Christopher Kennedy, chair of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, has given an interview to a local newspaper in which he explains why he believes that adjunct instructor James Kilgore must be fired for his involvement in the 1970s radical group, the Symbionese Liberation Army. Kilgore served time in prison for possessing explosives and second-degree murder after a person was killed during a 1975 bank robbery Kilgore participated in.
Kennedy’s arguments for dismissing Kilgore are extremely disturbing. They indicate that Kennedy does not understand what academic freedom means, and that he places “sensitivity” and public opinion above academic merit in hiring procedures.
According to Kennedy, “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.” If Kilgore were Osama bin Laden, plotting murderous attacks from his faculty office, then this argument would be accurate. But unless Kennedy has some evidence that Kilgore is currently engaged in any criminal activity (and no one believes that he is), then his criminal past should be irrelevant to an academic decision.
But Kennedy claimed, “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.” I have no idea what “lifestyle” Kennedy thinks is being “underwritten” by hiring Kilgore. Does he actually imagine that Kilgore’s salary is financing bombmaking? If public prejudice about “underwriting this lifestyle” guided the hiring practices of a university, one can easily imagine in earlier years a ban on hiring black faculty or gay faculty or Jewish faculty because of concerns over the “lifestyle” of faculty. A university has no business worrying about the current “lifestyle” of faculty, and certainly not what they did 40 years ago. In a free society, a university respects the taxpayer’s money by hiring the best possible faculty, not by banishing people with an unpopular past.
According to the Board of Trustees statutes, “The commitment of the University of Illinois to the most fundamental principles of academic freedom, equality of opportunity, and human dignity requires that decisions involving students and employees be based on merit…” By banning a professor for his criminal past and political viewpoints, Kennedy is declaring that public pressure should trump merit at a university.
I think Kilgore’s past actions were repulsive and deserving of both total condemnation and criminal punishment, which he received. But the University of Illinois has no policy banning ex-felons from being faculty, staff, students, or trustees, and it should not have any such discriminatory policy.
Kennedy declared, “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.” It’s disturbing that the chair of the Board of Trustees of one of the leading universities in the country doesn’t understand what academic freedom is. Although tenure is an important protection for academic freedom, academic freedom has never been limited to tenured professors.
The Board of Trustees statute on academic freedom makes absolutely no distinctions based on tenure. It says, “It is the policy of the University to maintain and encourage full freedom within the law of inquiry, discourse, teaching, research, and publication and to protect any member of the academic staff against influences, from within or without the University, which would restrict the member’s exercise of these freedoms in the member’s area of scholarly interest.” Certainly, firing an instructor infringes upon freedom of teaching in his area of scholarly interest, and violates this statute.
According to Kennedy, Kilgore needs to be fired because “We also have first-responders and police in this state that we need to be sensitive to.” No, we don’t. A university is not run based on sensitivity. If a professor criticized police brutality or discrimination by first-responders, would Kennedy demand their firing because of sensitivity? Academic hiring decisions must be made based on academic criteria, not sensitivity.
Kennedy, by publicly announcing that he effectively ordered President Bob Easter to fire Kilgore based on political criteria, has almost guaranteed that the University of Illinois will lose any lawsuit filed over this case. He is putting pressure on academic committees to conform to his misguided ideas.
Kennedy’s ideas about academic freedom and academic hiring are completely wrong, and have no place at a university where academic merit must trump hysteria about “domestic terrorists.”