Georgia Southern U. Rescinds Speaking Invitation to William Ayers

February 12, 2009

Georgia Southern University has rescinded a speaking invitation to William Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who remains controversial for his involvement in the 1960s in the radical group the Weather Underground.

A student group at Georgia Southern, the Multicultural Advisory Council, had planned to have Mr. Ayers speak on March 2. When word of the planned event got out last week, however, students, alumni, and parents began protesting his visit to campus officials.

Some students set up a group page on the online social networking site Facebook called “Stop GSU from paying William Ayers (admitted terrorist) with student funds!” The site’s description alleges that Mr. Ayers had close ties with Barack Obama during the 2008 election and the Weather Underground was a terrorist group “responsible for several murders, of which Ayers was not suspected of being a part of.” A few of those posting on the site threatened to withhold donations to the university over the matter.

The university, in announcing the withdrawal of the speaking invitation and cancellation of the event earlier this week, said it was doing so because of security costs. In e-mail messages sent to The Chronicle today, a spokesman for the university, Christian Flathman, said officials there had estimated the security costs associated with the event to be in excess of $13,000, partly because the effort would involve “securing a major facility and the closing of several major parking lots that would disrupt university operations.” Mr. Ayers’s speaking fee was about $1,500.

Mr. Ayers had spoken at Georgia Southern before without any serious incidents. Michelle Haberland, an associate professor of history at the university, said in an e-mail message that many students and faculty members there believe the university’s estimate of security costs was inflated. “Since the security argument is obviously a sham, one can only conclude that the university feared the political outcry of a few blowhards,” she said. “In the meantime, they denied my students an opportunity to hear what a very important, if controversial, historical figure had to say.”

An article published yesterday in the university’s student newspaper, The George-Anne Daily, quotes Mr. Ayers as calling the university administration’s actions “outrageous.”

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln similarly cited safety concerns last fall in canceling its heavily protested plans to have Mr. Ayers speak there. Just last month, he canceled a speech at the University of Toronto after being denied entry into Canada. —Peter Schmidt