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The Scourging of James Kilgore

A Big Blow to Academic Freedom and Equity

by CHRISTOPHER BENSON

When it was announced on April 22 that James Kilgore’s contract would not be renewed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, there was no reason given. This, of course, only gave reason for speculation. On whether the employment decision about this lecturer and researcher had been made in response to recent publicity about his past — prison time served on a second-degree murder conviction. Or whether it had more to do with activities in the here and now — public opposition to the construction of a new jail in downstate Champaign County.

For a number of Illinois faculty members, either scenario is problematic. As stated in a faculty petition, it represents “a serious blow to academic freedom and employment equity.” It is a matter that raises questions about the consequences of expressing unpopular views — a necessary function of discourse, of critical thinking, of learning — and about the commitment to rehabilitation and reentry of formerly incarcerated persons.

The situation unfolded in early February when a lengthy commentary was published by the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette about Kilgore’s past membership in the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst in 1974, and his conviction in 2004 on second-degree murder charges in connection with the 1975 killing of Myrna Opsahl during a California bank robbery.

The News-Gazette piece led to an outcry by a number of readers, outraged that Kilgore was employed by the university to teach.

To be sure, Kilgore (a frequent contributor to CounterPunch) is remorseful and, as he told me on a couple of occasions, he recognizes that the retelling of this story is a burden he must carry. But the reader comments online reflect a misunderstanding of the facts and a lack of acceptance of the social value of rehabilitation.

As for the facts, Kilgore was not the person who killed Myrna Opsahl. Under California law, though, he was tried and convicted of second-degree murder for taking part in the events that led to her death. However you consider it, this was a terrible tragedy. “I don’t try to diminish that,” he told me. He has, however, tried to atone. During his six-years in prison, Kilgore reportedly was a model inmate, helping with education projects, among other institutional services.

Following his release from prison — and after disclosing his felony conviction — he began working at the University of Illinois as a grant writer for the Center for African Studies in 2010, and gradually moved into teaching Global Studies courses. Contrary to reader comments, his position at the University was not created as a result of his wife’s employment as a tenured professor in the Department of History. He had become a published scholar and activist under an assumed identity during his years in hiding in South Africa. His work for social justice — including the teaching — is driven, he says, by the deep sense of remorse for the “bad judgments” of his past.

“I rejected the politics of small group violence and since that time I have worked largely as an educator, writer, researcher, to effect progressive social change. To fight for social justice, but through other means,” he said.

For now, his status at the university has been placed on hold. In a letter from Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise to the American Association of University Professors and published on Tuesday, the University is still reviewing Kilgore’s “potential for future employment.” That review now will be handled mostly by a new faculty committee charged also with reviewing the university’s practices related to all contract faculty.

This review process is of vital concern, not just to Kilgore, but to all non-tenured and non-tenure-track faculty. They all work not only with uncertainty about whether their employment will be renewed, but often with restraint, concerned whether something they might say, something they might write, or something they might do — all legal activities — might be weighed against them.

“This is not just a problem for me,” Kilgore said. “This is a problem for all contract, contingent adjunct faculty, and contract employees at the university. Basically, their job security is not at all linked apparently to any job performance review process or anything. So, you find people are getting either hired or fired on very short-term notice.”

Kilgore’s performance by normal standards of faculty measurement — the three pillars of teaching, research and public engagement — would seem to make reappointment a no-brainer. His teaching scores have been impressive, and place him on the list of teachers rated excellent by their students. He has an active research agenda, successfully raising tens of thousands of dollars of grant money for the Center and netting a book contract. He also has been active in public interest activities, serving on the Community Justice Task Force for Champaign County and playing a high-profile role in writing the report and recommendation to the Champaign County Board against building a new county jail.

He believes it is that work that triggered the blowback that ultimately led to political pressure to end his employment. He wound up on the right side of a matter of social concern, but, he believes, on the wrong side of a conservative agenda. That is why the outcome of the new committee consideration will be important, even beyond the employees directly affected by it. This decision will say a lot about the kind of people who emerge from our classes, the kind of people who might benefit from exposure to multiple perspectives. What will they understand? What will they believe? How will their beliefs shape the society they will lead?

The answer lies in what we make available to them.

The idea behind academic freedom — as with free speech — is that it makes intellectual growth possible. And the flow of ideas, conservative and progressive, enable us to make better, more enlightened and critical choices about our world and our place in it. Among other things, access to the discourse will help people understand why mass social intervention contributes more to a healthy society than mass incarceration, and why helping formerly incarcerated individuals find a meaningful and productive space to occupy in our society is an essential goal. As James Kilgore has demonstrated, the people who reenter also can use that space — like, say, the Illinois campus — to teach us a great deal in the process.

It is all about “rebuilding communities,” suggests Kilgore, recognizing this issue is much larger than whether his contract is renewed. Building public support, then, would seem to be a matter of public responsibility — responsibility that a public university would undertake as a fundamental part of its mission.

Leading — and teaching — by example.

Please sign this petition in defense of Kilgore.

Christopher Benson is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

This column originally appeared in the Chicago Reader.