What Bill Ayers Tells Us about Student Autonomy

Before my title deceives you, I unfortunately missed Bill Ayers’ lecture on Thursday, and I have no idea what he talked about.  He might have brought up the idea of student autonomy; chances are he didn’t.

The event itself, however, sure told us a lot about the freedom we enjoy as Brandeis students — and it showed us that our administrators are dedicated to keeping it that way.

Imagine you’re Jehuda Reinharz.  Your university has taken a series of PR hits in recent months, some of them undeserved, and is now fighting an image of financial insolvency and betrayal of key donors and the art community as a whole.  You are facing a decreased applicant pool while needing to accept more students than ever.  It is absolutely critical that you do as little as possible to alienate your recently accepted students while they decide if they want to spend the four most critical years of their lives paying your tuition.

In the middle of all this, a group of students wants to invite a controversial speaker to your campus.  Not just any controversial speaker.  This is a man who public opinion has labeled an unrepentant murderer and terrorist.  A man whose name was recently plastered over the national news in discussion of whether his acquaintance alone should disqualify someone from assuming the United States Presidency. You know that his speaking at your school will cause a minor uproar.  You’ve seen it happen at a nearby university of similar reputation, to the point where they canceled his appearance.

Predictably, the comment pages of the local newspapers soon fill with vitriol.  The worst stereotypes of your university are dragged up and rehashed over and over.  One website even publishes the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of you and your fellow high-level administrators, presumably causing your inbox to fill with angry, ignorant screeds.

Would you still allow the event to continue?

The administration really got in the students’ corner on this one and proved their commitment to allowing us autonomy and educational freedom.  Their public comments struck exactly the right tone — that Brandeis does not endorse Ayers’ actions, but that they believe in giving us access to a wide range of viewpoints, and, implicitly, that they will not interfere with our ability to plan our own events through established channels.  Even those who protested Ayers must realize the courage and respect for students that underlaid the administration’s singing off on the event.

It’s possible that Ayers’ appearance has already discouraged some prospective students from enrolling at Brandeis.  It’s also possible that those who take offfense to Ayers would never have considered a school like Brandeis in the first place, and that our defense of principle over petty criticism will impress the prospectives enough to work in our favor.  Either way, the administration deserves a round of applause for this one.

Why not send Jehuda an e-mail telling him how you recognize and appreciate the university’s stance towards student autonomy?  I’m sure it’ll be a nice break from the “OMG OMG HES A TERRERIST U PINKO COMMIE SCUM!!!!!!11″ spam that’s sure to be clogging his B-mail.