CHAMPAIGN — Former Symbionese Liberation Army member and now local social justice advocate James Kilgore will no longer teach at the University of Illinois, The News-Gazette has learned.
Campus officials reportedly informed Kilgore, a Global Studies lecturer and part-time staff member with the Center for African Studies, they would not renew his contract for the coming academic year. His contract ends Aug. 15.
Kilgore did not immediately respond to a phone call and campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler declined to discuss details.
"It's a personnel matter," she said.
Kilgore's supporters are sharply criticizing the administration's decision, saying it was made in response to political pressure and not based on the academic's performance. Today the American Association of University Professors, the national group that defends academic freedom cases, sent a letter to Chancellor Phyllis Wise outlining concerns about Kilgore's nonreappointment. Associate secretary Anita Levy said she was "troubled" by the sequence of events.
"We also question whether media reports highlighting Dr. Kilgore's felony conviction and political activities may have provoked an improperly political response to an academic decision," AAUP's Levy wrote.
Earlier this year News-Gazette columnist Jim Dey wrote about Kilgore's activities with the radical group SLA almost 40 years ago, his involvement with the group's 1975 bank robbery, including the killing of a bank customer (he was one of the armed robbers, but did not shoot the victim), his flight to Africa and 27 years at large, return to the U.S. and six years in a California prison, and in recent years his joining his professor spouse on campus and involvement with social justice groups in Champaign-Urbana.
An institute of higher education should judge academics like Kilgore by their productivity and their accomplishments, not their criminal backgrounds or media reports, said UI landscape architecture Professor William Sullivan. He started circulating a petition that demands the university reverse its decision.
"It's not in our best interest to have our academic integrity be infringed upon by The News-Gazette and the yellow journalism of Jim Dey. We should judge James Kilgore on the basis of his dedication to excellence, his actual behavior from his release from prison. Isn't that what we do in America? People make a grievous mistake, they do their time. ... They get a second chance. The university should be first in line to defend that idea," Sullivan said.
Kilgore has been a part-time, non-tenure track lecturer on the Urbana campus since 2012 and prior to that a part-time grant writer in 2010, according to documents.
As a nontenure track faculty member Kilgore does not have the protections like those of tenured faculty. But according to the AAUP, part-time faculty like Kilgore should receive a written statement that explains the university's reasons for not reappointing him and he should have access to grievance procedures.
"It's been well documented that he is a highly-respected, accomplished individual," Sullivan said. "He gets the job done and works with passion and skill," Sullivan said. "My hunch is (the decision) is not about quality of work, or how he's conducted himself on campus. It's all about the crimes in the past and the uproar on the right from people who call themselves patriotic Americans, but who don't understand our values as Americans," he said.
As visiting lecturer Kilgore helps teach a course in the College of Fine and Applied Arts called "Exploring Arts and Creativity." His salary is $4,500 for the semester. Kilgore had been preparing to teach courses in Global Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for the 2014-2015 school year. On April 18, Professor Thomas Bassett, the director of Global Studies, reportedly informed Kilgore the department's faculty advisory committee had approved the courses. But the courses had not been approved at a college or campus level.
"When I sought clarification as to why the courses were not approved, I received no explanation. It is disappointing for me to convey this news, especially in the absence of a rationale for the decision. We appreciate your past teaching service to LAS Global Studies and wish that we could employ you again. Not all of our faculty make the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students!" Bassett wrote to Kilgore, according to documents supplied to the AAUP.
The AAUP recommends the campus renew Kilgore's contract and allow him to teach the four courses.