BLOOMINGTON - Illinois Wesleyan University leaders won't cancel a talk on education policy by Bill Ayers tonight despite controversy still surrounding his Vietnam-era activity.
The former antiwar leader with the Weather Underground is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. at Hansen Student Center, 300 Beecher St., Bloomington. His speech, "Education in and for Democracy: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Obama," will open to the public, but about 200 of the 325 seats are reserved for IWU faculty, staff and students.
Diane Benjamin, organizer of the McLean County Tea Party Movement, is encouraging those attending a Tax Day Tea Party downtown Thursday to make signs and join IWU students who plan to protest Ayers. The anti-tax rally is expected to start at 6 p.m. at the McLean County Museum of History, 200 N. Main St.
She said Ayers' views "are 180 degrees away from the way most Americans feel," and she suggested he would promote a "radical, socialist agenda."
Ayers said he welcomes the tea party participants.
"I urge all taxpayer people to come to talk and disagree and make counterpoints," he told The Pantagraph in a telephone interview. "I don't want to restrict anyone from coming."
The professor was invited to Bloomington by two IWU student groups, said Matt Kurz, IWU communications vice president. The IWU Web site lists the Peace Fellows and Global Politics Society, along with the history department, as event sponsors.
The university had no plans Wednesday to cancel the educator's presentation.
"What college campuses are about - all college campuses - they are about encouraging discussion of ideas," said Kurz.
Bloomington police spokesman Duane Moss said his department is working with other agencies "to develop a security plan that should protect the freedom of speech rights of those involved, along with the safety of the public."
The Weather Underground claimed responsibility for bombings of public buildings to oppose U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Ayers' past returned to the spotlight as conservative critics linked him with then-candidate Barack Obama.
Ayers now is a distinguished professor of education and senior university scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His academic interests include social justice, urban educational reform, narrative and interpretive research, children in trouble with the law, and related issues, according to his profile on the UIC Web site.
He has spoken previously at Illinois State University.
On Wednesday, IWU students enjoyed 90-degree temperatures on the quad, walking to class or lounging on blankets spread across the grass. When asked about Ayers and the controversy over his visit to IWU, most admitted not knowing about the event or even being familiar with Ayers.
But there seemed to be consensus that regardless of his past, he should be allowed to speak.
David Martz, a freshman from Glen Ellyn, said Ayers should be judged on what he's doing now. "Around the time of the Vietnam War - that was a polarizing time," he said. "People may have acted on things they don't believe in today. I think that was a long time ago."
"It's fine. I don't endorse his point of view, but he should be allowed to speak here," said Jessica Gorecki, a sophomore from Elk Grove.
Ayers noted his invitation came from IWU students.
"This is a small group of students who invited me," Ayers said. "It is no way an endorsement by the university or the person inviting me. This is an absolute legitimate role for a student group."
IWU junior Zach Hasselbring of Bloomington said students likely will protest outside Hansen and others inside will ask questions of Ayers.
"He's not somebody we really like to come to our university," Hasselbring said. "I support the First Amendment fully and Wesleyan has the ability to invite anyone." But Hasselbring said he opposes inviting a "self-admitted radical leftist" without also inviting someone with conservative views.
IWU junior Ryan Goetz of Schaumburg disagreed, saying, "I don't think asking someone to speak is an endorsement of their views."
Last month, the University of Wyoming canceled two planned talks by Ayers citing "security threats" and "controversy."
-- Reporters Ryan Denham and M.K. Guetersloh contributed information for this report.