A Big Blow to Academic Freedom and Equity


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.

Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Mats Svensson
Madness in Hebron: Hashem Had No Enemies, Yet Hashem Was Hated
Walter Brasch
Terrorism on American Soil
Louisa Willcox
Grizzly Bears, Dreaming and the Frontier of Wonder
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Michael Welton
Yahweh is Not Exactly Politically Correct
Joseph Natoli
A Politics of Stupid and How to Leave It Behind
James Anderson
Reframing Black Friday: An Imperative for Déclassé Intellectuals
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
John Cox
You Should Fear Racism and Xenophobia, Not Syrian Refugees or Muslims
Barrie Gilbert
Sacrificing the Grizzlies of Katmai: the Plan to Turn Brooks Camp Into a Theme
Rev. William Alberts
The Church of “Something Else” in “an Ecclesiastical Desert”
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Andrew Gavin Marshall
Bank Crimes Pay
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Thomas S. Harrington
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe and the Death of Ezra Schwartz
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability
Yves Engler
Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Mining Industry
Tom H. Hastings
ISIS and Changing the Game
Lars Jørgensen
Vive la Résistance
John Halle
A Yale Education as a Tool of Power and Privilege
Norman Pollack
Syrian “Civil War”?: No, A Proxy War of Global Confrontation
Sheldon Richman
Let the Refugees In
James Anderson
Reframing Black Friday: an Imperative for Déclassé Intellectuals
Simon Bowring
UN Climate Talks 2009: a Merger of Interest and Indifference
Ron Jacobs
Rosa Luxembourg–From Street Organizer to Street Name
Aidan O'Brien
Same-Sex Sellout in Ireland
David Stocker
Report from the Frontline of Resistance in America
Patrick Bond
China Sucked Deeper Into World Financial Vortex and Vice Versa, as BRICS Sink Fast
James A Haught
The Values of Jesus
Binoy Kampmark
British Austerity: Cutting One’s Own Backyard
Ed Rampell
45 Years: A Rumination on Aging
Charles R. Larson
Chronicle of Sex Reassignment Surgery: Juliet Jacques’s “Trans: a Memoir”
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
CounterPunch’s Favorite Films
November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving