In 2009, as word spread on the campus of Georgia Southern University and throughout Statesboro that a member of a 1970s terrorist group was scheduled to speak on school grounds, resentment and protest emerged.
Ultimately, William "Bill" Ayers was not allowed to speak due to security costs and concerns, Georgia Southern officials said. And now, two years later, the return of Ayers to Bulloch County is being met with less resistance, but again sparking controversy and becoming a divisive issue for some.
Ayers, a retired education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, is scheduled to lecture Monday, in the school's Performing Arts Center (PAC). The program, entitled ‘The Right to Think at All: The Fragile but Precious Place of Academic Freedom,' will begin at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
"How ironic is it that [Georgia Southern] - established and funded by government funds - is inviting someone to speak who wanted/wants to destroy our government," wrote GSU graduate student Michael Stephenson, in a letter to the school's newspaper Tuesday. "My concern lies with the persons and departments involved in paying for this man to come and ‘enlighten' the students of this institution."
According to Michelle Haberland, an associate professor of history at the university, Ayers will return on behalf of the "Campus Life Enrichment Committee with contributions from various departments on campus," not Georgia Southern University.
"A variety of faculty, student groups and campus organizations sponsor numerous speakers with different viewpoints throughout the year," said Christian Flathman, Georgia Southern Director of Marketing and Communications. "While the event is being held on campus, it is not a university or administration sponsored event. The speaker was invited by faculty members within the history department and is being funded by student activity fees."
"The issue lies not in whether [Ayers] has the right to come and speak, but where the money is coming from," said Stephenson. "Academic freedom is one thing. Using our money to bring a terrorist to campus to talk about it is something completely different."
In his letter, Stephenson echoed the sentiment expressed by students and alumni two years ago, when individuals created petitions in opposition of Ayers' visit and established group pages on the social networking site Facebook to protest.
"We are aware that some folks have expressed concern about Professor Ayers' visit," said Haberland. "Although I'm not in a position to decide how student fees are spent, it is my understanding that student fees fund a wide variety of events and campus groups. Not all of these groups or events would appeal to all students."
Controversy surrounding the retired academic's visit, in '09 and in recent weeks, arose as a result of his infamous past.
The Illinois professor was co-founder of the Weather Underground, a radical group that bombed public buildings and monuments in the 1960s and 70s to protest United States involvement in the Vietnam War - targets included the United States Capitol building and the Pentagon.
Ayers, who was never convicted for Weather Underground's crimes due to a technicality - government authorities failed to get a warrant for some of their surveillance - returns to Statesboro on the heels of a court case wherein the verdict ruled a University of Wyoming decision to revoke Ayers' speaking engagement unconstitutional.
The University of Wyoming, like Georgia Southern, cited high security costs as the reason for rescinding its invitation.
Haberland says much of the concern with Ayers' attempted visit in 2009 was a result of the 2008 presidential election media frenzy. Ayers was again at the political forefront after being tied to President Barack Obama during the election campaign.
"Now that the passions of the 2008 election season have dissipated," she said, "the controversy may have died down a bit."
Student reaction around campus echoes Haberland's view.
"I think it's positive to hear from anyone with an insight to the past," said sophomore Rachael Johnson, who was not aware of Ayers, his past or the impending visit. "I will definitely try to go."
"If he is going to broaden our perspective on politics, it is important that this institution - where we are supposed to be expanding our minds -allow him to come," said graduate student Thomas Richardson, after learning about the lecture. In regard to student fees being used to pay for Ayers to speak, Richardson "couldn't care less," he said.
"Mr. Ayers is a citizen of the United States who wishes to speak, and he need not offer any more justification than that," said Haberland.
Jeff Harrison can be reached at 912-489-9454.