In the 1960s, Ayers co-founded the Weather Underground, an anti-war group that claimed responsibility for a series of nonfatal bombings, including explosions at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol. He’s now a professor with the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Ayers’ past became a campaign issue during the 2008 presidential race because he had served with President Barack Obama on the board of a Chicago charity. Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists.”
While stressing that it’s difficult to represent the opinions of UW’s diverse faculty, Puckett said the university’s handling of Ayers has raised concerns among faculty about free speech, academic freedom and UW providing a neutral forum for debating topics.
At least one member of the UW board of trustees is proposing the board discuss and develop better ways to handle free speech issues and controversial speakers.
“We need to embrace this moment as a teaching moment, and that’s what a university is all about and go forward,” UW trustee Ann Rochelle said. “Universities have these problems, and they need to keep addressing these issues.”
At the same time, campus free speech is not a clean-cut issue, she said.
“Free speech is messy, and you have to discuss it,” Rochelle said. “But if you say the answer is a speaker code, no. If you say everybody comes on campus, that’s wrong too.”
Rochelle said trustees are scheduled to discuss the free speech situation at its July meeting.
Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said her organization advises that college administrative boards develop policies that expose students to speakers with different perspectives so students can make up their own minds on issues. The independent organization based in Washington, D.C., promotes higher education excellence and academic freedom.
“If you have someone that’s coming to talk about health care and has a particular perspective then you find an alternative perspective,” Neal said.
“As things stand, speakers are invited willy-nilly and the stage is set for controversy,” she said.