Amid Protests, Ayers Discusses Possibility of Reform in Schools and Society

Bill Ayers delivered an address in
the Soda Center on Jan. 28 as part of the January Term Speaker Series.Bill Ayers, the man Sarah Palin described as Barack Obama's terrorist pal during the presidential campaign, told Saint Mary's students that Obama's election represents an important historical moment, but the burden for social change lies in their own hands.

"This is a time to rethink what is possible," said Ayers, a University of Illinois-Chicago education professor and former Weather Underground leader. "But for any pressure you put on Obama, you should put an equal and opposite pressure on yourself."

A standing-room-only crowd of close to 600 students, professors and guests packed the Soda Center for the Jan. 28 public lecture. Ayers was invited to campus by the January Term Speakers Committee to discuss his two decades of scholarship on U.S. education reform.

More than 150 protesters demonstrated on campus against the appearance by Ayers, a leader 40 years ago of an organization that protested the Vietnam War by detonating bombs in the Pentagon and other buildings it deemed symbols of the war. Ayers, who spent the 1970s as a fugitive before the U.S. government dropped charges against him, maintains the Weather Underground never killed anyone and rejects the label of terrorist.

A professor who helped found the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago in the early 1990s, Ayers has long advocated that smaller public school classrooms are more responsive to student needs. He received much attention during last year's election as campaigners drew attention to his work on the Annenberg Challenge, a 1990s initiative Obama chaired that sought funding for Chicago's troubled public school system.

Ayers said his educational reform efforts are premised on the idea that public education in a democratic society should teach students the value of questioning and preserve the "incalculable value of every human being." That doesn't always happen in a large system like Chicago's, he said.

"A school system that spends $30,000 per kid in some places and $6,000 a kid in others values some more than others," he noted. "The incalculable value of every human being means that the full development of all of us requires the full development of any one of us."

Some audience members expressed anger with Ayers during his speech, but he also received several ovations during his 40-minute lecture and half-hour question-and-answer session with students.

The decision to invite Ayers generated controversy both on and beyond campus in recent weeks, with some calling for the speech to be canceled. Brother President Ronald Gallagher explained in a Jan. 21 letter to the community that while he strongly disagrees with many of Ayers' past actions, he supported the January Term Committee's right to make the invitation.

"To live up to our great tradition, we must remain an academic community where the free and open discussion of ideas, even those with which we strongly disagree, is possible," Brother Ron wrote.

Students expressed a range of opinions about the wisdom of inviting Ayers to speak, but several hundred were among the crowd that turned out to hear him and ask questions about their own generation's approaches to education, politics and social reform.

"I was shocked when I heard Ayers had been invited to Saint Mary's. He has a history of intolerance and violence that runs counter to everything Saint Mary's stands for," said senior Scott Cullinane, who wrote a Jan. 13 Collegian editorial criticizing the Ayers invitation. "I think he was an exceedingly poor choice. Having him at Saint Mary's validates and legitimizes violence."

"Whether or not we agree with what Bill Ayers did or what his opinions are right now, what's important is that he's a notable person who's had a life that we can learn a lot from," said Skylar Covich, a senior who wrote a Collegian editorial supporting Ayers' visit. "We can learn both from his mistakes and some things that he's done well - including eventually renouncing his methods and becoming an academic person who has advanced educational theory."

Ayers said that as the Obama administration begins governing in this 80th anniversary of Martin Luther King's birthday, students should explore the idea that civil rights or education reform might come from their own generation's grassroots action rather than strictly top-down political decisions.

"Lyndon B. Johnson wasn't part of the civil rights movement, Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn't part of the labor movement, and Abraham Lincoln wasn't part of the abolitionist movement. They were politicians responding to a movement on the ground by people who were making noise."

--John Grennan

Office of College Communications

Photo by Gorbachev Lingad ‘10

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