URBANA, Illinois—In 2008, the nation learned that the University of Illinois had long had an ex-domestic terrorist on its faculty: Bill Ayers, the co-founder of the Weather Underground, who was teaching at the UI’s Chicago campus, and who happened to be an old colleague of Barack Obama. Controversy flared, but there wasn’t much UI officials could do about it, even if they wanted to. Ayers had tenure. They were stuck with him.
Now, however, it turns out they’ve got another staffer with a background strikingly similar to Ayers—this one without tenure. And whether they keep him around is very much up in the air.
He’s James Kilgore, an instructor at the UI’s main campus in Champaign-Urbana—and a veteran of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the 1970s revolutionary group best known for kidnapping heiress Patty Hearst, then recruiting or brainwashing her into joining their ranks.
Since 2010, Kilgore has held a variety of positions at the UI, most recently as an instructor and research scholar at the Center for African Studies, teaching about topics like “wealth and poverty in a globalized world.” He’s been active in the “social justice” movement, working to bring ex-fugitive Angela Davis to town last fall and escorting her on her visit.
A Life Of Crime
While Kilgore’s background was known to some UI officials from the start, it wasn’t widely known to the general public until February. That’s when the local newspaper, The News-Gazette, published an in-depth story on the one-time revolutionary who took part in the SLA’s terror campaign, then spent the next 27 years as a fugitive.
It was gripping stuff. Drawing on existing materials, including court documents and Hearst’s statements, The News-Gazette’s Jim Dey (pronounced “dye”) traced Kilgore’s history: armed bank robberies, dozens of bombings, and attempted assassination of police officers—and an effort to bomb a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.
But the worst of the SLA’s crimes came on April 21, 1975. That’s when Kilgore and three comrades, all wearing ski masks, rushed the Crocker National Bank in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael, ordering customers to get down and clerks to turn over money. One SLA member, Emily Harris, fatally shot Myrna Lee Opsahl, who was depositing funds for her church. (Harris, though claiming in court that it was an accident, had dismissed her victim as “a bourgeois pig,” Hearst said.) Opsahl wasn’t the only fatality that day, Dey noted: “Court documents allege that during the robbery, Kilgore’s girlfriend [Kathy] Soliah, kicked a pregnant, non-resisting clerk in the stomach, causing her to lose her unborn child through a miscarriage.”
Months later, the FBI identified nearly all the SLA principals, including Kilgore, whose fingerprints were found in the bank. Some of them were arrested, but others went underground. Kilgore fled overseas, living in countries from Australia to Zimbabwe to South Africa and pursuing an academic career under the alias of Charles “John” Pape—a name stolen from a dead 10-month-old infant, Charles William Pape, whose birth certificate Kilgore acquired and used to get a passport.
In November 2002, authorities finally tracked him down and arrested him in Cape Town—the last of the SLA members to be caught. Kilgore cut a deal with U.S. prosecutors, who had their work cut out for them after so much time had passed: He’d waive extradition and return to California, pleading guilty to second-degree murder and explosives charges in exchange for a short prison sentence.
By May 2009, Kilgore was out on parole. He headed to the UI, where his wife, Teresa Barnes, taught women’s studies. By January 2010, he was a UI employee.
Stand By Your Man
Since The News-Gazette’s story broke—followed by an outpouring of public outrage—UI’s response has been all over the map. For more than a month, the only official comment was “no comment.” Then UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler gave Kilgore a ringing endorsement. Through it all, the outrage showed no sign of subsiding.
Sometime in mid-April, the university informed Kilgore his contract would not be renewed when it expires August 15. No explanation was given, or (since he was an hourly employee) legally required.
Then came the outrage from the other side. A petition signed by 300-plus faculty and staff denounced the move as “a blow to academic freedom and employment equity.” That was a small percentage of UI faculty and staff (2,458 faculty, 3,665 administrative and academic professionals, 4,136 support staff). But it got attention. And, perhaps more importantly, the American Association of University Professors weighed in on Kilgore’s behalf.
Soon, UI flip-flopped again—announcing that the decision wasn’t final and appointing a committee to review the Kilgore decision.
One key person who seems unimpressed by Kilgore’s defense, though, is Christopher Kennedy—chairman of the UI Board of Trustees and son of Robert F. Kennedy.
No Evidence Of Regret
Kennedy said he didn’t regard this as an issue of academic freedom, and also expressed doubt that this was simply a case of an ex-felon who’s paid his debt to society being allowed to live a full life.
“Should a domestic terrorist bent on overthrowing the government by targeting the murder of police and who was involved in a killing be on the public payroll? The answer is no.”
Kennedy also voiced a view seldom heard in academia—that the views of taxpayers should play a major role in the decision.
“We want to be respectful of the fact that we operate on taxpayers’ money and tuition,” Kennedy said. He spoke of how a multicultural society is a fragile system of government whose legitimacy needs to be maintained in the eyes of the public. The university draws about a third of its funding from the state, Kennedy said, “and that’s a big deal.”
While stating that the board wouldn’t prejudge the review process, Kennedy left open the possibility that the trustees might have a say when it’s finished.
It wouldn’t be the first time. When Ayers applied for emeritus status upon retiring in 2010, the trustees overwhelmingly rejected him, with Kennedy noting that Ayers had dedicated a book to Sirhan Sirhan, the man who killed his father—and seemed strikingly unrepentant.
“There can be no place in a democracy to celebrate political assassinations or to honor those who do so,” Kennedy said. “There’s no evidence in any of his interviews or conversations that he regrets any of those actions.”
As for Kilgore, is he repentant? His recorded apologies have been prepared, carefully worded statements to bodies that have the power to determine his fate, like the court that sentenced him and the UI trustees themselves. To the latter, after lecturing them on the high social purposes to be served by retaining him, he spent a couple sentences expressing contrition. “As a young man,” he said, “I committed acts of which I stand ashamed,” and which were “utterly destructive” of innocent people and of the campaign for “social justice and peace.”
That phrase—“political offenses”—deserves some attention. It’s not just a vague whitewash, obscuring deeds for which he was convicted and other deeds for which he escaped conviction. It’s a strong implication that Kilgore, far from being a criminal, was a political prisoner.
Certainly that was the intent of the words in their original context: Kilgore cut and pasted them from the blurb for his book, Freedom Never Rests (2012), published in South Africa—where “political offenses” is a phrase associated with the conviction of a national icon, the late Nelson Mandela. Kilgore and his publisher (Jacana Media) weren’t expressing repentance for his past: They were boasting of it, seeking to link him to a movement seen today as a heroic crusade for social justice.
Seeking Sympathetic Ears
There are other reasons to question the nature and extent of Kilgore‘s repentance. He’s declined media interviews from any but the most sympathetic outlets. Yet even the interviews he’s given can raise eyebrows. For example, in a puff piece for Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Flaherty writes:
As for his past, he said, ‘What I say is that I’ve lived a very different life since that time,’ rejecting personally and in his work the politics of small-group violence and ‘trying to effect social change through that process.’
That begs some questions. Kilgore (and presumably not Flaherty) introduced the qualifier “small-group,” which sounds very much like a strategic distinction, not a principled one. What about violence in general? Does Kilgore reject that, or does he merely reject a type of violence that proved ineffective and counterproductive to his revolutionary goals?
Flaherty apparently wasn’t interested in asking such obvious follow-ups. Which may be why Kilgore felt comfortable enough to speak with her, while he steered clear of any journalists who might subject him to actual scrutiny.
The University of Illinois, at least, may be employing a bit more scrutiny from now on. Partly in response to the Kilgore controversy, the state legislature may move to ban getting a degree or gaining university employment under false pretenses—like, say, a fake name. (Kilgore’s advanced degrees came under the name of Pape.) And for reasons unrelated to Kilgore, the university has been in the process of requiring criminal background checks on all new hires.
But you can have all the background information you want: You still need to use good judgment in the hiring process. Kennedy clearly doubts that happened in Kilgore’s case, and implies that some school officials slipped him by the trustees. “Whatever notice [about Kilgore] we had years ago, and it was a different board, it was vague in nature and used words that were not offensive,” he said. “The words we use matter a lot.”
If Kennedy’s words are the guiding principles for the final decision, odds are Kilgore’s days at the UI will soon be over. But that would be a reversal of the normal dynamic in academia, where the campus Left is commonly enabled and empowered to do as it will without regard for the taxpayers who pay their salary. When push comes to shove, rhetoric about “academic freedom” and “employment equity” nearly always cows administrators into submission.
Will this time be an exception? We’ll find out this summer.
Matt Kaufman is a freelance writer in Urbana, Illinois, and a contributing editor to Citizen magazine, published by Focus on the Family.