Ashley Shannon, President of the Black Law Student Association at UIC Law School, is outraged that the University of Illinois-Chicago Law School is reversing its suspension of a controversial white tenured law professor she says has allegedly called African American law students “cockroaches” and other racially offensive words including “n…..”
Shannon, and several of her members, made her remarks during last Saturday’s, October 30, live weekly broadcast and later to the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She and her union members are outraged that after the school suspended law professor Jason Kilborn it has not reversed that decision and is reinstating him effective next spring.
“He has been reinstated to teach next semester ”Secure Transactions,” as well as a bankruptcy course, which are courses that are essential for the bar exam and students cannot avoid those classes,” Shannon told the Crusader.
When contacted, Sherri McGinnis Gonzalez, director of the UIC Communications Department, confirmed the reinstatement of Professor Kilborn. “UIC Law and the University are committed to diversity, equity and inclusion for all students, faculty and staff and will continue to advocate against discrimination and harassment of any kind to foster an inclusive, safe community,” Gonzalez said in a written response.
But the Black law students don’t feel Kilborn represents diversity.
When asked if it is true that Kilborn called Black law students “cockroaches,” she said, “Yes, he did. There are reports that came out of the Office of Access and Equity that have everything that he has done from the claims all the way to what has been sustained and confirmed that he has done and those discrimination tactics that he has used over the years,” including last year.
Asked in what context would Kilborn have called Black law students “cockroaches,” Shannon said, “I’m not sure. His fight came long before my association got here. I just became the president this past month, but even Kim Cross works with me consistently, and she was the past president. She can attest to where these claims are from.
“Our job as the Black Law Student Association is that we promote the needs of Black students. It doesn’t take a mass amount of people to say what has happened to them under this professor’s leadership, but when those students come forth, we don’t ask every question. We ask some questions, and we fight for them,” Shannon said. “The administration has ignored them, but what the Office of Access and Equity has done is to confirm those allegations.”
When asked who is responsible for voting him out of the university, Shannon said, “Because he is a tenured professor, he would have to go against the entire UIC system. It would take the provost of the university, the chancellor, the vice-chancellor and the dean of the law school to appeal to the Board of Trustees, as well as the greater UIC system and vote him out,” and the process of terminating him.
“What they are failing to do is even start that process,” she said. “Termination takes a long time. Also, severe sanctions take a very long time and neither one has been discussed among the university members,” Shannon said.
The Black students have been protesting calling for justice to no avail and have turned to Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., for help. “Tenure is not immunity. It is a hashtag created that we say is a zero-tolerance policy to be discriminatory, but at the same time, tenured professors have not been held accountable. No tenured professor has ever been fired under a situation like this.
“We are asking the university to do something they has never done before,” she said. “While the professor continues to shape this in the media as an academic issue and he should be able to teach in the way he wants to, we say this is not a matter of academics but as your conduct as a professor and a human being. You cannot raise up the next generation of leaders, you cannot do so if you teach them to hate Black people,” Shannon told the Crusader.
Professor Kilborn got in trouble with the Black law students in December of 2020 when he wrote on his Civil Procedure II exam about employment discrimination referring to a hypothetical plaintiff whose managers “expressed their anger” at her by “calling her a ‘n… .’ and a ‘b….’” The obviously redacted racist slurs sparked a serious pushback from Black law students who want the professor fired. Kilborn believes he was exercising his right to free speech.
Here is Professor Kilborn’s question on the exam that led to his suspension: “After she was fired from her job, Plaintiff sued Employer under federal civil rights laws, claiming employment discrimination on the basis of her race and gender. [Discussion of other evidence omitted] Employer also revealed that one of Plaintiff’s former managers might have damaging information about the case, but no one at Employer knew where that former manager was since she had abruptly quit her job at Employer several months ago and had not been heard from since.
“With nothing to go on but the manager’s name, Employer’s lawyer pieced together several scraps of information and concluded that this former manager must be located in a remote area of northern Wisconsin. Employer’s lawyer spent $25,000 to hire a private investigator, who successfully located the former manager in northern Wisconsin. Employer’s lawyer traveled to meet the manager, who stated that she quit her job at Employer after she attended a meeting in which other managers expressed their anger at Plaintiff, calling her a “n____” and “b____” (profane expressions for African Americans and women) and vowed to get rid of her.
Later, Plaintiff’s lawyer served [another discovery demand, omitted, and] an interrogatory demanding the identity and location of any person with any information related to the termination of Plaintiff’s employment at Employer or potential discrimination against Plaintiff by Employer or any agent of Employer.
Can Employer identify the former manager but properly withhold her location, as this is the product of a significant amount of work and expense by Employer’s attorney?”
The law school suspended Kilborn after he jokingly said the dean of the law school feared that he would become “homicidal” in response to student criticism of the controversial and racially insensitive exam question.
While the Black law school students have taken their fight publicly including in social media, Kilborn got some support from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which warned UIC last January that it was violating its First Amendment and academic freedom obligations by investigating the professor.
In response, UIC fired back saying FIRE was legally wrong that the law school cannot review the “pedagogical relevance” of classroom content.
Chancellor Michael Amiridis told the media that the university had taken Kilborn off paid administrative leave and returned him to “active service” following its completed investigation into “safety concerns” referring to his “homicidal” joke.
The chancellor did say the university will not be bound by FIRE’s conception of academic freedom and said UIC has “very strong commitments” to a “non-discriminatory, non-harassing work and learning environment” and the “privacy and safety of the entire campus community.”
Amiridis said the UIC was reportedly trying to protect the professor’s due process rights and academic freedom by investigating Kilborn, who has asked the Faculty Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure to investigate his case.
FIRE placed UIC on its annual list of the “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech.” Kilborn did get more support from Northwestern University law professor Andrew Koppelman, who in the Chronicle of Higher Education labeled the situation as “punitive overreactions of university administrators grow(ing) ever more demented.”
FIRE raised funds and retained a lawyer (Wayne Giampietro) and struck a compromise with UIC. In that agreement, Kilborn agreed to alert the dean before responding to student complaints about racial issues and that his classes would be recorded.
Last Saturday, October 30, besides getting Rev. Jackson’s support, the Black law students received an endorsement from David Day, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, who said the Black National MBA Association Chicago Chapter and the 100 Black Men of Chicago Chapter have collegiate chapters at UIC.
“We want to bring those organizations, those students in support of the law students,” Day said. “Clearly, it is something that needs to be addressed. It is something that historically we have dealt with far too long. “I am a graduate of the University of Illinois. I got my master’s degree from there; so I know and understand the challenges that they face. It is critical that we not only look at the professors at the universities, but we need to look at the leadership at the universities to make sure there is diversity. When there is diversity, there is an understanding of the culture of students of color.”
Gonzalez said, “The University of Illinois System Guiding Principles reflect the University’s position on matters of free speech on campus and fostering healthy relationships. The University’s policy on academic freedom is set forth in the University of Illinois Statutes (Article X, Section 2).
“In this matter, these principles, and the policy, along with applicable processes surrounding investigation and handling of allegations of violations of the University Nondiscrimination Policy, were followed. Professor Kilborn was not suspended. He was placed on temporary paid administrative leave for a short time in January 2021. Professor Kilborn is scheduled to teach two classes in the spring semester 2022, subject to oversight requirements and recommendations intended to address the conduct that was investigated,” wrote Gonzalez.