James Kilgore, the embattled Urbana campus lecturer with a criminal past, urged the U. of I. Board of Trustees to not include criminal background checks as part of its specialized faculty hiring policy.
Kilgore, who made his statement in the public comment portion at the May 14 board meeting in Springfield, and his supporters, contend his contract at the Center for African Studies was not renewed after news stories spoke of his involvement with a group of radicals in the 1970s and a subsequent prison term for the criminal acts he and the group committed, including an armed robbery of a California bank during which a customer was fatally shot.
The university is considering adopting a pre-employment criminal background screening policy, and the Office of the Provost on the Urbana campus has convened a committee to discuss Kilgore's case and to develop a specialized faculty grievance policy.
"As a young man I committed acts of which I stand ashamed, acts which were not only illegal, but utterly destructive to innocent members of the community and damaging to my family, loved ones and all those who campaigned for social justice and peace," he said.
He said denying employment to educators with criminal backgrounds is a missed educational opportunity.
"For more than three decades I have attempted to move beyond those acts, to chart a different road, working through nonviolent means as an educator in the cause of social justice," he said. "Who better to tell someone how to avoid a destructive path than someone who has walked that path?"
Some supporters say Kilgore's case represents a threat to academic freedom, and earlier in the month the Urbana Academic Senate passed a resolution supporting "the principles of academic freedom and fair employment," though it did not mention Kilgore by name.
Trustee Patrick J. Fitzgerald disputed that academic freedom was at the heart of the matter.
He said the board's concern was focused on an employee's conduct, not speech.
"It does the university and board a disservice by phrasing it that way," he said.
Fitzgerald said the board background check policy would reflect its concern over past conduct, but would keep in mind the value of rehabilitation as not to entirely exclude those with a criminal conviction in their past.
"No policy should prevent criminals from working," he said. "The hard part is where do you put limits? It's an important question and one we're dealing with."
A week prior to the meeting, Chairman Christopher Kennedy, in an interview with the News-Gazette, voiced the same opinion as Fitzgerald, but indicated Kilgore's case might be an example of where the limits should be set.
"The board's position is we don't want to prejudge the process," he said in the interview. "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.' "
Melissa Madsen, who chairs the Urbana campus Council of Academic Professionals, said she had "grave concerns" about the activities of the State Universities Civil Service System.
Last year the SUCSS merit board voted to allow universities to retain the ability to classify certain specialized positions as academic professional, despite a request by Tom Morelock, the SUCSS executive director, to return exemption-making authority to the agency.
Madsen, also the assistant director of human resources for the College of Fine and Applied Arts, made her remarks during the public comments section of the board meeting.
"While we retained the exemption authority on paper, in practice SUCSS is clawing it back - in increasingly onerous and disruptive ways," she said. "SUCSS appears willing to pursue its fight by any means necessary, however inimical to the needs and principles held dear by the institutions it purports to serve."
Madsen said that since the Merit Board decision, SUCSS administrators had made "dramatic changes" in the audit process and in fact had targeted the audit toward CAP officials who had argued publicly that universities should retain exemption authority.
In addition, she said SUCSS officials had "quietly" changed procedures that in essence "reneged" on the 1998 agreement giving state universities exemption authority, had misused the classification system by "moving to create new titles or revise existing titles to 'fit' positions we have always classified as exempt," and had been unresponsive when university officials ask for explanations for the agency's rulings.
"SUCSS has failed this state's institutions profoundly," she concluded. "At a time when state universities are struggling to hang on to state funding, when pension reform seems to mean neither reform nor much of a pension, when procurement and other regulations impair our ability to do business and win grants, SUCSS thinks it's the right time to launch further attacks on our ability to compete."
The board meeting was somewhat limited in scope because of the annual Day at the Capitol advocacy activity, sponsored by the U. of I. Alumni Association.
Board members shortened the meeting in order to participate and meet with legislative leaders throughout the afternoon.
The university's advocacy efforts included a push to hold state funding equal to the current fiscal year, providing the money to maintain the academic quality that serves the needs of students and the state. This year, the three-campus U. of I. system has an annual operating budget of $5.6 billion, of which $663.5 million is provided by the state in general revenue funds.
In his fiscal 2015 budget blueprint, Gov. Pat Quinn recommended flat funding for the state's public universities, based on his proposal to make permanent the temporary increase in the state's income tax that is set to expire at the end of the year.
Without that revenue, Quinn says deep cuts in state spending would be required, including a 12.5 percent reduction for the U. of I. Officials say a reduction of that magnitude would cut funding by $82.7 million and would be felt in every phase of the university's operation - student tuition, class sizes, the quality of academic and research programs, workforce size and the ability to produce the graduates and innovation that help drive progress and economic growth.
The university also is seeking relief from state procurement regulations that create delays and impose additional costs in purchasing goods and services, particularly involving research grants. Officials say reforms would improve efficiency while preserving ethics and fairness, and ensure that the university remains competitive for federal and private research grants that brought more than $1 billion into the state this year.