Did Bill Ayers Recruit Obama to Chair the Annenberg Challenge?

Updated 9/24: New statement by Deborah Leff contradicts documentary record on Ayers role in recruitment of Obama.


Email from Rolling indicates shaping of cover story on Ayers role in recruitment of Obama.

The Obama Campaign today continued its strategy of denial and obfuscation when it comes to burying the close and long-standing political alliance between their candidate and the former terrorist Bill Ayers.

The latest episode emerged in response to an article by conservative writer Stanley Kurtz in the Wall Street Journal on the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. Kurtz argues, as I have, that it is clear to anyone who pays a moment’s attention to the Challenge that Ayers recruited Obama to serve on and chair the board of the Challenge.
But logic fails the Obama campaign.  They issued a statement in response to Kurtz that said, in part:

Ayers had nothing to do with Obama’s recruitment to the Board. Barack Obama was encouraged to run for Chair by Deborah Leff, with whom he served on another board, recommended by Pat Graham, and elected by the bipartisan founding board members: Susan Crown, Pat Graham, Stanley Ikenberry, Ray Romero, Arnold Weber, and Wanda White.


To suggest that Bill Ayers had “nothing” to do with the recruitment of Obama to the board beggars belief.  
Consider the following key points in the history of the Challenge:
  • Ayers conceived the idea for the Challenge in the first place, in late 1993.
  • He organized the working group that prepared the application for the $49.2 million grant from the national Annenberg Challenge program.
  • He sheparded the application through to a successful conclusion at the end of 1994.  
  • The Ayers proposal was based heavily on the idea of supporting the Local School Councils that Ayers, and Obama, had lobbied for in 1988 after an unpopular teachers’ strike.  
  • To secure the grant Ayers had to navigate a complex political minefield in the middle of the Chicago School Wars, including fending off efforts by the Daley regime to stop him.
If Ayers did not have in mind a firm idea of who he wanted for the Board Chair and Challenge President position, it would have been considered a borderline violation of his professional obligations.
On what basis does the Obama campaign expect people to believe that Ayers was so effective at conceiving, organizing and drafting the grant proposal that he simply left this critical decision – who was to publicly lead the Challenge into battle in the Chicago School Wars – up to someone else entirely?  
So, he had “nothing” to do with Obama’s recruitment?
Let’s re-think this, shall we? 
The Campaign’s statement says that the founding board, including the former University of Illinois President Stanley Ikenberry, voted to appoint Obama to the board. No doubt, on a formal level, that is true. But does the Campaign believe that the board did so without any input from Ayers? That Ayers did not care and did not speak up about the matter? 
In fact, there is a problem for the Campaign about this story: Ikenberry, a leading national figure in education policy and scholarship and once head of the College of Education at the University of Illinois, is already on the record expressing his surprise at the appointment of Obama.  He told the New York Times that it was “unusual” for Obama, a young lawyer with no serious background in education or fundraising, to be appointed to the board and that it was only over time that Obama earned the “respect” of his far more prominent and experienced colleagues on the board.
And while Obama may have been formally elected by the founding board members, he was elected President of the Challenge by the board at its first meeting on March 15, 1995. That meeting started out with a briefing on the CAC by Bill Ayers. Ayers was present at the entire meeting according to the minutes I have reviewed and was asked to join with Obama, among others, to assist in the preparation of the By-laws of the Challenge.
Somehow the least experienced and least well known board member became its Chairman and President, yet without any input from Bill Ayers.
Alright, let’s assume for the sake of argument, that Ayers had nothing to do with the recruitment of Obama. Let’s assume his name was first proposed, as the Campaign claims without any evidence, by Pat Graham after Graham received Obama’s name from Deborah Leff, who was at the time the President of the Joyce Foundation where Obama was already on the board and where Ayers’ co-founder of the Collaborative, Warren Chapman, was a program officer.  
That raises a whole host of questions:
  • When did she propose him? 
  • And what did she tell Ayers about Obama?  
  • Or was it a surprise to Ayers, who would be named Chicago’s Citizen of the Year for his leadership of the Challenge, that Obama was appointed? 
Clearly, this contention does not pass the laugh test.
But, let’s go one step further. Who was, in fact, formally responsible for recruiting the Board of Directors? 

The grant applicant – the Chicago School Reform Collaborative, led by Bill Ayers!  
In  late 1994 the national Annenberg Challenge program, led by Vartan Gregorian, the President of Brown University, was putting the final touches on the decision to award Ayers the grant. Gregorian wrote to Ayers and asked for additional information about governance of the Challenge.
Ayers explained in a letter to Gregorian on December 1, 1994 that 
“We have given careful thought to the issues you raise in your letter. We are working with Adele Simmons, Deborah Leff, and Pat Graham on issues of management and governance to ensure that Chicago’s Annenberg Challenge initiative is successful….a five to seven person Board of Directors of highly respected Chicagoans is being assembled. Pat Graham, president of the Spencer Foundation, has agreed to serve and is willing to work with the Board.”
Graham, a prominent historian of education at Harvard, was President of the Spencer Foundation at that time.  Thus, it is possible that Ayers may have asked Simmons, Leff and Graham for ideas about board members.  But it was Ayers’ responsibility to make sure an appropriate board was, indeed, appointed.  That was not Graham’s responsibility nor Leff’s.
Leff, however, is apparently willing to participate in this charade.  According to a statement from Leff now posted on the Obama campaign’s website:
“While working with Adele Simmons and Patricia Graham to identify a highly qualified person to chair the education reform organization the Annenberg Challenge, I recommended Barack Obama to serve as Chair. After meeting with Obama to review his qualifications, Patricia Graham asked Obama to become a candidate for the position.”
Leff leaves out the participation of Bill Ayers in this process and the fact that, as the grant applicant, Ayers and his Collaborative would have had formal responsibility for the selection of board members, hence Gregorian’s inquiry.
Just a few days earlier, Simmons had also responded to an inquiry about governance from Gregorian.  Simmons was President of the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation and she was advising Ayers on the grant application. Gregorian turned to her for her views on the governance issue.
Simmons replied by describing a breakfast meeting attended by Ayers and others, including Pat Graham, to discuss the governance question raised by Gregorian:
“Bill Ayers, Debby Leff, Pat Graham, Anne Hallett and I had breakfast on November 22, and reviewed the issues raised in your letter….We are constituting a governing board that will be diverse and bi-partisan and will include civic leaders who have a long-standing interest in the public schools as well as the people who are actually working in the schools.  We expect this group to include no more that [sic] eight people, and we should be able to send you a list of several of the names by early next week.”
Again, notice the confirmation by Simmons of the participation of Ayers in the recruitment process. 
And notice again the experience issue: the intention was to recruit civic leaders with a serious background in education.  Why would Pat Graham, a prominent education figure, foist upon the Challenge someone with no apparent background in education or fund raising? Someone who would strike other board members as an “unusual” appointment?
Of course, Bill Ayers had a different agenda – the use of the Challenge to implement his agenda to support the Local School Councils and to infuse school curriculum with his particular brand of “politically correct” approaches.  Thus, he would have had a strong interest in seeing someone like Obama, who had backed Ayers’ reform proposals in the past, appointed to the board and, if possible, leading it.  As I have noted here in other posts, Obama would be a key ally for Ayers on the board when some of Ayers’ ideas ran into opposition from board members like Arnold Weber.
Thus, Ayers was a central player in the recruitment of the Challenge board and worked hand in hand with others to carry out that task.  The Obama campaign, however, wishes us to believe that despite this close collaboration between Leff, Graham, Simmons and Ayers, that when it came to the nomination of Barack Obama to the board, somehow, magically, Ayers was left out of the loop.
If you believe that, I have a bridge I want to sell you. There is a nice picture of it at the top of this post. It’s in Brooklyn.
Update: Now evidence has surfaced that former Challenge figures have been trying to shape the story of how Obama was recruited to the Board for public consumption. Stanley Kurtz reports on September 24 at NRO that a FOIA request he filed with the University of Illinois turned up an email from former CAC Executive Director Ken Rolling to former CAC co-founders Anne Hallett and Warren Chapman (the latter is now a University of Illinois official).  The email suggests Rolling was attempting to invent a cover story for the recruitment process that looks almost identical to the line put out by the Obama campaign.  
Here is the relevant text of the email:

Sam [Dillon – NYTimes reporter] would like to talk with either or both of your [sic] to understand how the “ad hoc group” you two and Bill Ayers lead [sic], aarived [sic] at the structure of the founding board and the Collaborative. He is trying to understand how Barack got “picked” for the CAC board, by whom, why, etc. – I have avoided that question head-on though I believe Barack was Debbie Leff’s/Joyce nomination.

I think the article will be friendly and is truly looking to see the influences on or by Barack re: education/school reform in Chicago, ete. [sic]

Presumably Rolling knows more about the process than he let on to Dillon and thus “avoided that question head-on.”  Of course, Rolling was recruited himself to the CAC, in part, because of his past relationships with Obama and Ayers.  While Rolling was a staff member at the Woods Fund the Fund supported Obama’s Developing Communities Project including the DCP’s work on education reform and support for the LSCs!