Supporters rally around Kilgore during employment controversy


Faculty gathered on the steps of the Swanlund Administration Building on Monday to present a petition to Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Provost Ilesanmi Adesida, calling on administrators to restore James Kilgore’s employment status. The petition was signed by 310 faculty members.

By Tyler Davis

At Swanlund Administration Building, the doors to the offices of the chancellor and the provost remained closed Monday to a group of faculty members delivering a petition in support of the restoration of James Kilgore’s employment status at the University. 

Kilgore, a research associate for the Center for African Studies and instructor in FAA and LAS, was told April 9 by Provost Ilesanmi Adesida that the University would not approve any of his future employment contracts, declining to provide an explanation.

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In a letter written to the American Association of University Professors, Chancellor Phyllis Wise explained that the provost has charged a committee with reviewing the processes in hiring employees. Additionally, the committee will be asked to provide a recommendation specifically regarding Kilgore’s future employability at the University. 

However, Kilgore said a decision has already been reached. The committee has been formed to review that decision, he said, adding that, “it’s not as if we’re in an open-ended situation.”

The situation appears to be close-ended instead. The deans whom Kilgore had intended to work under next term have refused to approve his contracts due to orders from their superiors.

“To me, that’s not simply an ordinary review of a contract,” he said.

The 310 faculty signatories on the petition calling on administrators to restore Kilgore’s employment believe that this unilateral review may have resulted from the University buckling against political pressure rather than reviewing employment renewal based on job performance.

Merle Bowen, director for the Center of African Studies, said Kilgore was hired to use his “great grant-writing skills” for the center in addition to his research scholar status. 

She said Kilgore is playing a leading role in the center’s Title XI grant applications. If the application is successful, the center will receive about $2.3 million, putting the center on “very sound footing for the next four years.” She added that his experience living on the African continent allows him to engage with other Africa-focused scholars. 

“He plays a really important role for us,” she said.

She said Kilgore’s presence on the center’s staff is an example of the University’s commitment to the capacity of people to transform themselves and make viable contributions to wider society, noting that she hopes the provost and the chancellor will reconsider, which would allow her to rehire him to the center.

Bowen said she has no complaints regarding Kilgore — “he has done exceedingly well, more than we anticipated.”

“He has so many skills, and we have been able to benefit — not only at our center but the University at large,” Bowen said.

Rather than job performance, the faculty petition’s signatories believe that the University’s refusal results from political pressure stemming from sensationalist media coverage at-large.

In February, the News-Gazette published stories highlighting Kilgore’s criminal background and political involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s, eliciting campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler to tell the Chicago Sun-Times in late March that Kilgore was doing a “great job,” and that he is a “good example of someone who has been rehabilitated.”

When asked May 2, Kaler declined to comment on Kilgore’s situation, as it is a faculty matter. 

Two and a half weeks after Kaler’s statement to the Sun-Times, Kilgore was informed that he had been blocked from teaching courses next semester.

“Nothing happened between the beginning of the term and end of term to in any way change my situation as an employee of the University,” Kilgore said. “And there is nothing in the News-Gazette article that I haven’t revealed from the moment I was employed.”

He added that he has been scrupulous in ensuring that anyone who employed him at the University understood that he has a “very complicated political and criminal background.”

William Sullivan, professor of landscape architecture and organizer of the faculty petition, said the University’s response has only to do with political pressure felt by the University, which he sees as a “direct attack on our academic integrity.” 

“It wasn’t based on his responsibilities or the excellent way he carried out his responsibilities. It was based on the political pressure that was brought to bare,” he said. 

Similarly, Susan Davis, a professor in the department of communication, said it’s a very bad day for the University when people outside the institution can have employees fired.

“If you can’t be sure that you are not going to be judged on your job performance, then that is going to limit your teaching in the classroom, it’s going to make you constrained and scared, and that’s not good for our students,” Davis said.

She added that she thinks it’s very important to treat people who have resolved their felony convictions as one would treat anyone else — “They have paid their dues, they deserve a second chance. If they acquit themselves well, there’s no reason to be prejudiced against them.” 

In addition to the faculty petition, three separate petitions to renew Kilgore’s contract — which have 259, 401 and 1,546supporters as of press time — are circulating on, uploaded by University student Stephanie Birch, the Prison Justice Project and Friends of James Kilgore.

Amanda Hwu, junior in the school of social work; president of the Prison Justice Project; and colleague of Kilgore on the Education Justice Project, said in an email that she decided to help mobilize student support for Kilgore once she learned of his situation.

“Learning about this situation deeply angered me because it’s not only an injustice to James but a blow to the employment equity of those with a criminal record,” she said.

Hwu added that the controversy regarding Kilgore’s employment further puts academic freedom at risk of being overridden by political or corporate interests.

“His employment status is tenuous at best, as it is for all non-tenure track scholars here at the University of Illinois,” she said. “As a student here at the University, I want the educators in my classrooms to be chosen based on the merit of their teaching, not by the irresponsible, editorial choices of a local newspaper.”

Tyler can be reached at [email protected] and @TylerAllynDavis.