Sporting a purposefully chosen black T-shirt emblazoned with "Read banned books" under a blazer, controversial speaker William Ayers addressed a packed crowd Thursday at Elgin Community College.
Ayers, a Glen Ellyn native and retired professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, drew much applause for his comments on problems with the American education system. But he also took a few jabs for his past role as a leader of the Weather Underground, a 1970s group that set off small bombs at several public places to protest the Vietnam War.
Ayers was the first guest speaker for the college's Humanities Center Speaker Series. He addressed his critics head-on.
"Like librarians, I'm pretty much a fundamentalist about reading anything you want or speaking anything you want," Ayers said, adding that an American community college is a place that should allow a free exchange of ideas, speaking to those who wanted ECC to cancel his talk. "I want to have that free exchange of ideas, too."
Ayers promised no question from the audience would be off limits, even if it was about his "sketchy history."
ECC alum Robert Haase of St. Charles, who was among those objecting to the college's choice of Ayers as a speaker, said he was a campus recruiter for a large corporation at the University of Michigan between 1963 and 1969, near the time Ayers was an activist, and said he felt threatened by the Weather Underground.
Haase questioned Ayers about the movement's involvement in the bombing of a San Francisco police station in which a police officer was killed by shrapnel.
Ayers vehemently denied any involvement in the bombing.
"The Weather Underground not only never claimed credit for it, and also was never charged for it," Ayers said, adding there are many such accusations against him floating around that have a "life of its own on the Internet."
Ayers made no excuses for his "militant" activism days, and added he was proud of opposing the widely unpopular Vietnam War.
"It's true that a lot of what I did was extreme, much of it was illegal," he said. "I don't think what I did was brilliant and wonderful, and I'm certainly not recommending ECC students do what I did. But it was not as off the wall as it sounds."
Haase later said Ayers evaded the question. He earlier wrote a letter to the college president, published in the Daily Herald's Opinion page, saying Ayers' inclusion in the speakers series has him and his wife rethinking plans to bequeath ECC a gift.
After Ayers' talk Thursday, Haase said he was satisfied with the college's response.
"I think they made a mistake giving the man a forum (but) I appreciate getting a fair chance to stand in front of him and ask questions," Haase said.
Much of Ayers' speech centered around the failure of public schools, unfair class sizes, and poor education policy in this country, while highlighting what is different about the education system under a democracy versus those found in countries with autocracies or theocracies.
"We want our kids to develop minds of their own," he said. "We emphasize initiative, courage, imagination, entrepreneurship, invention. We base education on a profoundly democratic ideal: the incalculable value of every human being. Whatever the wisest and privileged have, we should aspire for all of our children."