We previously discussed the treatment of Professor Jason Kilborn, who was put on indefinite administrative leave after using a censured version of the n-word in an exam question at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC). He is now suing the school over his treatment, including the required participation in sensitivity training and denial of a standard pay increase for faculty. We discussed today another free speech controversy at University of Illinois (Urbana Champaign) over the student government seeking to bar former Attorney General Jeff Sessions from campus.
Kilborn wrote a Civil Procedure exam based on an employment discrimination hypothetical. Kilborn’s Civil Procedure II exam describing how an employee quit “after she attended a meeting in which other managers expressed their anger at Plaintiff, calling her a ‘n___’ and ‘b___’ [sic].”
The use of the censored references led to a complaint in a letter from the Black Law Students Association and later a petition which called for Kilborn to be stripped of his committee assignments and other reforms. The Petition stated:
The slur shocked students created a momentous distraction and caused unnecessary distress and anxiety for those taking the exam. Considering the subject matter, and the call of the question, the use of the “n____” and “b____” was certainly unwarranted as it did not serve any educational purpose. The question was culturally insensitive and tone-deaf. It lacked basic civility and respect for the student body, especially considering our social justice efforts this year.
The integration of this dark and vile verbiage on a Civil Procedure II exam was inexcusable and appropriate measures of accountability must be executed by the UIC administration.
I previously objected to the measures taken against Professor Kilborn, which I do believe undermine academic freedom. He was suspended and put on administrative leave because of a complaint that in my view was a denial of his pedagogical privileges. The matter could have been investigated further by the university after an initial determination not to change his status. Instead, he was suspended — a decision that clearly will create a chilling effect on other academics at the school.
Kilborn is being represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which announced the First Amendment lawsuit against the school. The lawsuit notes that “This same question had appeared on Plaintiff’s exam in exactly this way for the previous ten years, administered to at least a dozen classes that included numerous Black and other non-white students. No one had ever suggested the question was objectionable.”
It also recounts how he was later told that his suspension was due to a conversation that he had with a member of the Black Students Association:
Plaintiff participated in that conversation which was generally cordial and constructive, and at one point about an hour into the conversation, the student asked why the law school dean had not shown Plaintiff a student petition criticizing his exam question. Plaintiff responded, using the same common metaphorical expression he had used in a similar conversation with his dean days earlier, that perhaps she had not shared the petition with him because she feared that if Plaintiff saw the hateful things said about him in that petition, he might “become homicidal.” The conversation continued with no indication that the student felt in any way distressed or threatened…
It was reported to Plaintiff that on the following Monday, January 11, 2021, several students met (electronically) with the law school dean and other UIC administrators during which meeting the student with whom Plaintiff had spoken misreported that Plaintiff had exclaimed that he “was feeling homicidal” or “would become homicidal.” . 21. The law school dean, along with other defendants, invoked UIC’s Violence Prevention Plan to convene a Behavioral Threat Assessment Team (“BTAT”) to assess this purported “threat” of imminent physical violence. Without communicating with Plaintiff or any other person with firsthand knowledge, the BTAT authorized the law school dean to take the most extreme measures.
When he met with OAE, Plaintiff openly admitted the “become homicidal” comment; at which time Defendant Bills revealed to Plaintiff that this comment was the basis for his summary and previously unexplained “indefinite administrative leave.”
Kilborn was later informed that he was the subject of an investigation into “allegations of race based discrimination and harassment” for allegedly “creat[ing] a racially hostile environment for … non-white students between January, 2020 and January, 2021, particularly during your Civil Procedure II course.”
After concluding that allegations of racial discrimination had not been substantiated, the university found that Plaintiff had nonetheless violated the harassment aspect of UIC policy because his final exam question and his “responses to criticism of the final exam question” had “interfered with Black students’ participation in the University’s academic program and therefore constituted harassing conduct that violates the Policy.”
Besides his suspension and pay raise denial, Kilborn was informed that he
would be subjected to an 8- week diversity course 20 hours of course work, required “self-reflection” papers for each of 5 modules, plus weekly 90-minute sessions with a trainer followed by three more weeks of vaguely described supplemental meetings with this trainer. The trainer would provide “feedback regarding Professor Kilborn’s engagement and commitment to the goals of the program.” Only upon satisfactory completion of this program would Plaintiff be allowed to return to class in Fall, 2022.
The complaint describes a process that lacked specificity and basic due process for a faculty member to be able to understand and to challenge allegations. These lawsuits can play an important role in reinforcing basic fairness in the handling of such allegations.
Here are the four counts and the complaint:
COUNT I Violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments
COUNT II Violation of University of Illinois Statutes
COUNT III Violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments
COUNT IV Violation of the Illinois Violence Prevention Plan
Here is the complaint: Jason-Kilborn-v.-University-of-Illinois-Chicago-—-Complaint1