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Ryan Johnson, Published April 20 2013

Two months later, MSUM still facing fallout from Ayers visit

MOORHEAD – Minnesota State University Moorhead is stepping up security as fallout builds two months after a controversial guest speaker visited campus in February.

President Edna Szymanski said the university has lost a “significant amount” of donor money since William Ayers was there for a Feb. 26 speech and three days of meetings with faculty and students on how to incorporate social justice issues into curricula.

But she said the tone of recent feedback turned from alumni threats of cutting off funding to “institutional and personal threats” after conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh mentioned the visit last week while discussing how Ayers “got his start” in the same way as the Boston Marathon bombers.

“We are working with our security forces and they are working with the police department about making sure that we step up our safety practices on campus in light of the threats we have been receiving,” Szymanski said. “There is definitely significantly enhanced security on campus right this minute.”

To some, Ayers is an educational reform advocate and former antiwar activist. To others, he’s a domestic terrorist.

The now-68-year-old co-founded Weather Underground, known for its 1960s and 1970s bombings of government buildings – including the Pentagon, U.S. Capitol and New York City Police Department – in opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Charges linking Ayers to bombings were dropped in 1974 because of illegal FBI wiretaps and government misconduct.

He came to MSUM at the request of a professor in the university’s College of Education and Human Services and was named the college’s “visiting scholar,” a role filled almost every year by bringing in a well-established scholar to visit the campus and deliver a public address.

University spokesman David Wahlberg said the visit by Ayers prompted local feedback at the time. But that “more or less faded away” until the conservative website Campus Reform posted a March 22 article that said Ayers accepted a “prestigious award” while at MSUM.

Wahlberg said the Campus Reform report “paints a picture that simply did not happen.” But the misinformation spread rapidly online and has prompted an outcry for the past month. He said well over 100 people have contacted the university already.

“If I were to read that, I would envision a banquet or a convocation or some such thing where a plaque or medallion or something is presented to this person in honor of his work as a terrorist,” he said. “That’s the context of the original account, and then as that story went viral and repeated, it got spread to new and newer audiences.”

Wahlberg has tried to debunk the online accounts of Ayers’ visit in the weeks since. An email he sent to several people who contacted MSUM about the issue points out Ayers “was not named to the faculty, not honored at some banquet, he did not receive an honorary degree, and he was not invited to present on subversion or communism.”

Still, Wahlberg’s email says administrators know that many people who are upset at the visit believe that his past “makes him an unacceptable choice” no matter the topic.

“None the less, we know we have let you down,” the email concludes. “We hope this one disappointment will not erase all other factors in your final evaluation of us.”

Academic freedom?

Szymanski said MSUM “absolutely does not support terrorism” and said Ayers’ visit in no way should be seen as the university’s endorsement of him or his past. He wasn’t paid for his time in Moorhead, she said, and the costs of his airfare and hotel room were covered through a special fund established by a donor to bring in visiting speakers.

“Bill Ayers was brought here by a faculty member in the School of Teaching and Learning to discuss school reform and the need for good teachers,” she said. “He was brought here because he is, or was, a tenured professor at a major research university, and somebody who was recognized for their work in that area.”

After his time as a student radical, Ayers became a national expert on education reform and formerly was a distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He became surrounded by controversy once again during the 2008 presidential campaign because of his contacts with then-Sen. Barack Obama.

Ted Gracyk, president of MSUM’s Faculty Association and president of the Faculty Senate, said Ayers was brought here to lead campus workshops, not because of politics or terrorism. He said it’s also an issue of academic freedom, the freedom to explore ideas and topics from different viewpoints that are relevant to teaching and research.

“Higher education is not about either spoon-feeding them or sheltering them, and if controversy arises, that’s a teaching moment for us to get students to think about conflicting ideas,” he said. “The sad thing in this case is the conflicting ideas that were being discussed have nothing to do with why Ayers is notorious.”

Gracyk said individual faculty members bring in outside speakers and scholars like this hundreds of times each year, and the decision doesn’t rise to the level of upper administration.

Szymanski said she didn’t know about the visit ahead of time, but said administrators and faculty are now looking to work together more before bringing high-profile speakers to campus so as to avoid future controversy. Still, she said she wouldn’t have made a decision about Ayers’ visit by herself.

She said the loss of donor funds is especially concerning because of what it means for the campus.

“It’s very distressing because the money that comes in here is money that supports our students, and it also is money that enables us to carry out the activities of the university,” she said. “Because of this political firestorm, our students are actually being hurt.”

Gracyk said the controversy is a learning experience for MSUM’s faculty as they try to preserve academic freedom in the age of social media.

“We’ll be having conversations about how we can at least be more aware of these things and that we can be more mindful about how the decisions we’re making impact our students in particular, because that’s the negative fallout here in the end,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587