SPRINGFIELD — James Kilgore — social activist, African studies scholar, lecturer, former member of a 1970s revolutionary group and convicted felon — called on University of Illinois trustees Wednesday to let those with criminal histories move beyond their "most destructive criminal act, to show that we must not freeze people in history but allow them to move forward, to transform."
Consider his own life example, he said, addressing the board during the public comment session of its meeting in Springfield.
"As a young man I committed acts of which I stand ashamed, acts which were not only illegal, but utterly destructive to innocent members of the community and damaging to my family, loved ones and all those who campaigned for social justice and peace.
"For more than three decades I have attempted to move beyond those acts, to chart a different road, working through nonviolent means as an educator in the cause of social justice. I, like the 'convict criminologists' and many people who have traveled errant pathways, have learned lessons which are important for young people to know.
"Who better to tell someone how to avoid a destructive path than someone who has walked that path? And what better place for young people to learn these lessons than in the most esteemed universities in the land, like the University of Illinois?"
Education, he said, is a means for those with criminal pasts to demonstrate the potential to move beyond criminal acts. And Kilgore, supporters said, has moved beyond his criminal acts of nearly 40 years ago. He should be allowed to continue teaching at the university, they said after traveling to Springfield to be with Kilgore Wednesday.
His speech to the board comes at a time when a campus committee, made up of people selected by administrators, will decide whether or not he will be able to teach next semester, or ever at all in the future on the campus.
Kilgore was reportedly told in April that the university would not employ him after his current contract expires in August. Supporters have said the decision was made in response to political pressure and not based on his performance or academic contributions. They also described the move as a "blow to academic freedom and employment equity" in a petition submitted to administrators.
Trustees typically do not respond to speakers during the public comment portion of the meeting, but following Kilgore's speech, UI trustee and former federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said the university should never have a policy banning people with criminal records from working at the UI. Lots of people have paid their debts to society, and the issue of reintegrating people with criminal records into society is an "excellent one," he said.
However, as much as Fitzgerald said he has advocated for reintegration, the hard part is figuring out, "when is it a good and positive thing to bring someone into the university system, whether it's a faculty or any other employee, and where you do draw lines?
"It's an important question and one we're wrestling with," he said, adding that there may also be places where one should not employ people with criminal records.
"The issue of whether or not to employ someone who has a criminal background is not to me an academic freedom issue," Fitzgerald said.
"I don't see anyone saying that we ever want to step in and talk about whether our people should be employed based on speech or teaching in the classroom. And to take a very serious issue, which is what to do with people who have criminal backgrounds and how to apply a policy and how to apply it fairly, and to call it an academic freedom issue, to me is not, I don't think, accurate," he said.
Earlier this year, The News-Gazette published columns detailing Kilgore's activities with the Symbionese Liberation Army almost 40 years ago, including his involvement with the group's 1975 bank robbery during which a customer was killed. After Kilgore was picked up by authorities in South Africa in 2002, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, possession of an explosive device and passport violations and served time in a California prison.
He has held a number of nontenure-track positions at the UI in recent years, teaching prisoners, writing grant applications and lecturing in classes.
Academic freedom, said UI professor and Kilgore supporter D. Fairchild Ruggles, provides the opportunity for people to say things that are difficult or not popular.
"We cannot limit speech or frame the classroom in such as way as to exclude a 'lifestyle' that we don't like. We cannot or should not decide what is acceptable based on who pays the salary of the teacher. The principle of academic freedom rises above those particular interests," she said, referring to comments made by UI Board Chair Christopher Kennedy last week.
Kennedy said the university shouldn't employ anyone with a history of domestic terrorism. The university, he told The News-Gazette, operates on taxpayer money and tuition dollars, "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."
Several weeks ago, campus administrators said no final decision has been made on Kilgore's future employment. A committee appointed by Provost Ilesanmi Adesida is expected to review the case and general policies and procedures on how the campus hires visiting, nontenured academics like Kilgore.
After the meeting Wednesday, several trustees said the review process going on now is "campus-driven." That's where it should be, said Ed McMillan, a member of the board's executive committee.
"I think the process will unfold and if it comes to us, it comes to us. I would hope it gets handled at the campus level at this point," Kennedy said. "I think we have a good process ... to review our hiring processes for a group of employees that traditionally haven't been subject to the review process and in this day and age, it's not acceptable not to have a set of rules around who we hire," he said.
UI officials are developing a new policy that will require background checks for all new hires, not just those who work with children or hold "security sensitive" positions, such as in public safety. Under current university policy, an instructor with a criminal past does not automatically undergo a background check.
As for Kilgore, he called on trustees to establish a hiring policy for faculty that recognizes "the richness of the experience of those who have fallen, picked themselves up and found their way back toward success and intellectual inquiry. They have a wealth of knowledge to offer the academy, a wealth that a great university should not choose to do without," he said.