Over 3,000 educators nationwide, including six Brown professors, have signed a statement supporting the man Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain called a "washed-up terrorist" at the third presidential debate last Wednesday.
In recent months, the McCain campaign has criticized Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama for his connection to William Ayers. McCain and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, have accused Obama of being "friends" with Ayers and claimed Obama has hidden the extent of their relationship.
Both residents of the Chicago area, Ayers and Obama first met in 1995 when they served on the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a school reform initiative. They also were board members of the Woods Fund, a Chicago charity, from 2000 to 2002.
Ayers, now a distinguished professor of education and senior university scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was a co-founding member of the radical activist group the Weather Underground in 1969. The group's extreme tactics to end the Vietnam War included planting bombs in the Pentagon and the United States Capitol.
In response to the McCain campaign's focus on Ayers' radical acts of the 1960s and 1970s, "Friends and supporters of Bill Ayers" are circulating a statement online to vouch for the professor he has become.
"I think he's doing a lot of positive, progressive, constructive work right now," said Professor of English William Keach, the first member of the University's faculty to sign the statement of support. Keach was referring to Ayers's work in the field of education.
As a professor, Ayers has written more than a dozen books on his holistic approach to learning that downplays the boundaries between teacher and student. Ayers was one of the original proponents of "free schools," where students call teachers by their first names and don't receive grades on assignments.
Constance Crawford, an adjunct lecturer in theater, speech and dance, was educated in free schools and said she disagrees with the concept, favoring a more traditional approach. But she signed the statement supporting Ayers, and said his ideas "should be combated with clarity, not with personal demonization and vilification."
Keach voiced a similar opinion regarding Ayers's involvement with the Weather Underground, saying he "disagree(s) with Ayers's tactics," but he signed the statement "without any hesitation." Keach also protested the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, and said he wanted to show "solidarity" with Ayers. He said he wished Obama could have done the same when Ayers came up during the third debate.
"He's being unnecessarily cautious," Keach said.
Ayers entered the debate in the context of a question about both sides' negative campaigning. Ayers hosted a coffee event for Obama's first office run in 1995, prompting McCain to say to Obama, "You launched your political campaign in Mr. Ayers' living room."
Obama responded, saying, "Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House."
Keach thinks "it's disturbing that he had to take such a dismissive approach." He added Obama could have "brought up the positive things about the person (Ayers) has become."
Crawford signed the statement supporting Ayers because she thinks it is necessary to appreciate the man's accomplishments, not just what she calls the mistakes of his past.
"It's easy to paint someone with a broad brush," she said. "It's easy to vilify, but it's harder to consider."