More in balance on Kilgore decision than reappointment

This week we have been given a chance to consider the bookends in a University of Illinois story — a story with continuing impact reaching far beyond the school’s Urbana-Champaign campus.

On Thursday, the Illinois Board of Trustees takes up the question of the reappointment of African Studies research scholar James Kilgore.  As I’ve written here before, Kilgore’s employment contract was not renewed this past spring following newspaper reports recounting his criminal background connected with the Symbionese Liberation Army more than 40 years ago.

In the wake of campus and national petitions calling for reversal of that decision, a University of Illinois committee was empaneled to explore a couple of significant questions directly related to Kilgore.

First is whether he had misrepresented his conviction record.  The second is — even if he had made full disclosure — whether Kilgore was acceptable as a member of the faculty of the University of Illinois  — a man who was convicted of murder although he was not the gunman; had served his time as a model inmate: has been praised as a University of Illinois instructor; has been a productive scholar and engaged in progressive local service; and who reportedly has raised more than $2 million in support of the work of the University’s Center on African Studies.

After a summer of thoughtful deliberation, the committee determined that Kilgore had disclosed his background and should be reinstated based on his highly regarded performance as measured against the three pillars of faculty assessment — teaching, publication and service.  The committee also recommended in its August report (just made public on Monday in a story published by Inside Higher Education) that the university develop a more comprehensive system of criminal background checks on certain new employees.

All of this was discussed this week at a news conference on the Urbana campus by “Friends of James Kilgore” calling for his reinstatement.

For me, though, the Monday news conference is not where my reflective “bookends” story of this week really begins.  In fact, the story I envision — the one that will resonate long after the Board of Trustees determination on Thursday — that story doesn’t even begin with the newspaper stories on Kilgore’s background that first were published this past February.

No.  The way I see it, this story begins in January — first of the year — when some students engaged in sexist and racist Twitter rants targeting Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who happens to be Asian-American.  They were angry over her decision not to cancel classes on a brutally cold Polar Vortex day.

Many saw in that experience the duty we have to elevate discourse on our campus.  What underscored that responsibility was the recognition that everything we do in some way represents who we are in the intellectual space we occupy at a major university.  And in that representation are significant lessons. One of those lessons is in the value of inclusivity.  The hate tweets reminded us of the great need to elevate the  dialogue on campus and to raise consciousness. Our students also learned a valuable lesson about the enduring effect of social media posts: People can be judged forever on the basis of past bad acts.

The Kilgore case holds valuable lessons, too.  As a civilized society, how will we treat the formerly incarcerated?  Will they forever be judged and punished?  This is an especially compelling issue in a nation that has been engaged in systematic mass incarceration over the past generation.  Also, how will we all fare if we fail to demonstrate the value of inclusion or to teach by the example we set?

During the 10th Annual Expungement Summit, organized by Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown in June, I saw that an ever-increasing number of ex-offenders find themselves at a crossroads: reintegration into society, if given a chance to become productive citizens; or re-entry into the penal system if that chance is denied because of prejudices that ultimately condemn ex-offenders to life sentences, as our student-run Daily Illini has editorialized.

The Board of Trustees is scheduled to make a determination on James Kilgore at its regular meeting on Thursday.  But that is not where this story ends.

The outcome of this story will depend on what the University of Illinois represents as an institution of teaching, learning and understanding. What is the story we tell with the way we conduct our affairs?  What is the message of our acceptance or rejection of people who have made mistakes and attempted to turn their lives around, to become productive citizens?

What is the message we send to our students — future leaders, perhaps even employers — about whether they should give someone a chance?  What will they consider as the result of what they have learned from us?  How will these lessons shape their world and ours?

The final chapter in the story I envision will be written by the answers to questions such as these.

Christopher Benson is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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