ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Would Anyone Object to Bill Ayers Delivering a Keynote Online?

By Lisa Neal Gualtieri / October 2008

Print Email
Comments Instapaper
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln rescinded a speaking invitation to an education professor with a suddenly famous political past. Why didn't they just invite him to present online?

Bill Ayers is a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who "has edited and written many books and articles on education theory, policy and practice." He has "appeared on many panels and symposia," presumably appearing in person-typical activities for a professor. He even writes a blog. It all sounds pretty tame until you read about some of his controversial views and learn about his political background, which have been disclosed in his writings. Presumably his academic credentials led to his speaking engagements, even as recently as February, when the University of Nebraska-Lincoln invited Ayers to keynote at a conference, speaking about "We Are Each Other's Keepers: Research to Change the World."

Ayers has been in the headlines recently because of alleged ties between him and Barack Obama, heavily publicized by John McCain and Sarah Palin. The university clarified that he was there to speak about his work in education; then noted that no state money was spent on his appearance and that attendance was optional; and then canceled his talk for security reasons. There was input from both parties, with Democratic Senator Nelson of Florida and Republican Governor Heineman of Nebraska condemning the invitation.

However, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) believes that "there can be no more appropriate site for the discussion of controversial ideas and issues than a college or university campus." The more controversial the speaker, the more students and faculty are likely to learn from the ensuing debate. Presumably the invitation to Ayers required some thought and was not extended because he is a controversial figure, but as a result of his scholarship, which has not changed even if his name is more frequently in the news. Rescinding an invitation seems a drastic step.

An administrator in the education school of a Boston-area university, who preferred to go unnamed, told me that beyond the politics of a situation, security costs can use up an entire budget. But he also went on to say that "logistics and security" can be used as excuses. Cost is an effective way to deny "undesirable" speaker a platform after an extended invitation becomes controversial-and Ayers is certainly not the first instance of this.

So if we decide to remove security cost as the issue, what do remain are issues of free speech. Suppose Ayers was presenting using Web conferencing, video conferencing, or as an avatar in Second Life instead of in person. Would the recent history outlined above have occurred at all?

I asked some colleagues what they thought about this question. Michael Feldstein responded, "If the talk had been online, the reaction probably would have been different. But I'm not sure it should be. Many institutions today, including both academic and political institutions, still have a fairly traditional notion of presence. Having somebody appear in a webcast seems somehow less connected to the university than having that person deliver the same lecture live on campus. Of course, there are some differences between these two modes of communication, but not significant ones in terms of the association with the branding of the hosting institution. Having a moving, talking image of a person appear on a Web page alongside the university's logo is just as tight and official an association as having the physical person speak in a physical hall on the physical campus."

I agree with Feldstein about the branding issue, and indeed the reactions from vocal politicians and the university might have been different if Ayers had been invited to speak online. For one thing, some people might not have really understood about the online delivery-there are politicians who publicly admit to not using the Internet and undoubtedly some academics who don't use it either. The publicity for the online talk might have been mostly online, also impacting who saw it and therefore the reaction to the talk. Furthermore, the delivery mechanism has an impact on the audience. An online talk, no matter how it is delivered, is different than an in-person talk because there are more opportunities to open it to a broader audience, attendees have more participation options, and it can be archived. But the goals of the conference were not to reach a broad audience but to have a more intimate intellectual exchange.

I asked Kelly Bartling, manager of news at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, if she believed the reaction to Ayers' keynote would have happened had it been an online talk instead of on campus. Her response was, "I really don't think so. It appears what people were reacting to was the presence of someone on campus who they violently disagreed with and the emotions were such that it became impossible for many to understand what he was invited here to talk to students about in the first place-qualitative research in teaching-and reconcile that with their politicized beliefs about what Bill Ayers 'means'." Bartling went on to say that, "I don't think that having an online talk would have been of interest to the faculty because this research conference includes the one-to-one interaction with students by the speakers, the casual time, the give and take that occurs in a personal visit, and watching and interacting in cyberspace was never considered an equal substitute."

In person gatherings more easily facilitate the type of networking and interaction Bartling describes and is what underlies much of the debate about online vs. classroom education. But most of this debate centers on the value of face-to-face contact, not on freedom of speech. In fact, freedom of speech costs less online because security is not needed and because reach is greater.

Canceling a talk is an extreme solution, understandable under the political pressure put on a state university, but not excusable unless their original reasoning in extending the invitation was flawed. But I would hazard a guess that Bill Ayers' views on education and everything else received more attention from the students and faculty who would have heard him at the conference because they can all read his work and view videos of him speaking. And outside the university, similarly the ensuing publicity likely led to far more curiosity about Ayers than there otherwise would have been. If Ayers decided to tape and post his keynote, his audience would be much broader than the intimate education conference. Ultimately, security and scholarship concerns could have both been addressed by moving to an online format and the conference attendees would have had a different experience, but would have benefited from Ayers' scholarship.


  • There are no comments at this time.