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Illinois University Faculty Member and PLN Contributor Fights for His Job after Opposing New County Jail

Illinois University Faculty Member and PLN Contributor Fights for His Job after Opposing New County Jail

by Joe Watson

In 2013, James Kilgore’s activism against a proposed new jail in Champaign, Illinois saved his community millions of dollars in construction costs and educated local residents on the profit motives of mass incarceration. [See: PLN, Feb. 2014, p.44]. In return, he was targeted and temporarily lost his job as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Illinois.

Kilgore – a respected educator, writer, criminal justice activist and occasional Prison Legal News contributor – became the target of a smear campaign by a Champaign paper, the News-Gazette, shortly after he successfully opposed the proposed jail.

The smear campaign began when the News-Gazette ran a lengthy article on Kilgore’s felony convictions, his political activities with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in the 1970s, and the nearly 30 years he spent on the run living in Australia, Zimbabwe and South Africa under an assumed identity. None of which was anything new, as it had been reported by numerous news media agencies more than a decade earlier.

Like many other radical groups in the 1960s and 70s, the SLA dedicated itself to overthrowing the leadership of the U.S. government. They planned violent attacks on police and federal buildings, murdered a school superintendent, conducted bombings and are most notorious for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. Six SLA members were killed in a house fire during a 1974 shootout with Los Angeles police.

The group also robbed banks, and on April 28, 1975, SLA members including Kilgore and Sara Jane Olson robbed the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California. Myrna Opsahl, a bank customer, was shot and killed during the robbery – not by Kilgore but by SLA member Emily Montague Harris.

Kilgore went on the run after Opsahl’s murder, eventually landing in South Africa where he lived under the name of Charles Pape, earned a Ph.D., married and had two sons, and was employed at the University of Cape Town. In 2002, he was finally arrested and extradited to the United States; he was the last member of the SLA to be apprehended.

The following year, Kilgore pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in connection with Opsahl’s death and was sentenced to six years in the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. He also pleaded guilty to federal charges of passport fraud and possession of explosives, and received a 54-month sentence. He was reportedly a model prisoner and helped fellow prisoners educate themselves.

Following his release on parole in 2009 after serving 6½ years, Kilgore moved to Illinois to be with his wife, a faculty member at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). After applying for a job at UIUC, during which he disclosed his felony convictions, Kilgore was hired as a part-time grant writer and research scholar at UIUC’s Center for African Studies. He then started teaching courses in Global Studies and was included on the university’s Excellent Teacher list in 2013. As a non-tenured faculty member, his position at UIUC was renewed on an annual basis.

While raising grant money for UIUC and lecturing, Kilgore also served on Champaign County’s Community Justice Task Force. He played a significant role on the Task Force in 2013 when he contributed to a report and recommendation that opposed the construction of a new jail proposed by local law enforcement officials.

Private criminal justice planning firm Kimme & Associates, Inc., which has a history of recommending and helping to design new correctional facilities, had previously submitted a proposal to conduct a jail study for the county. Kimme was not selected for the study amid claims that the company had a conflict of interest; instead, after the Task Force issued its report and recommendation, the county board opted not to pursue building a new jail and allocated a small amount of money to a prisoner re-entry program.

Shortly thereafter, in February 2014, the News-Gazette published its lengthy exposé on Kilgore, with staff member Jim Dey questioning UIUC’s judgment in hiring a “convicted murderer, bank robber, ex-convict and terrorist.” The newspaper also published a column by Kimme & Associates president Dennis Kimme that was critical of Kilgore and his involvement in the successful efforts to stop the proposed new jail in Champaign County.

The disclosure of Kilgore’s past involvement with the SLA and his status as a convicted felon distressed university officials, and two months later, on April 9, 2014, Kilgore was informed by UIUC administrators that the school would not approve any contracts for his future employment. No reason was given.

After the university’s decision not to retain Kilgore became public, a petition signed by over 300 current and former faculty members was submitted to UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise, asking her to ignore the “sensationalist media coverage” of Kilgore’s past and to renew his employment contract based on the merits of his job performance.

Additionally, more than 500 people contacted university officials concerning their decision not to rehire Kilgore, including PLN editor Paul Wright and managing editor Alex Friedmann.

“Mr. Kilgore was convicted of politically motivated legal violations that occurred decades before the majority of your students were even born,” Wright stated. “He has duly completed the sentences imposed on him by a court of law and no one claims he is a danger or threat to society or the community and indeed, his firsthand knowledge of the criminal justice system makes him uniquely qualified to comment on it.”

Friedmann wrote that the university’s decision to dump Kilgore only reinforced the stigma of people who have criminal records.

“When prisoners rehabilitate themselves and stay out of prison, they often do so in spite of the system rather than because of it, and they do so with the hope they can one day put their past behind them,” he said. “The University’s decision to terminate James’ employment, however, demonstrates the fallacy of that hope.”

The News-Gazette’s Jim Dey continued to publish editorials criticizing Kilgore and UIUC, which stoked the fires of the controversy. At times, Dey’s vitriolic commentary seemed to be a personal vendetta. Regardless, Kilgore received support from the Graduate Employees’ Organization at the university, which represents over 2,600 graduate and teaching assistants, and from the American Association of University Professors.

On May 14, 2014, Kilgore appeared before UIUC’s board of trustees. After again expressing remorse for his involvement with the SLA and the murder of Myrna Opsahl – as he did when he was sentenced more than 10 years before – he told the trustees that “many people with felony convictions want to give back to their communities, and one of the best ways to do this is to teach young people how to avoid a destructive path.”

“We must not freeze people in history,” he added, “but allow them space to move forward, to transform.”

Jon Opsahl, Myrna Opsahl’s son, echoed that sentiment, telling the News-Gazette that “James Kilgore has earned the opportunity for a second chance.”

But five days after Kilgore appeared before the trustees, the Illinois Senate unanimously passed a bill sponsored by state Senator Chapin Rose that would ban anyone who had obtained a degree under an assumed name from being employed at an institution of higher learning.

Rose acknowledged that the bill was “absolutely” targeted at Kilgore, who had earned his Ph.D. under the name of Charles Pape while on the run and living in South Africa.

“He might not have pulled the trigger,” Rose said of Kilgore’s involvement with the SLA. “But he was a part of the group. He didn’t stop it. He fled the country and used a fake name to obtain a degree. He, and others like him, just shouldn’t be teaching our children.”

A similar bill introduced in the House, HB 150, failed to pass – killing the proposed legislation.

UIUC Provost Ilesanmi Adesida asked a committee to examine Kilgore’s employment at the university. The committee found that he had “contributed to the scholarly and educational missions of the campus,” that all employment policies had been followed when Kilgore was hired and that he had “voluntarily disclosed” his criminal record during the hiring process, and recommended he not be barred from future employment at UIUC.

Despite the smear campaign spearheaded by the News-Gazette, the extensive publicity about Kilgore’s past and criticisms by lawmakers, in November 2014 the UIUC trustees, unable to reach a consensus, followed the committee’s recommendation and said academic units at the school could rehire Kilgore under existing hiring practices.

“The university in making this decision, if I am rehired, is recognizing that people can change and that people should be given second chances and that when they prove themselves, they shouldn’t simply be dismissed from their position on the basis of their criminal background or their past,” Kilgore said after the trustees announced their decision.

On August 7, 2015, Kilgore sent an update to almost 2,000 supporters who had signed a petition urging UIUC officials to renew his employment contract.

“Thanks to your support I was able to once again work at the Center for African Studies and teach one course at the university during the spring (Jan-May) semester. I am slotted to teach more courses this academic year beginning in September and hope to continue my work at the Center for African Studies. For the moment, my employment situation seems stable. My further news is that during the eight months when I was barred from working at the [University], I did complete a book manuscript, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, which will be published by The New Press on September 15, 2015.”

Meanwhile, the News-Gazette continues to publish articles critical of UIUC’s decision to retain Kilgore as a faculty member, apparently unwilling – or possibly unable – to let his past criminal history remain in the past where it belongs.

Sources: Chicago Tribune,,,,


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