Before his surprise vote to deny a professor the honor of emeritus status, Christopher Kennedy never spoke publicly about his feelings about William Ayers, who co-wrote a book dedicated to the man who assassinated his father.
The University of Illinois Board of Trustees chairman consistently kept quiet during an anti-Ayers campaign that lasted more than a year in trustees' meetings, the president's house and several forms of media.
A Dewey man, Mark Thompson, hammered at the board in 2009 to investigate Ayers, a former radical who later spent more than two decades as an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.
Thompson also targeted Ayers' March 2009 public speaking at Allen Hall in Urbana, for which police briefly detained him, and took out a full-page newspaper ad condemning the professor.
As board chairman, it fell to Kennedy to tell Thompson more than once to sit down and keep quiet when the Dewey man interrupted a trustees meeting in Springfield on Nov. 12, 2009.
Thompson, who had spoken in the public comment section of an earlier 2009 meeting in Urbana, was told that he was repeating himself and would not be allowed further public comment time.
Thompson responded by shouting for the trustees to answer him about Ayers during the body of the meeting.
But Kennedy always kept his feelings to himself.
"He pretty much keeps his own counsel. He speaks when he has something to say," says Tom Hardy, the UI's chief spokesman.
Ike Saunders, the chairman's executive assistant, said Friday that Kennedy would have no further comment on Ayers.
On Thursday, Kennedy stunned a roomful of spectators into silence when, speaking quietly, he moved from a philosophical discussion of education to a specific statement about Ayers, who retired in August and was seeking emeritus status, which adds no remuneration.
The trustees voted unanimously not to give Ayers the status, which Kennedy stressed is a privilege, not a right.
"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," Kennedy said just before the unanimous vote, which was not preceded by any discussion.
Kennedy was 4 years old when his father was killed in 1968.
Thompson said Friday that he believes the trustees were acting out of fear for their political careers, not in solidarity against an assassin.
"The University of Illinois knows they are in the targets and sights of a lot of people because of Bill Ayers, and this is a very public way to distance themselves," he said.
He added that the move has little consequence for Ayers, who has finished his career.
"This won't hurt Ayers," he said.
For his own part, Thompson said his family has been punished for his anti-Ayers stance.
His daughter, Kelly, lost her scholarship on the UI Springfield's basketball team at the end of the last season..
"It was in retribution for my actions," Thompson said.
Derek Schnapp, director of public relations at UI Springfield, denied the accusation.
"As far as athletic scholarships go, they are year-to-year, and we do not publicly speak about specifics when it comes to student privacy. Mr. Thompson had requested numerous times to meet with the chancellor about his views, and Mr. Thompson has not only met with the chancellor and other senior administrators, but has been repeatedly told his views had nothing to do with any student losing a scholarship," he said.
Thompson, a longtime activist with his own website, campconservatism.com, has made Ayers his first target, with President Barack Obama as his eventual aim.
Near the beginning of his anti-Ayers campaign, Thompson visited the home of then-UI President B. Joseph White.
"We the people, of the United States of America, state publicly on May 2nd 2009, that the subversion of education by the Socialist movement within education must be acknowledged and stopped," he said in an open letter to the president and the governor.
In an Aug. 29, 2009, full-page ad in The News-Gazette, Thompson wrote:
"I am on a mission, some call a crusade, to have Bill Ayers investigated for academic misconduct and sedition, expose Obama's close ideological ties to Ayers, and unite America in a non-violent revolt against Socialism."
He complained that the UI administration was not willing to address his concerns.
"Unfortunately, the governor is the only remaining board member with a voice, in a lame duck session, the head of our state's law enforcement, but still, a part of the Chicago machine, God help us. I have repeatedly asked the board, as well as President (B. Joseph) White, to respond to my concerns via email. This issue is of much greater consequence nationally then the admissions scandal and yet they do not address these justified concerns," he wrote in the ad.
Thompson's last attempt to speak was at the November board meeting.
"I tried in Springfield and they denied me the right to speak. They said they'd heard everything I have to say and I wanted a response from them – they never once addressed any of my concerns for a year and a quarter," Thompson said.
"There was a lull in the action where I asked (Kennedy) if I could speak. He said I could during audience participation. Some people were called to speak, then he went to dismiss the meeting. He just shut the meeting down. He slammed the gavel down."