Opinion: Under fire, U of Nebraska cancels speech by William Ayers


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As much of the media obsessed this weekend about Barack Obama’s large numbers -- crowds and dollars -- William Ayers, the controversial ‘60s radical who helped launch the Democrat’s political career in his Chicago South Side living room, popped back up in the news in the Midwest.

It seems the cofounder of the violent Weather Underground that bombed public buildings during the Vietnam War was invited as a keynote speaker by the University of Nebraska in Lincoln right after the presidential election next month.


The invitation apparently went out last winter. But news of it broke last week and has been causing considerable buzz and protest online.

Late last week politicians of both parties in Nebraska roundly condemned the Nov. 15 invitation.

Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson urged university officers to reconsider the invitation. ‘His (Ayers’) past involvement in a violent protest group and incendiary comments are not consistent with the agenda of unity that we need in America today,’ Nelson said.

Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, said, ‘Bill Ayers is a well-known radical who should never have been invited to the University of Nebraska.’ He added, ‘our citizens are clearly outraged and want action.’

The Omaha World-Herald reported that one prominent group -- the Gilbert M. and Martha H. Hitchcock Foundation, a....

...multimillion-dollar university donor in past years -- threatened to halt all of its donations to the university over the invite, and numerous other donors promised such action if the event proceeded.

Some university teachers warned the Omaha paper that canceling the Ayers speech would hurt the school’s academic reputation as an appearance of censorship and make future faculty recruiting more difficult.

Saturday, however, a university spokeswoman announced that the invitation to Ayers, now an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an Obama neighbor, had been rescinded for the College of Education and Human Sciences centennial celebration for ‘safety reasons.’

She would not elaborate.

Ayers’ association with Obama, which included work together on two city education projects in the 1990s, first emerged during the Democratic Party’s primary season, when the freshman Illinois Democrat described the unrepentant Ayers merely as an acquaintance whose ‘despicable’ acts occurred during Obama’s childhood. He has since said Ayers would play no role in his administration.

(UPDATE: In February, Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, described the Obama-Ayers relationship to as ‘certainly friendly.’ And in August, Mayor Richard M. Daley, one of Obama’s most important local backers, told the Chicago Tribune, ‘They’re friends. So what?’)

The Republican presidential campaign of John McCain has sought to make their relationship a continuing question of Obama’s judgment along with his association with others such as Tony Rezko, recently convicted on federal fraud charges.

Despite the cancellation, the Nebraska state auditor, Mike Foley, sent the university a request for detailed information on the proposed event’s funding. While the state attorney general, Jon Bruning, called the cancellation decision ‘good news for the university.’

‘I don’t think there was any good way for the university to disassociate itself with his past,’ Bruning said.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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