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Safeguard academic freedom

The Bill Ayers controversy that continues to reverberate from the campus of Minnesota State University Moorhead offers a fresh reminder that academic freedom and freedom of speech aren’t put to the test by bland, gauzy pronouncements. They are tested by unpopular speech, by ideas that many find disagreeable or even reprehensible. Sadly, the university administration, in seeming to bow meekly to critics, appears to have forgotten that a college campus should serve unabashedly as an intellectual public square.

In the case of Ayers, the controversy wasn’t triggered by what he said when he visited the MSUM campus in late February to speak about education reform and its implications for democracy. The fallout was all about who Ayers was and what he did in the early 1970s as a leader in the radical group the Weather Underground, which violently protested the Vietnam War.

The group became notorious for bombing government buildings, including police stations, the United States Capitol and the Pentagon. During interviews, including statements he made after publication of his memoirs in 2001, Ayers has appeared unrepentant about his extremist past. “I don’t regret setting bombs,” he told an interviewer. “I feel we didn’t do enough.”

We do not approve that message. But Ayers also is a retired professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was a distinguished professor of education and senior university scholar. He was invited to speak at MSUM as a visiting scholar who presented a lecture, “Teaching from the Heart: Education for Enlightenment and Freedom.”

Oddly, the university seems to have been caught flat-footed by the uproar that Ayers’ visit ignited, largely after a conservative blog fanned the flames of outrage. But he stirred national controversy only five years ago, during the 2008 presidential campaign, because of his earlier association with Barack Obama.

As the MSUM administration pointed out, inviting Ayers to speak on campus as a visiting education scholar is not remotely the same as endorsing his radical past. A university must be a place for robust intellectual exchanges, where students are challenged to search for meaning drawn from competing and diverse points of view in what can be called the marketplace of ideas. Unfortunately, as the recent meddling of some legislators in research at North Dakota State University also attests, academic freedom is under assault on our campuses. Faced with a “teachable moment,” MSUM administrators failed to strenuously make the case for academic freedom. Donors who threatened to withhold money should reconsider; students would suffer from their small-mindedness. — The Forum