Guest Post: “Aftermath of the Prof. Jason Kilborn Controversy at UIC.”

December 18, 2021 • 12:15 pm

Yesterday I got an email from a student recounting an incident I’ve described before: the attacks on University of Illinois at Chicago Law Professor Jason Kilborn. Kilborn was demonized and punished for putting the redacted words “b—-” and “n—–” on an exam in describing a hypothetical case where these words were relevant. In contrast, at the University of Chicago, Law Professor Geoff Stone used the “n-word” in class yearly in his Free Speech course as a demonstration, and was never disciplined or warned by the administration. (Geoff did stop this practice after he met with some black law students.)  But UIC isn’t that keen on free speech or academic freedom.

You can read more about Kilborn and the execrable behavior of his university at these two FIRE posts: #1 and #2.

At any rate, the student, Joseph Shen, deliberately chose to use his name in this post, and what you see below is what he wants to tell us. The title is his as well. His piece is between the sets of asterisks:

*************************************************************

Aftermath of the Prof. Jason Kilborn Controversy at UIC.

Greetings WEIT readers, my name is Joseph Shen, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Recently, my university released its final word on an event relevant to the issue of progressive politics clashing with academic freedom of expression, and I’d like to share with you some details that would otherwise be unavailable outside UIC. The event in question is the controversy surrounding Jason Kilborn, a professor at the UIC School of Law (formerly the John Marshall Law School, whose renaming is another topic discussed here before), and his use of censored but recognizable slurs on an exam question. Our host has previously mentioned this issue in several previous posts.

First, some background on UIC. If you search for UIC on the FIRE website, you’ll find that my university is sadly given a red-light rating for having a policy that “substantially restricts freedom of speech.” As a public University in an overwhelmingly politically liberal state and city, it’s not surprising that the administration has steadily made changes that push progressive politics even at the cost of academic freedom. Curiously, UIC’s Policy on Open Expression is given a green-light rating despite the university’s overall red-light rating, which means the university is being hypocritical when it acts the way it did in controversies such as this one.

On Nov. 30, the university sent an email to the UIC Listserv summarizing its findings of and corrective actions to the events that happened around Dec. 2020 – Jan. 2021. The full redacted investigational report is linked in the email but only available to people with UIC long-in credentials. After reading the email and full report, there are some key points from the email that I want to mention and comment on.

First, the Chancellor gives a statement containing the following claim (indented, bolding is mine):

UIC remains unequivocally committed to fostering an environment conducive to learning and free of any form of harassment or discrimination. UIC also strongly supports and defends faculty rights of academic freedom, a critical component to preserving the intellectual integrity of our University. These are not antithetical principles, nor can they be. Our faculty prove daily that both principles can be honored. The key is not what ideas are presented or tested; it’s simply great consideration for how it’s done in a respectful manner for all involved. The use of words that disparage individuals based on identity or background is not necessary for academic freedom to flourish and is inconsistent with our commitment to create an inclusive and conducive learning environment. These actions are not acceptable in our educational settings from any member of the campus community.

This is a form of the ‘Free speech, but…’ claim that Prof. Coyne has talked about many times. I fully agree, and I believe you would too, that of course people in academia should be considerate of what others think and should in general adjust their actions and words to maintain respect towards each individual. The problem is when the recipient of your actions and words is extremely sensitive and becomes offended when you don’t follow the strictest guidelines. Anyone is capable of setting their tolerance so low that the most innocuous words and phrases become offensive.

The chancellor’s claim is palpably wrong because if one’s expression of academic opinion greatly offends another, then you can’t have both freedom of academic expression and freedom from (verbal) harassment. The solution is to not let individuals be the ones to set the bar and instead have generally accepted guidelines that can be agreed upon by most people of any background. Rather than judging Prof. Kilborn’s actions according to only the tolerance level of the particular students who were offended, judge them according to best practices of general guidelines for professional conduct. What did he intend with the question, what are the justifications for the question, do others people in the same demographic as the offended students think the same? These are all things to consider in best practices that are not considered when you only listen to the particular people offended. Extreme progressives don’t want to consider these points or just dismiss them, and the university has sided with this type of progressive.

Second, in addition to the use of the censored slurs (which was one of four racial harassment allegations), Prof. Kilborn was also charged with racial discrimination on two accounts:

(1) Dropping and refusing to re-add a student to a course based on race; and (2) Imposing an in-person participation grade bump policy that precluded Black students who could not attend in-person classes from receiving extra points due to COVID restrictions and precautions.

After reading the full report, it’s clear (to me at least) that the particular student who made those charges is the one responsible. Prof. Kilborn responded appropriately by dropping the student for not attending class (in person or remotely), not responding to emails, and submitting “woefully deficient” work as make-up. He also ultimately gave extra points to all students, which would have included the complainant. Neither of these responses by Prof. Kilborn was racially motivated nor directed only towards minority students. I suspect that the particular student adheres to the narrative of prevalent systemic racism and believed Prof. Kilborn acted out of racism because that would have matched the narrative. Ostensibly, the student didn’t seek information that would have given the whole picture and stuck to their initial assumption of racism. I fully admit that we have no knowledge of the student’s personal circumstances and that they may have perfectly valid reasons for missing class. That, however, does not entitle them to the level of special treatment they were asking for and a passing grade in a class they didn’t attend. Fortunately, the report found Prof. Kilborn to be not guilty of these charges. But the fact that a student was so quick to accuse him of racial discrimination without first investigating and introspecting is symptomatic of how wedded many modern university students are to progressive ideas. It has indeed become a social religion for them.

Lastly, Prof. Kilborn was found guilty of four racial harassment allegations, including the censored slurs. This was due to 5 actions in his history:

[Prof. Kilborn] Did violate the harassment aspect of the same Policy. This conclusion was not based on a single incident, but on his conduct considered in cumulative fashion and in context. The conduct included: (1) Using the word “cockroaches,” which was not directed to Black students, but in context, could have been perceived as directed towards racial minority plaintiffs; (2) Using the term “lynching,” although apologizing immediately for it; (3) Using African American Vernacular English [AVE] when referring to lyrics of an African American rapper; (4) Using racially charged language (the redacted terms “‘n____’ and ‘b____’…”) in an exam question;*** and (5) Responding to concerns about the exam with insensitive, chastising, and arguably threatening comments in January 2021, including using the term “homicidal” during a four-hour Zoom meeting with a student.

I argue that none of this should be considered harassment by a critically-thinking person. Regarding the above five points: 1) Words can and should have different meanings in different contexts. We should be cognizant of how others think about a word, but that action should be reciprocated. 2) The fact that Prof. Kilborn immediately apologized is a sign that he has some consideration and isn’t an inherent racist. Why is it that the offended never give people second chances, only all or nothing? What’s the point of sensitivity training if people can’t be forgiven for transgressions? 3) If the lyrics are indeed in AVE and he was quoting them, then what was he to do, convert them to the standard English equivalent or forbid himself from saying them? Gatekeeping language does not help build appreciation for one’s linguistic quirks. 4) I have nothing to add that Prof. Coyne and people like John Mcwhorter haven’t already said perfectly. 5) This may be the most valid criticism of Prof. Kilborn’s behavior, but we don’t have the specifics to judge for ourselves. I personally would not have used language like Prof. Kilborn, but that should not infringe upon his right to speak freely so long as his intention and the main effect of his speech are not verbal harassment or anything else not protected by free speech laws.

The end result is that Prof. Kilborn must go through “intercultural competency individual training and coaching sessions” and will have his courses monitored for four semesters. The training will likely be a waste of time and effort because of the dubious efficacy of DEI training. The monitoring reeks of Big Brother-like surveillance. I feel such disappointment at my university for their behavior in this debacle. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to improve in the future.

I hope you all find this helpful and informative. I’m sorry for this long, boring, and depressing post, but I’ll add two things I hope you find enjoyable. Below is a picture of my beloved cat Scooter. Rest assured that he’s kept fat, sleek, and thoroughly spoiled by his staff.

I know our host often shares his love of good music. Here is one of my favorite songs from the 90s, sung by Lesley Lee, about not wanting to wake up and lose sight of your love in your dreams.

*************************************************

JAC: Here’s a YouTube video, produced by FIRE, of Kilborn describing his “transgression”.  And thanks for Joseph for sending along information bout Kilborngate!

11 thoughts on “Guest Post: “Aftermath of the Prof. Jason Kilborn Controversy at UIC.”

  1. Joseph, no need to apologize. Your post is anything but long and boring. On the contrary, it grabbed me from the start and didn’t let go; very well written. As far as it being depressing, well, o tempora, o mores!
    Thank you for sharing your perspective with Jerry and all of us on WEIT. If I had to pull only one money quote from your post, it would be this: “Anyone is capable of setting their tolerance so low that the most innocuous words and phrases become offensive.”

    1. I wonder whether there could be something on the order of a counter suit for complaints aimed at punishing competent faculty for a student’s own shortcomings? Where and when will those who abuse the system be held to account for their actions?

      The expression “making a dog in the manger the tyrant of the universe” comes to mind.

  2. I was an undergrad with Jason at UNI. Lost track of him since then, but it would be consistent with what I know of him that anything he would say or do in the classroom would have the best interests of the students in mind. Sometimes that means saying things that are uncomfortable to hear. It’s academically disingenuous to ignore them because those uncomfortable things are out there in the real world. To infer racism from some words he used would be to misunderstand him.

    And it doesn’t surprise me that he wouldn’t put up with lack of attendance/effort/etc. He was driven in college and I suspect that hasn’t changed.

    Jason is fearless about speaking his mind (from what I recall) because he’s thought in depth about any claim he makes. He’s playing chess several moves ahead of pretty much anyone else in the room.

    He’s also a hell of a billiards player (as were a lot of the NE Iowa kids I grew up with).

  3. I had an attempt at a satirical remark, based on the deeply important identity “WEIT readers”, but I’ll let it go…

    FOR NOW..

  4. If Mr. Shen is at all typical, I am optimistic for the future. I’m so glad our host was his host as well.

  5. We regularly hear about faculty or staff getting fired. This is roundly depressing.

    What about students applying for admission?

    If the firings say much about administration, wouldn’t it stand to reason that transgressions of high school students result in rejection letters – but we would never necessarily know it.

  6. Thank you for writing this, Mr. Shen. You serve the greater good by defending Professor Kilborn, and you do so at some risk to yourself. Sadly, weighing in on this topic in the “wrong” way exposes you, too, to criticism by the same speech police that convicted Professor Kilborn.

    I wish that the professors subjected to this kind of treatment could simply quit and go elsewhere, and allow their universities to degrade to the level they deserve. But they usually can’t. The golden handcuffs of tenure, the difficulty of an established faculty member finding an equivalent position elsewhere, the abandonment of one’s laboratory and one’s graduate students, and the disruption to one’s family all conspire to keep that faculty member in place, forcing him or her to endure degrading and unjust sanctions by institutions that don’t deserve them. I feel for the professors who suffer the abuses of the speech police. They’re trapped at institutions that are too weak to defend them.

Leave a Reply to Lee Cancel reply