University of Illinois faces fallout as Kilgore rehired

  • James Kilgore, a faculty member at the University of Illinois, spent six years in prison for his role in a 1975 bank robbery that left a woman dead.

    James Kilgore, a faculty member at the University of Illinois, spent six years in prison for his role in a 1975 bank robbery that left a woman dead. Associated Press/Feb. 5, 2014

Associated Press
Updated 12/9/2014 4:58 PM

CHAMPAIGN -- Former 1970s radical and felon James Kilgore will earn just $3,500 for teaching a single class on labor and the workplace at the University of Illinois' flagship campus. His rehiring comes at a more significant cost -- a large promised donation and another round of controversy.

Richard C. Hill, a graduate of the University of Illinois-Chicago and former tech-industry CEO, was angered by Kilgore's return and says he'll withhold $4.5 million he had promised to donate to the university system. Hill also resigned as board chairman of the university's fundraising arm.


Meanwhile, state Sen. Chapin Rose, who graduated from the Urbana-Champaign campus, said he'll push for legislation to make sure the school can't hire convicted felons again.

It's a sensitive time for the central Illinois campus, which will have a new president take office next year and faces the threat of a lawsuit from a professor whose job offer was rescinded this year after he wrote profane anti-Israel Twitter messages. Steven Salaita's case sparked protests by some faculty, boycotts by outside academics of some university events and no-confidence votes aimed at university leadership.

The university initially ended its relationship with Kilgore, a former Symbionese Liberation Army member who spent six years in prison for his role in a fatal 1975 bank robbery, less than a year ago.

University of Illinois board Chairman Christopher Kennedy said the board feared the problems could grow if the university didn't heed some faculty members' desire to allow Kilgore to return.

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"This is a super-complicated problem that defies a simple solution or easy explanation," Kennedy said.

Trustees said Nov. 13 that they'd leave decisions about part-time instructors up to the campus, clearing the way to rehire Kilgore. That was the last straw for Hill, who resigned from the University of Illinois Foundation that night.

Hill said he supported retracting Salaita's job offer and the school's 2010 decision to deny emeritus status to Vietnam War-era radical and professor William Ayers. But he believes "renegade" faculty who opposed those moves have too much power, leaving Kennedy and other university leaders "totally helpless."

"I wrote to Kennedy, saying, look, if you guys let this guy (Kilgore) teach at the university, I'm out of here," he said.

Earlier this year, Rose pushed legislation through the state Senate aimed at Kilgore that would have made it illegal to use a degree earned under a false name, but pulled the bill only after the university said it would create its own policy. Now, he plans for broader legislation in the spring session that would bar felons from university teaching jobs.

"This is not some low-level, nonviolent offender who is totally clean," said Rose, a former prosecutor.

Kilgore declined to comment on his rehiring. In May when trying to get his job back, he told trustees, "As a young man, I committed acts of which I stand ashamed."


The SLA wanted to overthrow the U.S. government and kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst in 1974. Kilgore was convicted of second-degree murder for his role in the robbery in which a California housewife was shot to death and had spent 27 years on the run. He was released from prison in 2009 and became a part-time instructor at the University of Illinois, where his wife is an associate professor.

The faculty member who rehired Kilgore called him a great teacher who deserves a second chance.

"I can't support violence in political activity, but he's a different person," Thomas Bassett, director of the Global Studies program, said. "He's changed."

Kennedy called Kilgore's crimes "egregious" and doesn't believe he should work at the university. But blocking his rehire might have drawn out unrest, which Kennedy says he wants to contain before stepping down next year.

"Rather than expose the university to greater upheaval, perhaps additional boycotts and more no-confidence votes," he said, "I think the board put its own desires behind what they believed is the best interests of the campus."

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