Exclusive: Kennedy says UI shouldn't employ anyone with history of terrorism

Exclusive: Kennedy says UI shouldn't employ anyone with history of terrorism

A News-Gazette exclusive

CHAMPAIGN — In his first public statement about James Kilgore, University of Illinois Board of Trustees Chairman Christopher Kennedy told The News-Gazette on Thursday that violence is no way for people who disagree with the government to conduct themselves in public discourse.

That is one of several reasons given by Kennedy as to why Kilgore, a former member of the 1970s radical group Symbionese Liberation Army, should not work at the university.

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No one wants to stop an ex-felon from having a career, Kennedy said, but a public institution which receives a good portion of its funding from state taxpayers — and where students are learning to become leaders of a multicultural democracy — is no place for someone who was involved with a group that advocated overthrowing the government, targeted police and carried out a robbery that led to a murder.

"The board's position is we don't want to prejudge the process," he said, referring to a recently formed campus committee that will review Kilgore's case and the UI's policies about hiring and firing nontenured academic employees. "But our general position is clear. We want to be respectful of the fact that we operate on taxpayer's money and tuition ... and people paying tuition who have will have concerns about underwriting this lifestyle.

"We also have first-responders and police in this state that we need to be sensitive to," he said.

Since relocating to Champaign-Urbana after being released from a California prison in 2009, Kilgore has held a number of jobs on campus, teaching with the Education Justice Project, a college-in-prison program; writing grants for the Center for African Studies; and working as a lecturer or instructor.

Last month, he was reportedly told by campus provost Ilesanmi Adesida that the university would not renew any employment contracts with him after the current one expires in August. A few weeks later, the provost said the decision was not final and a committee would review Kilgore's case.

Kilgore's supporters have criticized the administration's decision, saying it was made in response to political pressure and not based on Kilgore's performance or academic contributions. Earlier this year, The News-Gazette published columns detailing Kilgore's activities with the SLA almost 40 years ago, including his involvement with the group's 1975 bank robbery during which a bank customer was killed and his flight to Australia and Africa. After decades on the run, he was picked up by authorities in South Africa in 2002. He served prison sentences for possession of an explosive device, passport fraud and second-degree murder.

On campus and in the community, Kilgore has become involved with social justice groups, and many colleagues have circulated petitions in his support. Some of his supporters also have taken issue with the committee reviewing the case, saying the unit directors and department heads with whom Kilgore has worked should make the employment decisions. The American Association of University Professors also wrote to Chancellor Phyllis Wise to express concerns about the sequence of events.

Kennedy brushed aside those criticisms.

"We're not reacting to public pressure. If this was an issue of academic freedom, we would stand up for it. This is an hourly employee who doesn't have tenure. It's completely different," Kennedy said.

Kennedy joined the board in 2009. In 2011, trustees were briefed about Kilgore's employment after media inquiries were made about him.

"Whatever notice we had years ago, and it was a different board, it was vague in nature. And it used words that were not offensive," Kennedy said.

"The words we use matter a lot," he added.

Kennedy posed the following questions:

Should an ex-felon who paid his debt to society be allowed to live a full life? The answer is yes, he said.

"Should a domestic terrorist bent on overthrowing the government by targeting the murder of police and who was involved in a killing be on the public payroll? The answer is no," he said.

Trustees do need to let the process run, he said, and the board may have a role at the end of that process.

In an analogous case, the board's position has been clear.

In a rare move in 2010, trustees denied emeritus status to retiring University of Illinois at Chicago education Professor William Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground antiwar group from the late 1960s and '70s. In his 1974 book "Prairie Fire," Ayers includes a dedication to a long list of people, including Sirhan Sirhan, the man who killed Kennedy's father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

The board as a whole has not discussed Kilgore, at least not in open session. A few other University of Illinois trustees have weighed in on Kilgore via email messages, but exactly what opinions were expressed and what questions were raised is not known.

In response to a University of Illinois Freedom of Information Act request for communications regarding Kilgore since February, officials handed over 303 pages to The News-Gazette. Many of the email messages were heavily redacted, or blacked out. The university cited several exemptions, including preliminary drafts, attorney-client privilege and more.

In the weeks following the News-Gazette columns in February, people on both sides of the argument (for or against retaining Kilgore) sent emails and mailed letters to UI officials, according to the documents turned over the newspaper. Faculty wrote about how Kilgore had contributed to their departments. Some alumni questioned the decision and threatened to withhold donations.

Kennedy said he was "very clear" in his position, which he outlined to President Bob Easter.

The reasons behind his position have to do with his beliefs in the U.S. as a multicultural society. It's a fragile system of government and its legitimacy needs to be maintained in the eyes of its people and taxpayers, he said. The university receives about 32 percent of its funding from the state, much more than its Big Ten peers, "and that's a big deal."

"And taxpayers, the people in our state, will be alarmed, have been alarmed, by the notion we are putting a domestic terrorist on the public payroll," Kennedy said.

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ialdabaoth wrote on May 09, 2014 at 8:05 am

UI shouldn't employ anyone with more money than sense, either. Kennedy's assertion that this politically motivated dismissal does not reflect the university's policy on academic freedom is bonkers.

asparagus wrote on May 09, 2014 at 9:05 am

What is bonkers is the idea that this has anything at all to do with academic freedom. It is a lot easier to talk about issues of academic freedom than the fact of having put an individual that has demonstrated the capacity to participate in heinous acts of hate and violence in a position of public trust.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on May 09, 2014 at 10:05 am
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The state also shouldn't give jobs to people because of who their dad was.

asparagus wrote on May 10, 2014 at 5:05 am

Not surprising, yet doesn't make him wrong.

GeneralLeePeeved wrote on May 09, 2014 at 8:05 am

...here's the short version: (1) his contract is up and it's not getting renewed; and (2) you can take your petition and go bark at the moon.

UrbanaJake wrote on May 09, 2014 at 3:05 pm

Chairman Kennedy reminds us of what it is to be a victim.

His father, Robert F. Kennedy, died as a candidate for president, of unnatural causes.

Chairman Kennedy's uncle, John F. Kennedy, died as president of the United States, of unnatural causes.

This discussion has become goulish; there is no right to a public job of trust.

*Let us appeal to our better angels and ask our public to respect those

        in a position of public trust. At this point, our society has said no. 

         All appeals have been exhausted. The American experience forgives,

          but does not yet trust.

wayward wrote on May 09, 2014 at 1:05 pm

My interpretation is that Kennedy and the legislators mentioned in the other article are basically saying that this isn't a good time for UI to risk pissing people off over a non-tenured instructor, especially given the current situation with the budget and income tax.

However, it's possible that Adesida may have hesitated to renew Kilgore's contract for reasons other than public sentiment. If Kilgore's teaching was a lot like indoctrination, the students who filled out the evaluations might have been OK with that, especially if he also gave out a lot of As. However, the university administration might take a dimmer view of this.

thelowedown wrote on May 09, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Kennedy is a hypocrite. He was a ringleader to deny Bill Ayers emeritus status because he dedicated a book to Sirhan Sirhan, who killed RFK (Chris's father). He supports axing Kilgore for his act of violence. However, he has not moved at all to rescind the emeritus status of racist Robert Weissberg, a white supremacist spouting debunked junk masquerading as academic thought who enjoys the full privileges of the emeritus status on this campus. CK: "And taxpayers, the people in our state, will be alarmed, have been alarmed, by the notion we are putting a domestic terrorist on the public payroll." Apparently domestic terrorists on the payroll aren't okay, but racists are and bestowing them with honor is okay as well.

asparagus wrote on May 10, 2014 at 5:05 am

Did Weissberg participate (I mean he was there in proximity of and knowledge of the commission) in literal acts of murder and rape? If he did then by all means let us do the same to him as Kilgore.

Lostinspace wrote on May 09, 2014 at 6:05 pm

Boy, do I wish that people were one tenth as interested in education as they are in this trivia.

asparagus wrote on May 10, 2014 at 5:05 am

Democrats (or money -- same thing at the moment) are in charge of education. In cases like this, money doesn't really care if justice prevails. So, looks like the largest political club swinging will win the day. Just so happens it is on the side of justice. Doesn't always happen that way.

But, yes. We all wish that true interest in something as fundamental as education were more important. The solution to education issues is well known. It can't be realized because of labor unions and other political barriers.

In Illinois, those barriers will not be overcome anytime soon.

Ironically people talk about the control that the wealthy hold over society. In truth, the wealthy are only food for our true masters -- the politically connected and entrenched. Want to change the world -- enact term limits, and vet your canidates!

locavore wrote on May 09, 2014 at 9:05 pm

UIUC has not ejected a terrorist from its ranks; it has rejected the story of a moral extremist who transformed himself into a kind, intelligent, modest educator who has devoted himself to social justice. And, lest any of you missed the news, Dr. Kilgore's work on the No More Jails campaign saved the county $23 million in unnecessary jail construction. Terrorist!

Gov. Quinn should demand Kennedy's immediate resignation. He's abused his authority, knowingly and openly, by pulling strings to get someone dismissed for reasons that had nothing to do with his performance, UIUC policy, or state regulations. No matter your feelings about Kilgore, this was an act of vengence, and he should be accountable for it.

Also, just to place this in its proper perspective, Kennedy's grandfather, Joe, was a criminal bootlegger -- read: gangster, read: TERRORIST -- who made millions by flagrantly violating the law, which terrorist money is still sloshing around the Kennedy family. If we imagine that events from the early 1970s are still relevant to the discussion about one's character, why not admit those from the 1930s? As far as I know, Christopher Kennedy has never renounced his ties to terrorism or the privilege he gained from it.

Terrorism is the new communism -- just say the word out loud and debate is supposed to come to a respectful halt, as though the moral argument were self-evident. By now we can count on the fact that any leader who uses terrorism as a justification for policy is hateful of transparency, accountability, and democracy.

asparagus wrote on May 09, 2014 at 10:05 pm

"Terrorism is the new communism -- just say the word out loud and debate is supposed to come to a respectful halt, as though the moral argument were self-evident."

If the shoe fits -- yes, pretty much.


locavore wrote on May 09, 2014 at 10:05 pm

Circulus in probando -- I'll let you look that one up.

rsp wrote on May 10, 2014 at 8:05 am

 I've never thought of the moonshiners and bootleggers in my family as terrorists. A lot of families were in the business.I wouldn't call Kilgore a doctor until he can produce a valid diploma in his own name.

Font of Wisdom wrote on May 10, 2014 at 9:05 am

And drunk-driving patricians who kill their girlfriends shouldn't be Senators, either.  Amiright?  Or is royalty exempt? 

I'd like to know how we got afflicted with the Kennedy plague here in Illinois.  I think that's a greater issue than some guy teaching a few courses.

johnny wrote on May 16, 2014 at 4:05 am

Ethel was from here in the first place.

Mr Dreamy wrote on May 11, 2014 at 1:05 pm

If the University only employed conservative, morally upright educators, what a great place it would be! No controversy to stir a student's thoughts, no looking at things from a different point of view getting in the way of clear thought, no contemplative examination of history and how it relates to the present and the future.

The children need protection from outside influences. Otherwise they may learn how to accept, and to reject, other's concepts. To many people learning, even learning about what not do, looks dangerous.


marianrita wrote on May 15, 2014 at 11:05 pm

So, if Mr Kennedy doesn't think the university should employ domestic terrorists, then he should oppose their hiring. But I see nothing in the article that says Mr. Kilgore IS one, only that he committed, or was present when others commited, violent felonies 40+ years ago. The ideas that he has, whether 40 years ago or now, do fall under the category of free speech and academic freedom. But I see nothing here that indicates he is running around campus, encouraging others to commit acts of violence, nor anything to indicate that he has done so himself since the 1970's. I never was a fan of the Symbionese Liberation Army, but I can assure you that there are things that I said and did at that time that I am not particularly proud of and would certainly not do today. I also have friends who were in the United States Army at that time, who still have nightmares about some of the things they did and saw. Senator Kennedy himself, though a person with complicated, and sometimes contradictory positions, tried to stop that war, and would, no doubt, have done so if he had lived. How sad for us all. But, isn't it time to let the 1960s/70s go, and do the best we can today?