Emeritus status for Ayers denied
URBANA — In a move that hasn’t happened for years, University of Illinois Board of Trustees voted to deny a professor emeritus status Thursday.
Chairman Chris Kennedy of Chicago, son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, said he would not vote for emeritus status for University of Illinois at Chicago Professor William Ayers.
The rest of the trustees agreed to vote no, without discussion.
Ayers, a former ’60s radical, was one of four authors of a 1974 book, “Prairie Fire,” a manifesto of the radical Weather Underground.
Ayers joined the UI Chicago faculty in 1987 as an education professor and retired this summer.
“Prairie Fire” is dedicated to, among other radical heroes, Sirhan Sirhan, the man who assassinated Kennedy’s father.
Kennedy, who is usually genial in meetings, looked down as he spoke, and his voice cracked. The room was silent.
Ayers did not return an e-mail request for comment Thursday evening.
Longtime UI spokesman Thomas Hardy said he could not remember another UI professor being denied emeritus or emerita status.
“It’s highly unusual,” he said. “I consulted with people who have worked here for many decades.”
But Kennedy noted that emeritus status can be denied in the statutes. It is not a right, but a privilege, he told the other trustees.
The UI Chicago handbook notes:
“The granting of emeritus status to retiring faculty and senior administrative staff members is based on merit. At UI-C, the emeritus designation is regarded as an extraordinary title that is given for extraordinary service.”
Kennedy said he had given reflection to the words of scholars like John Henry Newman in choosing his path.
“I have been chosen to play this role as trustee in part because of my experiences in a wide range of fields which ensure that my actions are familiar to others and therefore predictable and hopefully reflective of the expected communal conscience of our state,” he told the trustees. “There are times like today when we must make difficult decisions and perhaps those that are controversial or simply create a spectacle.”
Kennedy then moved on to the specific case of Ayers.
“While the process of conferring emeritus status may end with the board of trustees, it is important to note that it must begin with the individual faculty member who must request this honorific status for themselves,” he said. “Apparently, Mr. Ayers, who has been a teacher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has asked for this privilege and honor to be bestowed on him. Our discussion of this topic therefore does not represent an intervention into the scholarship of the university, nor is it a threat to academic freedom.”
Kennedy, who runs a large family business in Chicago, the Merchandise Mart, continued:
“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. There can be no place in a democracy to celebrate political assassinations or to honor those who do so.”
After the meeting, several trustees said they would rather not comment on the vote out of respect to Kennedy.
Kennedy was not available for comment after the meeting.