A controversial academic will lecture on the campus of Georgia Southern University two years after the school rescinded his speaking invitation amid security concerns and heated student protests.
William "Bill" Ayers, a retired education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and infamous member of the then radical group Weather Underground in the 1970s, will return to Statesboro for a Feb. 7 speaking engagement in the university's Performing Arts Center (PAC).
Though the university has yet to announce or advertise the event, and no mention of Ayers can be found on the PAC's calendar of events, the professor is scheduled to take part in a departmental lecture at 7 p.m. Feb. 7, according to Carol Thompson, assistant director of the PAC.
Ayers, who has spoken at Georgia Southern without incident before, will return on behalf of the "Campus Life Enrichment Committee with contributions from various departments on campus," said Dr. Michelle Haberland, an associate professor of history at the university.
"Professor Ayers will address academic freedom in education in a talk entitled, ‘The Right to Think at All: The Fragile but Precious Place of Academic Freedom'," she said. "We are delighted that the Georgia Southern University community is demonstrating its commitment to academic freedom by hosting Professor Ayers."
The Multicultural Advisory Council, a student group at Georgia Southern, planned to have Ayers speak at the university in the spring of 2009. Protests by students, parents and alumni followed, prompting school officials to cancel the invitation - officials cited high security costs in excess of $13,000.
Controversy regarding the Ayers visit arose as a result of the professor's ties with a United States terrorist organization created in 1969.
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 - Ayers' name had recently returned to the political forefront when linked to President Barack Obama during the 2008 election
Students at Georgia Southern created petitions in opposition of the professor's visit and established group pages on the social networking site Facebook to air their concerns.
"[Ayers'] invitation was rescinded in 2009 owing to security concerns in the wake of the 2008 president election media frenzy over his supposed connection to Barack Obama," said Haberland. "Those concerns are no longer an issue."
"In addition, a law suit following a similar cancellation at the University of Wyoming led to a ruling by United States District Court Judge William Downes, which stated that security concerns cannot be used in this way - to bar an individual from speaking," she said. "[Downes] concluded that Ayers' right to free speech had been violated at the University of Wyoming and ordered that he be allowed to speak at the university. This federal ruling prompted us to try to bring Ayers to our campus again."
The ruling, in April 2010, stated that the university must take "all prudent steps" to guarantee Ayers' security at the lecture. The case marked the first time Ayers sued an institution for refusing to allow him to speak.
The Ayers lecture, according to Christian Flathman, Director of Marking and Communications at GSU, will be "funded by student activity fees, not state dollars."
"Each event proposal approved by the Campus Life Enrichment Committee is funded by student fees," he said.
The lecture is free and open to the public.
Jeff Harrison can be reached at 912-489-9454.