To the vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, he's an "unrepentant domestic terrorist," but to the thousands of academics who have signed a statement supporting him, William C. Ayers is an admired scholar whose demonization "casts a chill over free speech."
"The current characterizations of Professor Ayers … are unrecognizable to those who know or work with him," reads the statement, which is signed by more than 4,000 educators, including Ward Churchill and Rashid Khalidi.
The statement describes the controversy surrounding Mr. Ayers as "part of a pattern of ‘exposes' and assaults designed to intimidate free thinking and stifle critical dialogue," alluding to the firing of Mr. Churchill by the University of Colorado and criticism of Mr. Khalidi, a Columbia University professor, over his support for Palestinian causes.
It makes only oblique reference to Mr. Ayers's involvement in the Weather Underground, acknowledging his role in the civil-rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, but not mentioning the radical group's campaign of bombings and riots.
Mr. Ayers, who spent 10 years as a fugitive in the 1970s, has taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago for 20 years. He serves on the faculty senate there and is vice president-elect of the American Educational Research Association.