BC students move Ayers event

Professor's lecture to be held off campus

William Ayers was a controversial figure during the presidential election. William Ayers was a controversial figure during the presidential election. (Keysha McGrady/ ABC)
By Matt Collette
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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A day after Boston College administrators canceled a lecture scheduled for tomorrow by William Ayers, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former member of the Weather Underground Organization, student organizers behind the event were making plans to hold the talk off campus instead.

Students said they will hold the lecture, "The State of Democracy in America," at an off-campus location tomorrow, said Melissa Roberts, vice president of College Democrats of Boston College, which is cohosting the event with several other student groups. It will be open only to BC students, faculty, and staff.

Ayers emerged as a controversial figure during the 2008 presidential election, when he was linked to then-candidate Barack Obama. The group was responsible for bombings at the Capitol and Pentagon in the 1970s and considered by some to have been involved in the killing of Walter A. Schroeder, a Boston police officer who was shot in 1970 by political radical William Gilday during a bank robbery in Brighton.

In a telephone interview from his Chicago home yesterday, Ayers said he had not been officially informed the university had canceled the event and still planned to travel to Boston College for the lecture.

"It's kind of a shameful thing to the administration because one can certainly understand why in Saudi Arabia or Serbia or China why speakers would be canceled for a variety of reasons," he said. "But in the US, in a democracy, that doesn't make sense."

A spokesman for Boston College issued a brief statement yesterday, referring to the cancellation as an "internal matter at a private university."

"After extensive discussions between student organizers and university administrators, a decision was reached to cancel the event," BC spokesman Jack Dunn said in a statement. "In light of additional information that was shared with the students on the actions of the Weather Underground, including their alleged involvement in the killing of a Boston Police officer in nearby Allston, and out of concern for the safety and well being of our students, we believe that the appropriate decision was reached."

Ayers said he plans to discuss urban education, the focus of his academic work, at his appearance tomorrow.

"One of his big ideas is of educating the whole child, which is sneakily similar to the Jesuit idea cura personalis, which is care for the whole person," said Roberts. "So we saw the obvious similarities here, and that's why we invited Ayers to speak."

The event was planned more than a month ago, said Roberts and Michael Madormo, president of the Americans for Informed Democracy student group at BC. The student organizers said administrators were initially cautious, but had warmed to the idea of hosting Ayers.

Obama's opponents in the election regularly criticized his purported connection to Ayers. Obama and Ayers served together on a Chicago school board and a foundation board, but both men have said their relationship was limited to the topics they were discussing.

"We've been working on this for over a month with the administration, and we've slowly been moving forward," Madormo said. "They've always been hesitant, but we've moved forward. His invitation in no way sanctioned his action or the Weather Underground, but was to start a dialogue on urban education and education reform."

Ayers and student leaders said they believe the university acted in reaction to calls and e-mails from alumni and the community. On Friday, talk radio host Michael Graham interviewed Dunn on his show, "The Natural Truth," which airs on WTKK, and posted e-mail addresses for several university administrators, including college president William P. Leahy, on his website. The same day, administrators canceled the event.

Ayers compared the last-minute reactions of BC administrators to a mob mentality.

"Let's say the mob gathers outside the gate at BC and demands that they teach astrology, or creationism, or that the world is flat," said Ayers. "Should they then give in to the mob and teach those things? Absolutely not. So why should they do that with this?"

Students said they see administration interference as a potential threat to future debate on campus.

"We see this as an issue of precedent," Roberts said. "Now the precedent that they're setting is that if something goes against the wills of alumni who call in and threaten to pull donations . . . any events could get canceled."

Ayers said he was looking forward to speaking to students tomorrow, regardless of where the talk is held.

"I want to get to the table or podium, or whatever the kids have set up for me, and talk and have a conversation," he said.

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