URBANA — The fate of two scholars at the University of Illinois is still unclear after top university officials met behind closed doors Monday afternoon to discuss several high-profile personnel issues and possible pending litigation.
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The university in recent months has come under fire for its handling of not one but two different teaching appointments — Professor Steven Salaita and lecturer James Kilgore.
The Urbana campus last October offered Salaita, then a professor at Virginia Tech, a tenured faculty position in the American Studies Program, but informed him a few weeks before the start of this coming semester that his appointment would not be forwarded to trustees for formal approval. Salaita's angry, anti-Israeli posts on social media drew widespread attention in July during Israel's invasion of Gaza.
Earlier this spring campus officials reportedly told nontenured lecturer and African Studies researcher James Kilgore he would not be employed after his contract expired on Aug. 15. Kilgore's supporters have said the decision was made in response to political pressure and not based on his performance or academic contributions. The announcement came following media attention to Kilgore's past as a member of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army and his role in a robbery that led to the killing of a bank customer in 1975. But not long after the news was revealed, university officials said the decision was not final and a "campus-driven" review of his employment would take place over the summer.
"There are a number of issues being discussed," President Bob Easter told The News-Gazette after the meeting, but trustees are "not at a place where I can say" if resolution is close. He declined to talk further because it was a closed session about personnel.
Monday's meeting included the executive committee of the UI Board of Trustees (Chair Christopher Kennedy and trustees Pam Strobel and Ed McMillan), plus university lawyers, Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise, Urbana Provost Ilesanmi Adesida and President Easter. Trustees James Montgomery and Tim Koritz also participated in the meeting. No action was taken. The board's next meeting as a whole is Sept. 11 in Urbana.
The closed-door session comes at a time when the campus is filling with students and faculty returning for the start of classes next Monday. Attention and speculation in Salaita's case has been growing. In the past few weeks more than 15,000 people signed a petition on change.org demanding Chancellor Wise reinstate Salaita. Other petitions have been circulating, including one signed by more than 1,000 scholars in which they pledged to boycott speaking at any conferences or public events at the university due to Salaita's treatment.
In a letter sent to Wise on Sunday, UI professor and English Department head Michael Rothberg said Wise should not underestimate the damage to the reputation of the university by the rescinding of Salaita's job.
Meantime scholars in constitutional law and academic freedom have written essays on the case of Salaita, who has remained quiet, raising speculation a settlement between him and the university may be in the works.
"I do not want to go one way or another without knowing all the facts," said UI computer science professor Roy Campbell, chair of the Urbana Academic Senate. But the fact is as more faculty return to campus and catch up on the news, more and more have asked him questions that need to be answered, Campbell said.
"What is the reason the university does not want to hire (Salaita)," he said. A reason has never been publicly given. Also, "was he considered an employee or not?" It is not uncommon for appointments to receive formal board approval weeks or even months after the employee starts working on campus, Campbell pointed out.
As for Kilgore's case, he declined comment via email on Monday. After public demonstrations in support of his work on campus in recent weeks, the provost assembled a special committee to review Kilgore's case over the summer. That group was expected to have completed its work recently and forward a recommendation to UI administrators.
Officials have not released the names on that committee or its formal charge.
Ultimately these personnel appointments are subject to board approval, as outlined in the university statutes, Campbell said.
"It's really up to the board. We can make recommendations (on Kilgore). It will be interesting to see if the board (of trustees) follows that recommendation," he said.