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U. of I. could run criminal checks on new employees starting next year

Updated: May 14, 2014 8:20PM



The University of Illinois is proposing to run criminal background checks on all new employees starting in early 2015.


The proposal became part of a public debate about a convicted terrorist’s status as an adjunct lecturer at the university’s board of trustees meeting Wednesday in Springfield.


University spokesman Tom Hardy said in an interview after the meeting that the proposal by the human resources department, slated to go into effect in the first quarter of 2015, is in line with a trend for universities to conduct background checks on all potential employees that started as far back as the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal at Penn State.


“We’re trying to stay current with practices at our peer institutions and develop a policy where those seeking employment, including faculty, would need to undergo a criminal background check,” Hardy said.
The current policy requires prospective employees for certain high-risk jobs to undergo such checks, Hardy said.


The Penn State policy, adopted in 2012, requires final job candidates and third-party employees who are offered employment to undergo criminal background checks. It also requires employees to disclose criminal arrests and convictions within 72 hours. Yet the Penn State policy does not automatically disqualify someone with a criminal record from employment.


Neither Hardy nor the University of Illinois human resources department could say Wednesday whether the proposed U. of I. policy would automatically disqualify a felon from employment.


But trustee Patrick Fitzgerald, a former U.S. attorney, said at the meeting that “we should never have a policy of saying someone with a criminal record should not work at a uinversity.” He added that the hard part is where to draw the line, and that is a different issue from academic freedom.


The Penn State policy calls for the university to consider the nature and seriousness of the offense; the nature of the job; the length of time since the conviction; and any discrepancies from what the person reported about his criminal background.


Even before the new policy goes into effect, the university has told a former felon and radical terrorist that his contract to teach at the Urbana campus will not be renewed for the 2014-2015 academic year.


James William Kilgore, a former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, which was known for kidnapping heiress Patty Hearst 40 years ago, appealed to the trustees during the board’s public comment period Wednesday to allow him to continue teaching.


He said he could provide a valuable service in steering young people away from crime.


“Who better to teach someone how to avoid a destructive path than someone who has walked that path?” said Kilgore, whose employment raised controversy earlier this year after the Champaign News-Gazette ran a column about his past. That column drew the attention of Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg.


Kilgore, 66, lived in South Africa after the bank robbery, until he was caught in 2002. After being extradited to the United States, he pleaded guilty to possessing an unregistered explosive device and being involved in a 1975 armed bank robbery in Carmichael, Calif., in which housewife and bank customer Myrna Opsahl was shot and killed. He served six and a half years in prison.


Kilgore came to the Urbana campus after he was released from prison in 2009. He started as an affiliate researcher — a volunteer position. He was hired five years ago as an adjunct lecturer at the University of Illinois Center for African Studies — a part-time, hourly position.


Kilgore told the trustees on Wednesday that he disagreed with a university policy that currently fails to address the question of hiring convicted felons.


He also faulted the university’s review process, which he said fails to give teachers a reason when their contracts are not renewed.


He said the lack of “transparency” in the review process “opens the door to abuses of academic freedom” because a teacher hired on a contract basis could be let go for reasons such as sexual orientation or immigration status without those reasons being made public.


Board Chairman Chris Kennedy said the issue is in college administrators’ hands. But Kennedy was quoted by the Champaign newspaper on May 9 as saying Kilgore should not work at the university.


Kennedy told the News-Gazette that the university, which takes much of its funding from taxpayers and where students are learning to become leaders of a democracy, should not be home to a former terrorist who advocated overthrowing the government and who participated in violence that included a murder.


A committee is reviewing Kilgore’s case and the university’s policies about hiring and firing nontenured academic employees, according to the Gazette.


Kilgore got support during the public comment period from Fairchild Ruggles, a landscape architecture professor at the U. of I., who said Nelson Mandela would not have been allowed to teach at the University of Illinois because he served 27 years in prison.


“Shall we adhere to the new UIUC policy that — apparently — has determined that redemption belongs to some and not to others?” she asked. “In teaching about incarceration, shall we include in our new policy a statement that no one with actual experience in prison will be allowed to teach about it? In teaching about the violence of the 1960s, the violence of war, race riots and radical — even criminal — political action, shall we have a policy that excludes all of the people who once engaged in that violence? Or shall we only exclude some?”


Ruggles asked the trustees “to defend academic freedom as a concept, and to have the courage also to defend its practice.”
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