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Ayering differences

Academic freedom goes down by technicality at BC
By KYLE SMEALLIE  |  April 22, 2009


Bill Ayers clearly was not welcome at BC — in the flesh or via satellite. As has been widely reported, Boston College administrators, citing a "concern for the safety and well-being of our students," canceled a March 30 lecture appearance by the '60s Weather Underground activist, education-reform scholar, and political lightning rod. What's less well known, however, is how the BC administration orchestrated the veto after giving him a green light to speak on campus.

When they invited Ayers to speak earlier in the year, student organizers had anticipated a controversy — not because of his proposed urban-education reform lecture, but because of his "domestic terrorist" label, fueled by the 2008 presidential campaign. To play it safe, they sought administrative approval for his appearance weeks in advance. BC officials told students that beefed-up security — including undercover cops — would be necessary, but that the show could go forward.

That all changed on Friday, March 27, just three days before Ayers's scheduled appearance, when administrators dropped the ax.

Mustering the dupes
The brouhaha began when WTKK-FM (96.9) radio host Michael Graham — Boston's maestro of conservative controversies — slammed BC for hosting this "friend of the cop killers."

BC spokesman Jack Dunn, in a March 27 interview with Graham, said: "We hope the students who invited him will make the right decision, but if they don't, the administration will allow the [Ayers speech] to take place." Graham posted this quote, as well as the contact information for BC's president, directors of student affairs, and campus ministry, on his Web site.

What happened next is widely disputed, but one fact is certain: hours after Dunn's interview on WTKK, the event was canceled.

Some students and faculty suggest that wealthy BC alumni, spurred by Graham's rhetoric, threatened to withdraw donations — a claim that BC vehemently denies. Dunn told the Phoenix that the sole motivating factor was to ensure student safety "in light of an emotionally charged protest from the community." (Attempts by the Phoenix to contact decision-making administrators directly were ignored.)

Even if one takes BC at its word about the lack of donor threats, though, a picture emerges of backdoor maneuvering by the administration to exempt the event from the school's stated policy of total academic freedom for faculty. (Regardless of whether student safety was a legitimate concern, faculty sponsorship should have allowed Ayers's lecture to proceed, according to BC policy.)

The talk was initially organized by two student groups: Americans for Informed Democracy (AID) and the College Democrats. It was later co-sponsored by associate political-science professor Ken Kersch, director of BC's Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy, and John Cawthorne, dean of BC's Lynch School of Education.

The event was publicized on campus for weeks without issue. But on March 27, as the situation intensified, an official from the university provost's office asked Kersch to clarify that student groups were the lecture's primary sponsors. Kersch complied and removed notices for Ayers's visit from the Clough Center Web site. Administrators also altered the online university calendar, so that it listed only student groups as the lecture's sponsors. Kersch tells the Phoenix that, throughout this process, he continued to sponsor the event.

All this may seem like so much administrative hair-splitting, but the technical changes enabled BC to cancel the event without violating its pledge to faculty. At the very least, distancing faculty names from Ayers's lecture conveniently provided the administration with plausible deniability.

"The event was sponsored by students," explained Dunn, "and therefore the academic freedom that is extended to faculty without question was not present in this case."

Students, attempting to appease a risk-averse administration, proposed a novel compromise: telecast the live speech to campus via satellite. One student organizer proudly proclaimed that the telecast exemplified "academic freedom for the 21st century."

But again, BC higher-ups pulled the plug. Upset but undeterred, students persisted. They wrote op-eds, formed action groups, and staged a protest demonstration. On Thursday, students finally got to hear Ayers speak, thanks to student radio station WZBC, which aired a phone interview with the University of Illinois at Chicago professor. Call it academic freedom for the mid 20th century.

The WZBC interview, conducted by BC seniors Bill Sadd and Steve Wagner, focused on education-reform issues — funding inequalities between urban and suburban education, the failures of No Child Left Behind — though Ayers did touch on what he called the "shameful thing" at BC.

Modified freedom
As a private institution, BC is not required to uphold the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and free assembly. Further, BC's threshold for canceling speakers is provided wider latitude than is afforded most private colleges because of the school's Catholic affiliation. BC is, however, bound to the promises made in its student guidebook.

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  Topics: News Features , Boston College, Boston College, Americans for Informed Democracy,  More more >
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