University diversity training uses same redacted slur it punished professor for putting in exam

Tenured professors allege in First Amendment lawsuits their institutions invented grounds to fire them for exercising academic freedom.

Updated: January 28, 2022 - 10:42pm

A public university forced a law professor to take "sensitivity training" that used the very "expurgated slur" he was punished for including in a law exam question, according to a First Amendment lawsuit seeking $100,000 in damages.

The University of Illinois Chicago allegedly violated its agreement with Jason Kilborn not to require such training after the Rev. Jesse Jackson joined black student protests demanding his firing last fall.

Kilborn's employment discrimination question of 10 years, which the lawsuit claims prompted "one or two" complaints for the first time in 2020, referred to a hypothetical plaintiff whose managers "expressed their anger" at her by "calling her a 'n___' and 'b___' [sic]."

When Kilborn told a Black Law Students Association (BLSA) member he was unaware of the group's petition against him, he joked that his dean may have kept him in the dark so he wouldn't become "homicidal."

That joke was UIC's stated basis for putting him on "indefinite administrative leave" last spring. The administration told Just the News after the Jackson protest that Kilborn was scheduled to teach this spring. 

The university backtracked Dec. 17, suspending him "with no hearing or prior notice" and ordering him to take an "8-week diversity course" with a trainer in lieu of teaching, according to Kilborn's lawsuit, most of which is documented communications and even a class transcript.

The "Cycle of Socialization" exercise in his training packet uses the same redacted racial slur from the exam, however.

"If members of agent groups break the rules, they too are punished. White people who support their colleagues of color may be called 'n_____ [sic] lover,'" according to the exercise created by retired Springfield College professor Bobbie Harro, which Just the News found on several university websites.

"UIC's level of hypocrisy and cluelessness boggles the mind," the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is paying for Kilborn's litigation, said Thursday.

Another professor filed a First Amendment lawsuit against his public institution for retaliation against his years of criticizing the low academic standards in his math department and "deterioration of shared governance."

Lars Jensen accused Nevada's Truckee Meadows Community College of issuing "letters of reprimand, negative annual performance evaluations, and investigations" to lay the groundwork for his termination.

FIRE, the American Association of University Professors, Academic Freedom Alliance and Nevada Faculty Alliance also intervened on his behalf, according to Jensen's lawsuit, filed a day before Kilborn's. Neither institution responded to queries about the lawsuits.

"Public college administrators cannot demand that faculty give up First Amendment rights then punish them for 'insubordination' when they refuse," FIRE said Thursday of Jensen's case.

'Surprise punishments'

A week before Kilborn was placed on leave a year ago, the BLSA tweeted its followers to file complaints against the professor.

Several weeks later, the Office for Access and Equity (OAE) told him it was investigating allegations that he "created a racially hostile environment" over the prior year for nonwhite students. The list was based on "unidentified sources, offering virtually no detail or context," according to the suit.

While it cleared him of racial discrimination, OAE determined he harassed black students through the exam question and his "responses to criticism." Kilborn didn't get a copy of the "investigative report" until November, when the school answered a newspaper's public records request.

For the first time, he learned the university alleged he called racial minorities "cockroaches," based on an out-of-context class discussion of frivolous litigants, and used an "African American Vernacular English" accent in referring to a black musician's lyrics, which he called "topic appropriate."

OAE otherwise made false statements or misrepresentations and excluded Kilborn's comments that were contrary to its conclusions, the suit claims. His threatened litigation led Dean Julie Spanbauer to back down on the demanded sensitivity training.

But the dean imposed "surprise punishments" over the next few months. Spanbauer denied him a merit raise for not showing "dignity and respect" toward students and required "cultural competency training," claiming it wasn't a sanction.

UIC proceeded to ignore its own December deadline for giving Kilborn a training module, notifying him a week before Christmas that his spring classes were canceled so he could take an 8-week training.

None of his remarks to students can qualify as unprotected "true threats," he said, and the OAE intentionally denied Kilborn "an opportunity to respond to the accusations it has made against him."

The University of Illinois Chicago has not repsonded to a request for comment.

Jensen's lawsuit, which is not seeking a specific damages amount, claims TMCC Dean of Sciences Julie Ellsworth cut him off at a 2020 "Math Summit" when he asked to speak about what "a look under the hood would reveal." No one else was cut off.

During a session break he made a "handout" alleging the department would respond to a new regents policy by lowering academic standards so students could complete an introductory course "at current rates," harming the quality of graduates for local employers.

Jensen distributed copies "room to room" during the break, followed by Ellsworth, who picked them up and "motioned" to participants to return the handouts he gave them. Ellsworth ordered him to stop, calling him a "bully" who "made an error by defying" her authority.

His first letter of reprimand for "insubordination" followed nine days later. Jensen responded by filing an academic freedom grievance against Ellsworth and emailing the faculty that lowering standards was "literally" criminal under the state higher education handbook.

Ellsworth placed a second letter of reprimand in his personnel file a month later and accused him of "punitive" course policies long used by other math faculty, the suit claims.

She changed his department chair's "Excellent" recommendation for Jensen's annual evaluation to "Unsatisfactory," the lowest rating, citing his insubordination at the summit and refusal to change his syllabus. Dean of Math Anne Flesher did the same the next academic year.

His grievances against the deans were not "seriously considered" by college officials, the suit claims. An investigation into Jensen followed, even though no one had filed a complaint against him, and the only witnesses were Ellsworth and Flesher.

Investigator Natalie Brown added new charges she wasn't authorized to investigate in a "charging letter," which "can only be viewed as retaliation," Jensen alleges.

"Truckee Meadows Community College does not comment on pending litigation," Director of Marketing and Communication Kate Kirkpatrick told Just the News.