Paul Greenberg

It finally happened. A board of trustees at a state university has acted as if it had a moral trust to guard, not just fundraising to do. That's the remarkable news out of the University of Illinois, where the board is chaired by Christopher Kennedy, son of the late Robert F. Kennedy. His father, the charismatic U.S. senator, brother of John F. Kennedy, and the Democratic Party's rising hope, was cut down in his hour of triumph -- June 5, 1968 -- after just having won a key presidential primary in California.

It was a year of assassinations, and of tumult and violence in general: The greatest of American civil-rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., had been killed only a couple of months before, a demoralized president had decided not to seek re-election that year, the country was bitterly divided over the war in Vietnam, mass demonstrations and mutual recriminations dominated the news, and now a leading presidential candidate had been murdered. Quite a year. And, to think, some look back on the anarchic Sixties fondly.

Robert F. Kennedy's killer, a fanatic named Sirhan Sirhan, still resides at Pleasant Valley State Prison in California. Permanently, one hopes, in lieu of the death penalty he received but that was never carried out. (The state of California would rule capital punishment unconstitutional.)

William Ayers, the once prominent terrorist who now leads a second and quieter life as a professor at the University of Illinois, dedicated a book to this same Sirhan Sirhan in 1974. A cofounder of the Weather Underground, the professor would go on to have it both ways -- describing himself a kind of freedom fighter while denying that he was ever into violence. It's debatable which claim is the more dubious.

But the professor's rise in academe has been undeniable. He found his niche at the university in education, of course, one of the more nebulous academic specialties. After a long and well-paid career, he was due for routine promotion to professor emeritus on his retirement.

But as luck (or maybe justice) would have it, Christopher Kennedy turned up on the university's board of trustees. And noticed that it was about to honor the professor who'd dedicated a book to his father's assassin. And blew the whistle. The whole board backed him up by turning down Bill Ayers' designation as professor emeritus, a title that hasn't been taken this seriously in years.

Emeritus status for the old terrorist (who now modestly declines that title) is now up in the air as the university's faculty decides whether to join ranks behind its distinguished if slightly bloody colleague.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.