Is being named an Emerita or Emeritus Professor really all that important? As many of you may have heard, last week the University of Illinois denied Emeritus status to retired Education Professor William Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, because he dedicated a book he published in 1974, Prairie Fire, to 200 people, among whom was Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of assassinating Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s son Christopher Kennedy is the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, which made the denial of Emeritus status seem quite personal. Inside Higher Ed has a good story explaining the Ayers denial of Emeritus status and different views on it today.
I suppose it’s just bad luck for Ayers that Christopher Kennedy happens to Chair the Board of Trustees, but I don’t see a lot to get excited over here. I can understand why Kennedy fils would vote against honoring Ayers. Ayers had a long and productive career as a political provocateur and then as a professor. The University of Illinois saw fit to tenure and promote him regardless of his personal history, so I can see arguments that it’s petty to withhold Emeritus status from him. But, I don’t think Emerita or Emeritus status really matters all that much. By the time people are retiring, they’ve established their reputations. They will either continue to be productive and relevant scholars, or not, regardless of whether or not they retire with an honorific title. I’d be interested in hearing from you on your views on this, especially if you think Emerita or Emeritus is a big deal.
But, it seems like a former member of the Weather Underground might relish this refusal to grant him this one honor. Ayers has lived his life in a long flirtation between infamy and respectability–it seems like he might wear this decision rather as a badge of honor.