“I hope that you’ve googled me.”
That’s what James Kilgore, adjunct instructor of global studies and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told his programme head when he applied for a teaching job there in 2011. Two years out of prison for his involvement with a 1975 bank robbery in which a woman was killed, Dr Kilgore wasn’t legally obligated to disclose his criminal history. (Dr Kilgore was not the gunman.)
But he wanted to save the university from being blindsided by a possible media firestorm over hiring someone with a criminal record – especially one formerly associated with the notorious Symbionese Liberation Army. The underground group is perhaps best-known for kidnapping the heiress Patty Hearst.
“My belief is, because of the nature of my case, it was the respectful thing to do to put all that out there,” Dr Kilgore said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.
University officials had googled Dr Kilgore, who by then had served time in prison, earned a PhD and authored several novels, articles and a textbook. They hired him anyway.
And the firestorm never came - until February of this year, when a local newspaper, The News-Gazette, published a series of detailed articles about Dr Kilgore’s past, including that he’d been a fugitive for more than 25 years after the robbery. He was finally caught in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2002, where he was living under the name John Pape, had a family, and was teaching at a university. He served six years in prison back in the US for second-degree murder, possession of an explosive device and passport fraud.
After his sentence, he returned to his wife, Teresa Barnes, who by then had become an associate professor of history at Urbana-Champaign. Dr Kilgore was active in local politics and community life, including his vocal opposition to a proposed $20 million (£11.85 million) county jail.
Nothing in the reports was new to anyone who had been following Dr Kilgore’s case over the years. But the fact that the university knowingly hired a convicted criminal felon became headlines throughout the state, prompting an article in the Chicago Sun-Times. The article mentions concerns state residents have about Dr Kilgore’s employment as an educator, and it was illustrated with his mug shot.
In that article, a university spokeswoman is quoted as saying Dr Kilgore “does a great job” and “is well-respected among students”.
The spokeswoman, Robin Kaler continued: “He served his time in prison. He is very remorseful. He didn’t do the shooting. He is a good example of someone who has been rehabilitated, if you believe in second chances and redemption, he’s someone who helps prove that’s the human thing to do.”
But Dr Kilgore says that sometime between the publication of that article, in March, and a meeting last month that he had requested with administrators to discuss his case, the university changed its position.
Dr Kilgore says that Ilesanmi Adesida, provost and vice-chancellor of academic affairs, told him that approval for his contract for next year to teach several courses - which his unit leaders had already endorsed - had been “held up”. Sensing something was wrong, Dr Kilgore says, he asked if it would be “more appropriate to say that the door was closed on my future employment at the university”, and that Dr Adesida said yes. “I asked him who and what process had been gone through to arrive at that decision, and he answered: ‘I can’t say’,” Dr Kilgore said. “So that’s my information.”
Ms Kaler, the university spokeswoman, said Dr Kilgore is an adjunct lecturer, and that the university is not required to provide such faculty with a reason for not rehiring them. She declined to comment further on Dr Kilgore’s case, saying it was a private personnel matter.
It’s true that adjunct faculty members nationwide won’t be rehired by their institutions this season, and in most cases won’t be entitled to know why. But the timing of Dr Kilgore’s non-rehiring, coupled with the fact that he had otherwise been in good standing, has raised academic freedom concerns among faculty members at Illinois.
This isn’t the first time the University of Illinois system has been criticised for employing radical professors, or the way it’s reacted to public outcry. The system’s board blocked a move to make William Ayers, who retired as a professor education from the Chicago campus in 2010, an emeritus professor. Some criticised the university for ever having employed someone with past ties to the radical left organisation Weather Underground, and others said the board was playing politics at the end of his career.
Tenured faculty members at Urbana-Champaign have formed a group called Friends of James Kilgore to advocate for his rehire and protest what they call a lack of transparency in the university’s handling of his case. Dr Kilgore and the group believe that pressure from outside the university stemming from the news stories has factored into the university’s decision, and that that threatens the freedom under which any of the university’s scholars – tenured or not – can teach and do research.
“We the undersigned scholars, legal professionals, activists and concerned individuals believe that the University of Illinois gave in to political pressure and refused to approve future employment contracts for James Kilgore on the basis of his background and sensationalist media coverage, rather than on his job performance,” reads a petition from the Friends on Change.org, which has garnered more than 1,600 signatures.
“Refusing to approve Kilgore’s employment contracts represents a blow to academic freedom and transparency in universities but also has serious implications for the fifteen million Americans who have felony convictions and face a constant battle to access employment. We call on the University of Illinois to immediately restore James Kilgore’s employment status.”
A student petition contains similar language, and the Faculty Senate this week approved a resolution affirming its commitment to “the principles of academic freedom, fair employment practices for all faculty, both tenured and non-tenured, and appropriate unit autonomy[.]”
Cary Nelson, a professor of English, member of the Senate and past president of the American Association of University professors, said via email: “This whole effort was triggered by the university administration’s violations of academic freedom and shared governance when it decided to tell James Kilgore his services as a part-time teacher would never be needed again.”
The AAUP also has taken note, sending a letter to Chancellor Phyllis Wise on Dr Kilgore’s behalf. It recommends that the university “retain” him based on principles of academic freedom.
In a letter of response, Dr Wise said the provost was “charging a committee to review the processes involved in hiring employees, including academic hourly staff and visiting lecturers”. She added: “The committee will involve campus faculty leaders as well as administrative staff. Additionally, the committee will be asked to provide a recommendation specifically regarding Mr Kilgore’s future employability at the University of Illinois.”
Dr Kilgore said it was strange that a policy, not a personnel, committee was charged with reviewing his case, but that he hoped to retain his position. He loves teaching in particular.
As for his past, he said: “What I say is that I’ve lived a very different life since that time”. He said that personally and in his work he rejected the politics of small-group violence and “trying to effect social change through that process”.
He added: “I would expect that at the university, there’s an expectation - especially at a [top research] institution such as the University of Illinois - that they’re at the cutting edge of civil and human rights issues and employment for people with felony convictions.”
Since it published Dr Kilgore’s story, The News-Gazette has reported that the university will begin performing criminal background checks for all faculty. Ms Kaler said she was not aware of that policy change, but referred questions to human resources officials, who did not immediately return a request for comment.