A Threat to Academic Freedom at the University of Illinois

by

There are things in life you are probably a lot better off not seeing. Based on what I’ve read, sausage-making is high on that list. Based on what I observed Monday, faculty senate deliberations would be, too. It was the last spring semester meeting of the Urbana-Champaign Campus Senate of the University of Illinois. Among the issues discussed was a resolution re-emphasizing the organization’s support of academic freedom, fair employment practices and the appropriate autonomy for departments in determining curriculum and hiring. The point of raising these issues was to address two matters of growing concern: job security among non-tenure-track faculty and the employment status of Research Scholar (and CounterPunch contributor) James Kilgore, who was informed on April 9 that his contract with the university would not be renewed. While a resolution was adopted, little was resolved. The critical details have been left to a special ad hoc committee announced by Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise. But faculty members are concerned about the committee’s membership, the scope of its assignment and the timetable. Of course, the elephant in the room here is the Kilgore matter, which was not expressly discussed. Even allusions to his case were rejected as personnel matters. At this point, though, privacy is a moot consideration. Nothing could be more public, given the media coverage, including the Monday delivery to campus administration of a petition of support for Kilgore signed by 310 Illinois faculty members. (Several national Kilgore petitions at change.org have been signed by more than 2,000 persons.) “It’s been all over the damned newspapers,” notes Cary Nelson, professor emeritus at Illinois and former three-term president of the American Association of University Professors. “They’re trying to create the senate as the only place on earth where you can’t mention his name. ” Kilgore’s name has been mentioned quite a bit recently — not just in newspapers and online, but in meetings on the power of academic units to decide how best to determine their research balance, offer curriculum and hire the people who will carry it all out. And his name has been mentioned in connection with the opportunities we want to provide to formerly incarcerated persons — opportunities that benefit entire communities, as well as the individuals themselves. It all was set in motion by the lengthy commentary published in February by the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette recounting Kilgore’s criminal activity with the Symbionese Liberation Army 40 years ago. The university responded with endorsement of Kilgore through spokesperson Robin Kaler. “He is a good example of someone who has been rehabilitated,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times in late March. “When I saw that, I was greatly relieved,” Kilgore told me. “I figured, well, if that’s what they really think of me, then I’m going to be okay,” he added, pointing to similar reaction by colleagues, who thought the Sun-Times quote was “magnificent. ” “They said that it was an incredibly progressive statement of how to deal with people who have a criminal background. And people were really admiring the content of that statement. It was quite a brief moment of ecstasy followed by the crash.” The “crash” came shortly after that quote appeared, when Kilgore learned that his fall courses were not approved and that his contract was not being renewed. Given the sequence of events, many have wondered what caused the administration — political pressure, perhaps? — to pull back on the original “magnificent” support. Whatever the reason, the Kilgore matter has raised questions among faculty about how decisions regarding their academic departments will be made. “First of all, one of the most basic principles of academic freedom is that faculty need to make the decisions about hiring, and promotion and firing,” Nelson said after the senate meeting. “The administration reviews them, but the principle is that, except in unusual circumstances, the administration honors the wishes of departments. ” So, just as the biology department might need a molecular specialist, the Global Studies department might need an expert on non-governmental organizations with experience in South Africa to guide students who want to work in international development. Someone like Kilgore. That determination was made by the Center for African Studies, where Kilgore serves as a research scholar and grant writer, reportedly playing a key role in what might net the center $2.3 million in funding. A similar determination was made by the Department of Global Studies, where student evaluations have placed him on the list of faculty rated as excellent. His publications — including three political novels — also should be regarded, according to Nelson. “Those novels are first rate,” said Nelson, who believes Kilgore’s work would merit consideration for tenure at the rank of full professor in his English department. Whether others agree with that assessment is not the point. The point is that the people who should make the assessment are the core faculty of the academic department, Nelson asserts, not a committee that has no hiring and firing power — a committee, which “should be elected and not appointed. ” It’s all about shared governance by faculty. Which also should apply to the consideration of his status as an ex-offender, to the extent that factor is considered at all. It is a challenging question for a committee to consider four years into a person’s employment, especially in light of the university’s announcement of a new background check policy. This policy, according to the administration, is not connected to Kilgore, who disclosed his background at the time of his hire in 2010. And let’s not forget the state of the law. The human rights ordinances of both Urbana and Champaign protect formerly incarcerated persons from employment discrimination. The university’s anti-discrimination regulations are not as inclusive. The law school debate of whose rules should control aside, this matter really comes down to a moral question. Should an institution that sprawls across both cities and employs individuals who live in both places embrace the principles and values articulated by their laws? To me, the “I” in Illinois always has stood for ideas, for innovation and, as Chancellor Wise writes frequently on our home page, it stands for inclusiveness. With that foundation, that framework, the proper course will become apparent soon. Hopefully. The clock is ticking. It is the end of the semester and the academic year. Despite the cool weather, summer will soon be upon us. People will scatter. Because the ad hoc committee timetable has not been publicized, some fear the committee might approve Kilgore’s termination quietly while no one is paying attention. Undermining academic freedom, employment equity and faculty governance and certainly are among those things in life we don’t want to see happen. Exactly why faculty want to keep an eye on this process. Christopher Benson is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Reporter.

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