John Foreman: Kilgore's status leaves unanswered questions

John Foreman: Kilgore's status leaves unanswered questions

Let me see if I got this straight .

A couple of weeks ago, a half-dozen spoiled college kids reached a fit of pique over being required to go to school in bad weather. They vented over the Internet with crude, juvenile remarks. Alcohol may have been involved.

Their commentary bore striking resemblance to the prose one finds on bathroom walls, with the exception that bathroom walls sometimes show evidence of wit. Scores of their fellow students and alumni immediately arrived to chastise them and clean it up.

And that, one might think, would be about that.

Not so. The hierarchy at the University of Illinois erupted in chorus. "Incivility." "Racism." "Sexism." "Naughty words!"

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With or without prompting, the student body president stepped forward with a public letter of apology on behalf of the miscreants. A public letter followed over the signatures of the president and the chairman of the board. The chancellor, target of the nasty remarks for having failed to give the kids a snow day, saw the incident as cause for extended comment in a national academic publication.

There was embarrassment; there was angst; there was heartbreak; there was talk of punishment for violation of the university's code of conduct. No hand went unwrung.

Finally, there was a campus forum in the Great Hall of Krannert Center to discuss the naughty words and all the significance they surely carried. The chancellor — out of town — addressed the gathering via video, but the true highlight was something of a truth and reconciliation moment in the form of a public apology by one of the naughty students herself. Shame. Shame. Shame.

One supposes that some office or committee will continue studying what it all means and write a report or something, for there is much to be said, apparently, and everyone above the rank of corporal at the university meant to say something, a veritable tsunami of comment and communication. Well and good it all was.

Now fast-forward one week. A published report by columnist Jim Dey revealed that a UI teacher was imprisoned for seven years in conjunction with crimes including the shotgun slaughter of a young mother during a bank robbery. The full story of James Kilgore's life was just short of blood-curdling — stashes of weapons, plots to blow up police cars, even the attempted bombing of a veterans' convention.

Kilgore was a member of the murderous Symbionese Liberation Army, a sort of preppy Manson cult with a vague political notion of overthrowing the government through acts of wanton violence. But after 27 years on the run and seven in prison, he nonetheless was somehow promptly hired to teach courses at the University of Illinois.

So what is the university's reaction of these disclosures? Shame? Angst? Apology?

Try silence. Stone silence.

Nothing to say. No public letters. No campus forums. No columns in national academic publications. No nothing. Not a word from the chancellor or the president or the board chair or any of their ranks of spokespersons, all suddenly struck mute.

No explanation. No rationalization. No regret. Nothing.

And despite repeated requests to address his background, Kilgore also stays mum.

No remorse. No apologies. No explanations.

Now, in fairness, caught after living 27 years under an assumed name in Australia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, Kilgore did apologize at his sentencing hearing. But it is equally fair to say that remorse is not in short supply on such occasions. Caught, convicted and facing the judge who literally holds keys to the rest of their life, even the hardest of cases often are awash in regret. Spend an afternoon in the Champaign County Courthouse and you can hear a belly full of it.

And a few local friends have come forward, both before and after publication, to say Kilgore is, in fact, quite a good guy now — paid his price, that sort of thing. For all I know, they are right. He served on a county board advisory group, showed up amid the campaign supporters of Carol Ammons, is kind to his dog.

But what I don't know — and what I would think the taxpayers of Illinois seem entitled to know — could fill the rest of this page.

University of Illinois officials either didn't fully know the extent of Kilgore's background or they knew and didn't care.

If the former is true, why? What did they know? Did they investigate the gaps in his resume or question why his academic credentials happened to be in someone else's name? Did they verify those credentials at all? Does the university settle for something short of rigor when hiring the army of cheap part-time instructors who make up so much of its current teaching rank?

But if the latter is the case — if they knew and didn't care — then why not? Is it merely because his spouse is a member of the history faculty? While a felony conviction cannot serve as the single determining factor in a hiring decision, it needn't be fully ignored, certainly not in the full context of an applicant's background. Or, as some suspect, do the children of the '60s and '70s who now populate the ranks of university decision-makers still embrace radical chic? It would explain, in part, the revered status that Angela Davis, Bernardine Dohrn and, yes, the UI's own Bill Ayers seem to hold on campuses here and there.

So long as they forgo the use of naughty words on Twitter and refrain from chewing tobacco on campus, they all seem welcome here.

But however misguided by youthful judgment, those, at least, were ideologues. The record suggests the SLA were simple lunatics, mental defectives on a savage lark. Slate magazine said the organization, unlike some of the 1960s and 1970s, was of "no historical significance."

If university administrators believe youthful Twitter hashtags betray a lack of civility, how do they compare with youthful murder, bombing and terrorism?

And, if Kilgore truly is remorseful — has turned over a new leaf, reformed himself, found religion, is taking his meds now, whatever — why is he hesitant to simply say so?

We don't know the answer to any of those questions, because those who could tell us aren't talking. And unlike their ill-behaved students, they apparently needn't answer to anyone for their dubious judgment.

So, finally, just why is that?

John Foreman, publisher of The News-Gazette, can be reached by email at jforeman@news-gazette.com or at P.O. Box 677 in Champaign.

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Bulldogmojo wrote on February 18, 2014 at 10:02 am

but the "apology on behalf" tour keeps on rolling. If only this much ink and press time and furvor went into resolving this university's real problems. Pensions, state payments in arrears and the substantial failings of the university administration to stay out of the scandal sheets for the last decade.