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MSUM visit by Ayers prompts debate

ST. PAUL – A decision by Minnesota State University Moorhead to make a controversial figure a visiting scholar led state senators to argue Wednesday whether public colleges and universities should be allowed to host or honor terrorists.

Senators adopted a provision 58-6 Wednesday requiring the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems to develop policies for paying for travel, hosting or honoring admitted or convicted terrorists.

Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, introduced an amendment to the overall higher education budget bill that would prohibit that altogether. He cited anti-war activist William Ayers, who was named the 2013 College of Education and Human Services visiting scholar at MSUM.

“When I saw this I was absolutely appalled,” Nienow said.

Ayers is co-founder of the Weather Underground, a group that was opposed to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and known for bombing government buildings – including the Pentagon, the U.S Capitol and the New York City Police Department.

He was brought in by the school to discuss incorporating social justice issues into curriculum.

In advance of a speech Ayers gave on campus Feb. 26 in Moorhead, MSUM professor Steve Grineski said Ayers was “one of the country’s greatest minds when it comes to teaching for democracy and trying to make not only schools and universities but our whole society socially just.”

“He always says when you’re a teacher, you’re either for something or against something,” Grineski said. “It’s not neutral, because education is a contested space.”

In addition to the speech, Ayers also planned to meet with several classes and discuss curriculum with faculty during a two-day visit, Grineski said.

Nienow said the state should not spend taxpayers’ money to host such speakers or give them honors.William Ayers

“I don’t think a lot of Minnesotans agree we should be having those kind of people standing before our very impressionable youth in Minnesota,” said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, a retired law enforcement official.

Others argued that the Legislature should not limit academic freedom.

“I don’t think we want to get into judgments of who can and cannot speak at our public institutions of higher education,” said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville. “It’s not our role as a Legislature.”

“This is a terrible slippery slope,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park.

Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, introduced a change to only require a policy, saying the decision should be made by school officials. “It’s best left to the Board of Regents and MnSCU to have that discussion.”

Nienow said that is not enough.

“I don’t want to give them the ability to maintain that policy that it’s OK,” he said, noting Moorhead already had decided to bring in Ayers. “It’s not OK to bestow an honor to a known, admitted, unreformed terrorist.”

Danielle Killey

Danielle Killey covers local government for the South Washington County Bulletin. She has worked as a reporter for other Forum Communications newspapers since 2011. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a journalism degree.

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