Having twice been honored with Emeritus status (Lawton Distinguished Professor of Religion Emeritus at Florida State University and President Emeritus of the University of Bridgeport), I was more than a little interested to learn that the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois at Chicago had unanimously voted to reject former weatherman Bill Ayeys' petition for Emeritus status.
Emeritus status is an intangible. It carries no financial advantage over normal retirement. In some institutions, it does carry the right to office space, if available. In most institutions, it grants the holder library privileges. In my case that was enormously important. Although the University of Bridgeport has superlative digital data resources, when I was working on my book, Jihad and Genocide, at home,something was blocking my wireless access to the UB data resources. Since I had Emeritus status at FSU, I had access to the excellent data bases available at the FSU Library. It made all the difference in my research.
Apart from library privileges, Emeritus status is public confirmation by the faculty and trustees of a university that one has honorably fulfilled one's calling, that the person so honored has served his/her university well. It is a source of quiet pride that life's irreversible course has been well spent.
I never could understand how Bill Ayers could have gotten to be a tenured professor in the first place. A founding member of the ultra-radical Weatherman organization, he told a NYT correspondent in a story published on September 11, 2001 of all days, "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough." He never abandoned his radical ideology. At one time, his wife Bernadine Dohm, was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. This year he was at the border of Gaza on the Egyptian side as an organizer of the Free Gaza group that is seeking to organize another flotilla to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Perhaps family connections helped him to get his start in a respectable occupation in Chicago. His father Thomas G. Ayers, is a former Chairman and CEO of Commonwealth Edison, chairman of the Board of Trustees of Northwestern University, the Chicago Symphony, and has served on the boards of many other public and private institutions.
During the 2008 presidential campaign the relationship between Barack and Michelle Obama and Bill Ayers became a matter of controversy. As he did with Jeremiah Wright, Rashid Khalidi, and Edward Said, Obama and his spokespersons attempted to minimize or explain away Obama's radical contacts. Given a sympathetic media elite, they were largely successful.
Ayers' radical past finally caught up with him on September 24, 2010, when the trustees of the University of Illinois declined unanimously to grant him emeritus status. This must have been a shock to him. Normally, motions to confer emeritus status do not come before boards of trustees if there is any likelihood that they will be rejected, but Ayers had dedicated his book Prairie Fire to a list of more than two hundred people-mostly revolutionaries-including Sirhan Sirhan, Robert Kennedy's killer. Robert's son, Christopher, is the current chairman of the University of Illinois Board of Ttrustees. In explaining his position, Kennedy said that he could not confer the honor on " a man whose body of work includes a book dedicated in part to the man who murdered my father."
It has been easy for all too many people to dismiss Ayers' radical record, and even his admitted pride in bombing the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol Building, and a New York Police Station, as youthful indiscretions. Thomas Frank, who used to be Wall Street Journal's liberal columnist, wrote a column, "My Friend Bill Ayers" in which he praised Ayers as ""model citizen" and a scholar whose "work is esteemed by colleagues of different political viewpoints." (WSJ, October 15, 2008).
Finally, Christopher Kennedy put the career of Bill Ayers in proper perspective. It is altogether likely that, when Ayers was developing his dedication list for Prairie Fire, he didn't give much thought to Sirhan Sirhan. Perhaps all he knew was that Sirhan had killed a distinguished American public servant whom the angry Palestinian believed deserved death because of his pro-Israel sympathies. (We didn't use the term jihad much in those days.) For Christopher Kennedy, however, Sirhan was not just one name in two hundred. Kennedy was being asked to bestow a token of academic distinction on the professor who had praised the man who murdered his father, and that he could not do.
Some things can't be swept under the rug. Obama and his campaign tried. CNN and the New York Times concluded that Obama did not have a close relationship with Ayers, but, as we suggest above, it isn't just Ayers that Obama has had to explain away. There are simply too many of them. He has a way of dismissing the significance of each of them, but cumulatively they add up and may explain the very large number of Americans who report that they do not know who or what their president really is.
Posted on 09/25/2010 3:41 PM by Richard L. Rubenstein