Ayers' 90-minute presentation drew jeers, boos and an emotional outburst from a woman who swore at him and left. He also received plenty of laughs and claps and even a few standing ovations from the half of the crowd that liked him.
Yet, Ayers' speech lacked the kind of fire-breathing, radical language that some might have expected from a militant who once thought blowing up a Pentagon bathroom could change the course of war. (Ayers admitted in an interview prior to his speech that the bombings did not stop the war.)
An unapologetic liberal and socialist, Ayers spoke earnestly.
He urged students to open their eyes and act when they learn about injustice in the world. Ayers praised Obama and his community organizer background.
He called for the nation to stop treating education like a commodity that can be manufactured like a Chevrolet and instead open numerous, small schools where students are known by their teachers. He advised students to reject dogma and challenge conventional wisdom, noting that slavery and women's inability to vote were at one time accepted legal and social norms.
And he embraced the rights of the protesters in the room and outside, although he objected to their suggestion that he would "warp (students') impressionable minds," he said. "Really, are there books they shouldn't be allowed to read, too?"
Update 9:15: The Contra Costa Times is reporting that "a few hundred sign-carrying, flag-waving protesters gathered around a megaphone to object to an appearance by Ayers.
"Most of the protest and its speeches took place before Ayers spoke, but even as he took the stage inside the college's Soda Center, protesters outside crowded toward the doors and shouted, 'Cop Killer!' (Ayers has never been convicted of killing anyone.)
"The protesters' chants sometimes competed with students and Ayers' supporters, who chanted 'Saint Mary's College!' and 'SMC!' And a few debates between the two camps escalated to the point of yelling."
Posted 2:35 p.m.
Brother Ronald Gallagher, president of St. Mary’s College, says he “strongly disagrees” with many of the past actions of William Ayers, the Vietnam-era radical and Weather Underground co-founder-turned Chicago university professor, who is the last of four lecturers participating in St. Mary’s annual January Term Speakers series.
However, Gallagher says he decided to not rescind the speaking invitation to Ayers, despite complaints from some current and former students and plans for a protest organized by conservative groups.
Ayers is regarded as a distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois who has written and spoken extensively on the need for social justice in education. He is also a respected member of the Chicago community, but he became a controversial figure during the presidential campaign after Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and other Republicans accused then-presidential candidate Barack Obama of having close ties with him.
During the 1970s, the militant anti-war group Weather Underground bombed public buildings, including a Pentagon bathroom and New York City police headquarters. Ayers has long rejected the label of terrorist, and any close ties between him and the new president were never proven.
Gallagher clarifies how Ayers’ speaking invitation came to pass and own steadfast decision to welcome him to campus in a message to the St. Mary’s community, posted on the Moraga Catholic university’s website.
Gallagher writes: “Ayers was selected by the January Term Committee, a group composed primarily of faculty members, to speak about ‘Trudging Toward Freedom: Building a Movement and Living Our Lives for Peace and Justice.’ Professor Ayers' selection in no way constitutes an endorsement by the College of any past actions, viewpoints or political opinions. Nor is his invitation an attempt on the part of the College to honor him in any way.”
To rescind or overrule the January Term leadership’s invitation, Gallagher says, “would be to undermine the educational principles and values upon which our College is based. Institutions of higher education serve society and their local communities by providing a place for opinions and ideas of all types to be examined, questioned and discussed. It is in these ‘academic cities’ that the arts of reason and inquiry, the fruits of the liberal arts, are brought to bear on the controversial issues of today and of all time. For students, faculty members and the public, colleges provide a special opportunity to step away from the often overheated and polarized rhetoric of contemporary culture and examine difficult and controversial issues in the somewhat cooler light of reason.”
You can read more of Gallagher’s letter here.
Bringing "thought-provoking" speakers to St Mary’s College is the reason the campus invited Ayers to participate in the school’s January Term Speakers Series, the university has said previously.
The theme for this year’s speaker series is “Against the Grain,” a theme which reflects the “provocative stance” Ayers and the four other speakers have taken “on issues ranging from politics to sustainable living.”