The visit of a 1960s radical-turned-academic to the campus of Georgia Southern University delivered much of the billing that had long been expected.
Found inside the university's Performing Arts Center were supporters eager to receive a message from renowned Illinois professor William Ayers, along with protesters staunchly opposed to an appearance by a former leader of a United States terrorist organization. All were under the watch of a noticeably increased security presence.
For two hours, Ayers, who co-founded the militant anti-war group The Weather Underground in 1969, addressed the modest collection of students, professors and citizens that came to hear him speak. The lecture made no mention of a radical past, or a relationship with President Barack Obama - which made headlines during the 2008 election campaign.
Instead, Ayers spoke of academic freedom, democracy, education reform and the active role in which all citizens, he said, should exercise within their government.
"If you are not using your free speech; if you are not examining the world, you don't have free speech," said Ayers. "The reason freedom of speech and academic freedom are needed, is to speak unconventional ideas and explore difficult or contested terrain; to examine ideas that challenge the orthodoxy. That's why we need to defend academic freedom."
"It is very important to understand that academic freedom is a privilege to society," he said. "To push the limits of whatever the norm is."
As examples of academic freedom challenging the boundaries of what is accepted, Ayers referenced Galileo - who challenged the church and state regarding planetary movement - and fundamental members of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The now-retired education professor insisted that students continue being "works in progress," and desire to "live big lives" with political and social relevance.
"That's what I urge you to say as young people: ‘I want to live a big life; I want to live a beautiful life unbounded by orthodoxy, stupidity or blindness,'" he said. "You are living in history. What you do, or don't do, will make a difference."
Perhaps the lone surprise regarding the lecture, which was cancelled in the face of heated protests two years ago: it was cordial.
The only semblance of controversy emerged through a small protest before Ayers' taking the stage, and a question and answer session immediately following his speech.
A small contingent of the Georgia Chapter of The Sons of Liberty - a political group - arrived at the PAC parking lot as the event began, with intent to demonstrate their opposition.
"We are just appalled that the university would invite a known terrorist to come here and speak to our students," said Don Hodges, President of the Georgia Chapter of the Sons of Liberty. "We feel they are indoctrinating our students and we need to show the public that we oppose that."
The group opted to put away their signs and flags to attend the Ayers lecture, once told a demonstration would not be allowed on school grounds. The group did not register through the university to hold a demonstration, said Mike Russell, Director of Public Safety at GSU.
Upon the conclusion of his lecture, Ayers was presented with the issues that have continued to mire him in controversy for more than four decades.
Sandwiched between questions concerning the current conflict in Egypt, President Obama's administration and general thoughts pertinent to his lecture, Ayers faced inquisition regarding his role as a political activist in the 1970s and claims of a connection between he and the Islamic resistance movement Hamas.
"I have no relationship with Hamas. I don't know anyone in Hamas and have never met anyone in Hamas as far as I know," said Ayers, when asked about a possible connection. "There are these wild tales that are told about me, that I know nothing about."
In regard to his role with The Weather Underground - which bombed political buildings and monuments in the 1970s to protest the Vietnam War - Ayers said, "I've said that we broke the law, crossed the lines of propriety, common sense and decency in many ways."
"If you want me to say I was wrong about the war, I don't believe I was wrong; therefore I can't say it," he said. "I do not feel sorry for my opposition to the Vietnam war."
The scholar, seemingly willing to talk to each member of the continually growing question-line, exited the stage after being told his time had concluded. Ayers finished by returning to point, encouraging all to keep an open mind to any issue that confronts them.
"Talk to everyone and come to your own conclusion," he said. "In this wildly diverse and weird democracy, it is not a sin but a virtue to talk to strangers, to everybody, and have a mind of your own."
Jeff Harrison can be reached at 912-489-9454.