RFK's Son Blocks Ayers From Getting Emeritus Status

fromWBEZ

University of Illinois professor Bill Ayers co-wrote a book in 1973 and dedicated it in part to Sirhan Sirhan, Robert F. Kennedy's assassin. Kennedy's son now chairs the university's board, and when the soon-to-retire Ayers requested emeritus status, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the request was denied.

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A rare move yesterday from The University of Illinois, it denied a request for emeritus status by a long-serving faculty member. William Ayers is an education professor. He's also a former member of the radical 1970s group, the Weather Underground, which bombed government buildings and became a target of the FBI.

But that's not what derailed is request. Ayers also co-authored a book and dedicated it to Sirhan Sirhan, the man who killed Robert F. Kennedy. And that did not sit well with the chairman of the university's board, himself a Kennedy.

Chicago Public Radio's Tony Arnold reports.

TONY ARNOLD: For 20 years, William Ayers has taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He retired in August and wanted to gain emeritus status, an honorary title usually given to distinguished retired faculty members.

It's typically a formality, and all he needed was approval from the university's board of trustees. But standing in the way was the chairman of the board, Chris Kennedy, the son of late Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Mr. CHRIS KENNEDY (Board of Trustees, University of Illinois): I intend to vote against conferring the honorific title of our university to a man whose body of work includes a book dedicated in part to the man who murdered my father, Robert F. Kennedy.

ARNOLD: Kennedy was referring to a book Ayers co-wrote in the '70s with other members of the Weather Underground. It's called "Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism." It's dedicated to all political prisoners in the U.S. But the dedication goes on to specifically include Sirhan Sirhan, the man imprisoned for assassinating Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

Mr. KENNEDY: There is nothing more antithetical to the hopes for a university that is lively, and yet civil, than to permanently seal off debate with one's opponent by killing them.

ARNOLD: Not one University of Illinois trustee voted in favor of granting Ayers emeritus status. Ayers wouldn't make any comment, but only said by phone that he found out about the emeritus denial after reading it the newspaper.

This is not the first time Ayers has been in the spotlight. He once worked with Barack Obama in an organization involved with school reform in Chicago. And in 2008, Republican Arizona Senator and then-presidential candidate John McCain used that connection to attack Mr. Obama. For example in this ad...

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Woman: Barack Obama and domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, friends. They've worked together for years.

ARNOLD: Ayers does have his defenders. Vicki Chou heads the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She says he's well-respected in the education community.

Ms. VICKI CHOU (College of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago): It's very exciting when he brought, you know, founded the Small Schools Workshop, which had a lot of influence, I think, both locally and nationally in talking about the importance of personalism and relationships, trusting relationships at the school level.

ARNOLD: But for now, at least, any achievements have been overshadowed by a book dedication from nearly 40 years ago. The controversy isn't necessarily over. A university spokesman says Ayers could still re-apply for emeritus status.

For NPR News, I'm Tony Arnold in Chicago.

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