Jim Dey: Will they be working at the UI this fall?

Jim Dey: Will they be working at the UI this fall?

The days are dwindling down to a precious few in the countdown over the future of former political terrorist turned University of Illinois faculty and staff member James Kilgore.

With the fall semester scheduled to begin Aug. 25, it's just about time for a faculty committee appointed by Chancellor Phyllis Wise to make recommendations on the continued employment of Kilgore, the former revolutionary, longtime fugitive, convicted murderer, prison inmate and parolee who's held a variety of campus positions since 2010.

In the meantime, a second campus controversy has broken out over a job offer and then a reported withdrawal of that offer to Steven Salaita, an English professor who drew considerable attention and some condemnation for a series of obscenity-filled tweets about Israel. Salaita, a onetime member of the English Department at Virginia Tech, was scheduled to join the UI's American Indian Studies Program on Aug. 16.

Just as in Kilgore's case, Salaita supporters have rushed to the ramparts with petitions, figuratively, in hand.

"The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has just severed their (sic) contract of employment with the brilliant, ethical, and prolific Dr. Steven Salaita for his political views on Israel, effectively firing him the very month he was to take up a tenured position there. This is also an insult to the Department of American Indian Studies that was not consulted in this administrative decision. ... We demand his immediate reinstatement," states a petition on change.org that has attracted more than 7,000 signatures.

The UI has remained largely mum on both Kilgore and Salaita. Interestingly, the chancellor's office has explained its reticence to discuss Salaita on the grounds that it's a "personnel" matter, even though Salaita is not and may not become an actual employee.

Salaita also has declined comment, allowing his tweets to speak for themselves.

Kilgore declined to respond to an inquiry from The News-Gazette. But he's commented freely on his Facebook page, apparently remaining busy and filled with political fervor. He has expressed opposition to Israel's recent military action in the Gaza strip, support for illegal immigrants from Central America who've been crossing America's southern borders and praise for Gov. Pat Quinn for signing legislation that bars public and private employers from inquiring into prospective employees' criminal backgrounds.

"After a long series of interruptions my electronic monitoring research is back on track. I have published a piece today on Truth Out with another one coming later this week," Kilgore wrote on July 30 about his article "The Spread of Electronic Monitoring: No Quick Fix for Mass Incarceration."

Kilgore also criticized prominent CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer for pointing out that Hamas soldiers in the Gaza Strip take cover during Israeli attacks in civilian areas while knowing that innocent civilians, including children, will die as a consequence.

"I can't express how angry this Bob Schieffer quote makes me — saying that Palestinians are killing their own children is just beyond totally irresponsible," he wrote.

Kilgore has considerable support from campus and community leftists, who have denounced a February News-Gazette column detailing the professor's criminal background as a right-wing hit job. But there's something of a split among the left on the Salaita hiring controversy.

UI Emeritus Professor Cary Nelson, a prominent Kilgore supporter, has been quoted as calling Salaita's tweets "troubling" and expressing agreement with the UI's decision not to bring him aboard.

For that, Nelson is the target of vehement criticism in a Salon magazine article that characterized him as a stooge of Israel.

Stanford Professor David Palumbo-Liu recalled Nelson once defended University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill in a tenure controversy but won't do the same for Salaita because "Salaita's target is not U.S. foreign policy or global capitalism, it is Israel."

"One might forgive Nelson his base hypocrisy, if it were not for the fact that it comes at the expense of another person's career and livelihood," said Palumbo-Liu.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported another attack on Nelson based on the Israel angle.

It said that "John K. Wilson, a co-editor of the AAUP's blog, Academe ... argued that Mr. Nelson generally can be counted on to stick up for a faculty member in Mr. Salaita's position, but the former AAUP president appears to have 'a blind spot' when it comes to the academic freedom of critics of Israel."

A local academic freedom committee of the American Association of University Professors also came to Salaita's defense, conceding his Twitter comments were "strident and vulgar" but calling them an "empassioned plea to end violence currently taking place in the Middle East." It argued Salaita's comments were protected speech and that not hiring him would be a violation of academic freedom, the same claim Kilgore supporters have made on behalf of the onetime Symbionese Liberation Army chieftain.

AAUP said the UI "cannot cancel an appointment based on Twitter comments that are protected speech." It would have been more accurate for the AAUP to state the UI "should not" withdraw the contract offer to Salaita. It would take a court ruling to determine whether the UI is legally obligated to hire Salaita over the opposition of UI trustees.

As for Kilgore, he's a contract employee who wants, but is not legally entitled to, a renewal of that contract. It looked like Kilgore was home free after Chancellor Wise's spokeswoman gave him an enthusiastic endorsement, just as Salaita's hiring seemed assured after the same spokeswoman, Robin Kaler, dismissed concerns about Salaita's tweets.

"We recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees," Kaler said in reference to Salaita.

But circumstances changed amid mysterious circumstances. Top UI officials, including Chancellor Wise, are running silent and deep from the current controversy. But the academic calendar makes it impossible for them to hide their behind-the-scenes machinations much longer.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

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rsp wrote on August 10, 2014 at 11:08 am

Follow the money! they are more concerned about funding than free speech. Too much attention of the "wrong" kind and they have to explain things to the people in Springfield who just want to cut funding anyway. Good thing they swore to uphold the Constitution, free speech and all that.

basset wrote on August 10, 2014 at 1:08 pm

"Personnel" decisions including hiring ones - obviously you would think, but apparently you don't think, implying otherwise in your column.  Another sloppy analysis driven by ideology.