Exonerated professor punished by university after Rev. Jesse Jackson joins protest, he says

"Cockroaches" comment was not directed to racial minorities in class but rather referred to frivolous litigants, recording allegedly shows.

Updated: November 23, 2021 - 11:53am

The University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) allegedly violated an agreement with a business law professor accused of racial insensitivity after the Rev. Jesse Jackson appeared at a student rally demanding his termination.

This summer, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) helped Jason Kilborn secure the agreement. They negotiated away UIC's proposal that he attend "sensitivity training" to resolve an investigation into an exam question with redacted slurs that offended some students.

The taxpayer-funded university has now ordered Kilborn to participate in "training on classroom conversations that address racism," specifically tailored to him, as a condition of returning to the classroom in January, the civil liberties group said Monday.

"UIC has not only violated his right to academic freedom, but has also breached a promise it made to Kilborn and his FIRE-provided attorney" through the group's Faculty Legal Defense Fund (FLDF), it said, threatening to sue.

FIRE spokesperson Katie Korpeter declined to provide the letter from interim Dean Julie Spanbauer that conveys the training mandate, saying "at the moment we aren't able to share it publicly." 

Asked for its response, UIC gave Just the News a lengthy statement that does not mention any agreement with Kilborn.

The Office for Access and Equity (OAE) investigated allegations by "multiple students and one faculty member" in late 2020 and early 2021, determining Kilborn didn't violate university policies on discrimination or harassment.

"OAE recommended cultural competency training," the statement says. "Following this recommendation, the UIC Law administration has required that Professor Kilborn participate in cultural competency training prior to returning to the classroom."

He was on administrative leave last spring and performed "previously approved non-teaching academic activities" in the summer and fall, but is scheduled to teach this spring, UIC said.

"UIC's response shows that the law school administration has taken it upon itself to expand upon the recommendation of the OAE," Joshua Bleisch, the FLDF fellow at FIRE, told Just the News when shown the statement.

"Whether this requirement is viewed as punishing Kilborn’s past speech or standing alone as compelled speech or 'reeducation,'" he wrote in an email, "it is unconstitutional, and contravenes the resolution Kilborn reached with UIC this summer to ostensibly close this matter."

'Cockroaches'

Days after falling and hitting his head at a Howard University student protest, Jackson joined the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) Nov. 4 rally outside the UIC law school against Kilborn's return.

"Students deserve an environment that's not hostile," Jackson said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. "We must act; we will act."

The Chicago Crusader black newspaper said the BLSA claims Kilborn called them racial slurs and "cockroaches." 

A Northwestern University law professor who talked to Kilborn last week said "cockroaches" came from Kilborn speculating in class on Jan. 23, 2020 about how a defendant company might feel about frivolous litigation along the lines of the infamous "footlong" Subway sandwich lawsuit.

Citing a recording Kilborn recently obtained and he verified, Andrew Koppelman wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education that Kilborn told students if the hypothetical company refuses to settle and it loses, "then all the cockroaches come out of the walls, they're thinking, right?" 

OAE's confidential "investigation report," released to the Chronicle through a public records request, confirmed that the office knew he didn't call minority students "cockroaches" but claimed he made the remark "in the context of discussing a legal case that involved a racial-minority plaintiff." 

That too is false, according to Koppelman: The minority plaintiff discussion came before the Subway frivolous-litigation discussion.

Despite being exonerated by the university, Kilborn told Koppelman that days after the agreement was announced UIC denied him "a first-in-several-years across-the-board" merit raise of $3,000.

Koppelman gave Just the News an email chain between Spanbauer and Kilborn that explained the notice he received two days earlier about not meeting the "inclusion criteria" for a pay increase.

Kilborn protested that his "exceptional production in every category" had been ignored. Spanbauer responded Sept. 6 that OAE determined he violated its nondiscrimination statement "beginning in spring 2020" — apparently referring to the Subway class discussion — and into the next academic year.

"As a result of this policy violation, you also failed to meet 'General Teaching Expectations' requiring all faculty to 'act in a collegial manner toward each other, and act with appropriate dignity and respect toward the administration, support staff and students,'" Spanbauer wrote.

The issues were raised in his annual performance review "and resulted in your failure to satisfy expectations and rendered you ineligible for a merit-based pay raise," she said. Kilborn wrote to Koppelman that his evaluation "says nothing about not meeting some purported standard of collegiality!"

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