Kilgore addresses Board of Trustees

By MaryCate Most

James Kilgore spoke openly about his history of convictions again at the Board of Trustees meeting on Wednesday. Kilgore’s criminal history is due to his involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s.

“For more than three decades I have attempted to move beyond those acts, to chart a different road, working through nonviolent means as an educator for the cause of social justice,” said Kilgore, a research associate for the Center for African Studies and instructor in FAA and LAS.  “Who better to tell someone how to avoid a destructive path than someone who has walked that path?”

On April 9, Kilgore received notice from Provost Ilesanmi Adesida that his contract would not be renewed for the 2014-2015 school year. Adesida declined to elaborate on the reasoning behind this decision. Following Kilgore’s termination, a number of faculty spoke out in his defense, delivering a petition signed by more than 300 faculty members directly to the Swanlund Administration Building. In the Urbana-Champaign Senate, senators voted in favor of a resolution supporting academic freedom to show support for freedom and fair hiring practices.

FAA Professor Fairchild Ruggles, who spoke immediately after Kilgore, suggested that, in order to maintain academic freedom, the quality of the instructor, rather than their history, must be paramount in University hiring practices.

“Institutions of education are conducted for the higher good and not to further the interest of the institution,” Ruggles said. “On campus, academic freedom provides the opportunity for people to say things that appear unpopular or are difficult. We cannot limit speech or frame the classroom to exclude a lifestyle that we don’t like.”

Some of the problems identified by Ruggles and Kilgore were lack of transparency and exclusion of people with certain backgrounds.

“Without (the lack of a transparent review process for renewal of contracts), inappropriate factors such as personal differences with the department chair may result in non-renewal,” Kilgore said. “More importantly, lack of transparency opens the door to abuses of academic freedom.”

The other issue discussed by both speakers was felony convictions, mentioning that specific groups such as Attorney General Eric Holder’s Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission discourage exclusion from employment on the basis of criminal background.

Ruggles specifically cited the work of Nelson Mandela, asserting that if Mandela were alive and able to seek employment at the University today, the stance that the University has taken with Kilgore would mean that Mandela, who was also labeled a terrorist, would not be granted employment on campus.

“At what point have the lofty ideals of academic freedom been shattered on the rock of actual practice,” Ruggles said. “I ask the Board of Trustees to defend academic freedom as a concept and to have the courage to also defend its practice.”

Trustee Patrick Fitzgerald reaffirmed Kilgore and Ruggles’ ideas about academic freedom, but suggested that background checks were important in some cases in order to ensure safety.

“We should never have a policy that says someone who has a criminal record cannot work at the University,”  Fitzgerald said. “The hard part is to figure out where there are limits. There are places where you should not put people with criminal records, where they could expose people to danger.”

Kilgore suggested a more individualized approach to hiring faculty and suggested that the University reconsider the way it views faculty with criminal backgrounds.

“I suggest that the University consider a hiring policy for specialized faculty, indeed all faculty, that fully recognizes the richness of the experience of those who have fallen, picked themselves up and found their way back toward success and intellectual inquiry,” Kilgore said. “They have a wealth of knowledge to offer the academy – a wealth, the University should not choose to do without.”

MaryCate can be reached at [email protected]