Comment on William Ayers Appearance at PAS
President Durden makes himself available to students during his open office hours on campus.
Dear Dickinson Community:
Monday evening, Feb. 21, Dickinson will be visited by William Ayers. He has been invited by the student organizing committee to deliver the opening presentation of the Public Affairs Symposium on social activism. He will speak, I believe, about social activism as part of an undergraduate curriculum. Ayers is, of course, a controversial figure in American history because of his engagement with the Weather Underground in the ’60s.
A few alumni have written the college as well as some members of the greater community (from as far away as Alaska) to protest our permitting him to speak. Fair enough. That said this is an interesting moment—particularly at a time when the country is trying to defuse itself from heightened and arguably dangerous levels of partisanship and incivility toward those holding differing views.
I thought it would be appropriate to share with you a sample exchange (only slightly edited) between a 2003 alumnus and me, a 1971 alumnus. I share his letter as he has already posted it on the Dickinson Facebook page. I hope that the exchange provides you with food for thought and that you take the issues into your family and friendship circles for further debate. There are very essential understandings (or misunderstandings) of the American Republic contained in these words and they deserve our study.
I share this exchange with you also because this is what Dickinson College does and this is why record numbers of young people are applying here today. We do not shy away from issues. We are direct and transparent. We engage the “messy” business of democracy head on as , I believe, was desired by our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, our namesake, John Dickinson, and those other founding fathers of our nation who originally funded us—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Aaron Burr and others. In doing so, we generate controversy. In doing so, we provoke thoughtfulness. In doing so, we earn our distinction as a distinctively American college that advances a useful liberal-arts education for a still emerging nation.
Bill Durden ’71
Letter from the Alumnus:
I am a 2003 graduate of Dickinson College, B.A. Religion.
I am absolutely outraged at Dickinson's decision to invite William Ayers to be the keynote lecturer at this year's Public Affairs Symposium. While the laundry list of reasons why Dickinsonians and Alumni are against this action have undoubtedly been expressed to you and your office, I wanted to add my voice with the growing dissent of this deplorable decision. What made the situation even worse is the flimsy, and outright offensive attempt by the PAS committee to justify their actions via a letter to the editor in the Dickinsonian Newspaper.
The letter tried to "debunk" the falsehoods of accusations about Mr. Ayers, claiming that
only 7 people died from the explosions, not hundreds. Oh, that makes me feel better, that a man directly involved in the death of only 7 people is coming to Dickinson to speak. How much is the loss of a human life worth to Dickinson's need for "Plus, we need a little controversy at Dickinson." as the editorial states? Who will be next year's speaker? OJ Simpson? Osama Bin Laden? I understand what Dickinson is all about, with the liberal arts education, inclusion, and what Dickinson believes is their exclusivity in engaging the world unlike any other liberal arts college. I would think that Dickinsonians would have the proper common sense to realize that some things go to far, some people go to far, and not everything can be justified by Dickinson's motto and creed.
I can assure you that I will not give a single cent to this College as a result of this reckless decision. As a alumnus of (NAME REMOVED), one of my (and your) fraternity brothers, (AGENCY NAME REMOVED) Special Agent (NAME REMOVED), class of (REMOVED), served multiple US Army tours in Afghanistan, and continues to serve the public and his country. His outrage expressed in personal e-mails to myself and my brothers speaks volumes.
I hope that Dickinsonians and alumni will do the right thing and boycott this lecture all together. I remember when I was in school, and the KKK rallied in Carlisle. Dickinson counter-rallied at the football field against the KKK and its ideals. I hope Dickinsonians counter-rally against William Ayers and assemble at a different location, having a civil, engaging, and even vigorous debate, without the need of William Ayers and the baggage and negative publicity he brings.
President Durden's Response
Thank you for your expression of outrage about the upcoming lecture by William Ayres as part of our Public Affairs Symposium (PAS). I applaud it. As you may remember from your time at Dickinson, PAS is a student-run program. And it was the student committee that chose Ayers to speak (I am not quite sure they were fully comprehending of his record—they know him today mostly as an academic who has devised curricula on social action). However, the college does support their invitation to him. An invitation to speak on our campus does not imply that the college agrees or disagrees with a speaker's views—this is standard in American colleges and universities. As you might well remember from your study of American government, colleges in a democracy as established by the founding fathers are places where the American ideals (and legal definition) of free speech and the interplay of competing ideas are to be most fully exercised. It is for these ideas that countless Americans have, for example, joined the military in their defense and protection—to include yours truly. This is, of course, a particularly annoying situation for some—it’s messy. This concept of free speech was in large part why the original patriots revolted—were unauthorized revolutionaries resorting to violence in the eyes of the British government. The colonists did not enjoy free speech at all—especially in religion—and they wanted it badly.
We have confidence in our students’ abilities to ask questions, weigh speakers’ comments and backgrounds and arrive at their own conclusions when a controversial speaker is on campus. We would not be properly educating our students to go out into a world full of contention if we did not allow them opportunities to engage with contrary ideas. There also are ample events around Ayers speech to counter any notion of unauthorized violence as a means to change (I doubt Ayers will even be mentioning this subject, however). The Union Philosophical Society, for example, is sponsoring a large debate entitled “Is Violence Necessary for Revolution.” I might add that we are sharing with the organizing students all letters like yours. This is truly a learning experience for them (precisely what we intend). They are wonderful young people—intellectually engaged, socially committed and good citizens. I don’t believe they had any idea that an invitation to Ayers would generate such reaction. Bravo to democracy and liberal-arts education—an historically intended combination.
Ayers has already spoken at Dickinson—some 11 years ago—so there is nothing new here. You were actually at Dickinson then as a student. Did you write the administration? Did you attend the lecture? Or did you organize and participate in a counter rally as you advocate students and others do now? The presentation, by the way, was thoughtful, the audience respectful and yet difficult questions were asked. There was absolutely no immediate incitation of violence coming from Ayers and nobody left wanting to be a violent revolutionary. Our community was threatened in no way.
I am also observant of your comment that you intend not to support Dickinson because of this event. I have to smile because it tells me that Dickinson as a community (or at least some members of it) has not yet—although we keep working on it assiduously—reached a level of trust and commitment that many other college and university communities have achieved. There was an interesting article not too long ago in Harvard’s magazine. A number of conservative alums were interviewed and expressed strongly their anger with the administration for being so liberal in their minds. The interviewer asked them if they would support Harvard financially. You and your friends might find the answer surprising. They said essentially, “Of course, we will, Harvard is our college and we still love it. It defines us and gives meaning to our lives.” Another incident is recalled in Bill Bowen’s new book, “Lessons Learned,” about the presidency at colleges and universities with particular reference to his long service to Princeton. As a new president he met an old codger who walked right up to him and said in essence, “Young man, there is nothing you can do to break my love of Princeton.” Clearly, some of our alums have not yet achieved this relationship to our college and its role in democracy, education and their lives and that of others.
Again, thanks for caring about our college as it serves democracy. In that service perspectives are surely not to be served and thus some will be angry as you are. We expect this in what we are compelled by historical mandate to achieve with each generation. You can’t “win”—please everyone—in what we have to do.
All the best,
P.S. I personally abhor what Ayers did and advocated years ago and have stated that in public—but I also understand my obligation to the noble idea—far bigger than myself—of democracy with all its blemishes, triumphs and disagreements.