Education Opinion

The Ayers Affair (V): Petrilli v. Eduwonkette

May 23, 2008 6 min read

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Petrilli’s shot across the bow

On May 12, Petrilli posted on Flypaper the following “Memo to the AERA: Breaking Up with Bill Ayers isn’t hard to do,” copied in its entirety below:

“Anyone who’s been following politics lately knows that Senator Barack Obama’s relationship with unrepentant bomber and former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers has become a matter of debate in the 2008 campaign.

What’s beyond debate, however, is Ayers’s connection to Arnetha F. Ball of Stanford University; Nancy Beadie of the University of Washington; Mark Berends of Vanderbilt University; Linda L. Cook of Educational Testing Service; David J. Flinders of Indiana University; Steve A. Henry of Topeka Public Schools; Joan L. Herman of the University of California-Los Angeles; Cynthia A. Hudley of the University of California, Santa Barbara; Carol D. Lee of Northwestern University; Richard E. Mayer of the University of California - Santa Barbara; Patricia S. O’Sullivan of the University of California, San Francisco; Robert J. Stahl of Arizona State University; William G. Tierney of the University of Southern California; Linda C. Tillman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Susan B. Twombly of Kansas University. (Emphasis in the original memo,)

That’s because these are the members of the Association Council of the American Educational Research Association—a group that Ayers will join next year after his election in March as AERA’s Vice President-Elect of Curriculum Studies. (Hat tip to Sol Stern.)

The Council might consider whether it’s prudent to allow a former terrorist to join its ranks—particularly a man who said as late as 2001 that “I don’t regret setting bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough.”

Here’s the good news: the Council has the authority to keep this development from happening. While AERA’s bylaws don’t mention any provision for removing elected officials from their positions, they do grant the Council the right to strip anyone’s association membership, which would have the same effect. The bylaws read: “If continued membership of any person is believed to be contrary to the interests or purposes of the Association, Council may terminate membership based on procedures established by the Council.”

Is there any doubt that the election of a former terrorist to the organization’s governance body is “contrary to the interests” of the Association?

Out of political necessity, Obama is already distancing himself from Ayers, and most likely will do more of that in coming months. When the AERA’s Association Council meets next month, it should do the same.

What is important about this post is Petrilli’s decision to escalate the anti-Ayers rhetoric from “bomber” to “terrorist” as he turned up the heart on AERA. To this point, critics of Ayers merely suggested or implied that the professor’s friends and business colleagues should be ashamed of their connection. Petrilli wanted nothing less than a professional repudiation. By listing every board member and their employer, and placing the members’ names in boldface type, Fordham’s Vice President put the moral spotlight not on AERA but these particular individuals, and perhaps their home institutions. He then more or less asserted that these individuals owed it to this country’s sense of decency and outrage (or at least his own) to remove their colleague from their professional ranks - so that he might pay for his sins.

It is also worth pointing out that Petrilli recognizes that Senator Obama is not distancing himself from Ayers because the Presidential candidate believes it the right thing to do but as a result of political pressure. It’s reasonable to assume that Petrilli is trying to bring the same pressure to bear on each member of AERA’s board.

eduwonkette replies

I have to admit that I don’t look at every education policy blog every day. I try to glance at Alexander Russo’s “This Week in Education” because it aggregates the kind of posts I find useful. I try to look at “eduwonkette” because we share edweek.org as our host. I read the other litany of edubloggers, but generally only after becoming aware from one of these two sources.

I did not learn of Petrilli’s post until May 12, when I saw eduwonkette’s May 14 post “Mike Petrili and the Meese Police.” The first words of her post, “Earlier in the week, Mike “Milli” Petrilli asked if I “favor electing former terrorists to key positions of authority within the education research community” suggested some kind of communication from Petrilli directed specifically at eduwonkette. Before reading the rest of her post, I clicked on the link to the Petrilli post copied above. I read it, and clicked back to finish eduwonkette’s, again copied below in its entirety:

Earlier in the week, Mike “Milli” Petrilli asked if I “favor electing former terrorists to key positions of authority within the education research community.” Here’s the backstory: In his Memo to the AERA, Petrilli suggested that the AERA council should unseat Bill Ayers as Vice-President Elect of Curriculum Studies. I disagree. While I do not condone his actions, Bill Ayers was democratically elected, and the right of professional associations to self-govern should be respected.

Mike believes that Ayers’ presence reflects badly on the whole association, but guilt by association is a shaky principle. I don’t judge Mike Petrilli, whose colleagues at the Hoover Institution include upstanding guys like Ed Meese and Donald Rumsfeld, based on his association with them, nor do I believe that AERA is tainted by having Ayers among its leadership. Mike might argue that Meese and Rumsfeld have records of accomplishment that justify their affiliation with Hoover. The same is true regarding Ayers and AERA.

All that said, Mike deserves props for his memo to ED in ‘08’s Roy Romer.”

To summarize: Petrilli called Ayers a terrorist and suggested a moral shortcoming that each member of AREA’s board should address – almost certainly conscious of the fact these are hot button issues for liberals and Democrats. Eduwonkette did not answer in kind, but implied that some might question the moral stature of Edwin Meese and Donald Rumsfeld, and ask members of the Hoover Institute to boot them. She didn’t hammer on two conservative, Republican panic buttons involving serious alleged crimes - Meese’s role in Iran-Contra, or Rumsfeld’s in the aggressive interrogation of Iraqi and Afghan detainees, but she did nod in that direction. Indeed, I would consider her statement substantially less aggressive than the comments directed at Senator Obama in the general media or by Stern to the education policy community. Hers was one of those “you know, things could get out of hand here, and in case you’ve missed it, here’s how” remarks.” I take her kudos to Mike at the end of her post as an effort to show a preference for returning to a more collegial relationship.

I was absolutely stunned to read Petrilli’s post. I was not surprised to see such remarks in the blogosphere, and not necessarily from Mike Petrilli - although I had no idea of his expertise or interests in national security or law. I was surprised to see such a statement from Fordham’s number two.

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