"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."
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.