Paul L. Caron

Thursday, November 11, 2021

When Suspending A Law Professor Isn't Enough

Following up on my previous posts:

Inside Higher Ed, When Suspending a Professor Isn't Enough:

Students at the University of Illinois at Chicago are escalating their calls for a law professor accused of racism to be fired, now that he’s scheduled to return to the classroom. The professor says he’s caught up in something that isn’t really about him.

In a case that began with an exam question, the University of Illinois at Chicago canceled a law professor’s classes last spring and found that he’d violated the campus nondiscrimination policy. The professor, who apologized for the exam question but denied other allegations against him, would have been back in the classroom this fall, were it not for a long-planned sabbatical.

Now that he’s back on the teaching schedule for this spring, some students say he shouldn’t be allowed back at all. The Black Law Students Association, in particular, is demanding that the professor, Jason Kilborn, be fired. The group has staged a series of protests, including a rally on campus last week that featured the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson. ...

Ashley Shannon, president of the campus BLSA chapter, who is not a student of Kilborn’s, said during her own speech last week, “We do not feel safe. Students have come together to write demands for the law school, starting with the termination of his tenured professor, stating that tenure is not immunity for discriminatory practices.”

Kilborn, who is white, said that Jackson’s visit to campus was “inspiring” and deserving of attention. But he says the “false accusations against me are awful and should not be disseminated uncritically.”

Kilborn’s case has become about much more than the initial exam question, with some students saying he represents much of what’s wrong with higher education, and Kilborn saying the same thing—for very different reasons.

In addition to who’s at fault, many of the facts of the case are in dispute. The university has accused Kilborn of calling minorities “cockroaches,” based on unnamed student reports, and of “diminishing” an unnamed student’s accent, for instance. Kilborn, meanwhile, says he’s never done any of that.

What did happen, for sure, is that in December 2020, Kilborn wrote the following question into an exam for his civil procedures class, just like this:

After she was fired from her job, Plaintiff sued Employer under federal civil rights law, claiming employment discrimination on the basis of her race and gender. 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? ...

Kilborn wrote the question as it's written above, without spelling out the offensive language. ...

UIC determined that Kilborn was perceived as offensive toward nonwhite people, that he’d been “objectively offensive” and that he’d taken an “emotional toll” on nonwhite students and their supporters, who felt “threatened.” He was also told to comply with a policy prohibiting retaliation going forward. ...

Kilborn says he’s conflicted about his return to the campus, in that he’s glad the university let him know he’d “rubbed students the wrong way,” but that the process has been less than illuminating, as well as damaging and frustrating. ... Kilborn also said he regretted that no student addressed the matter with him personally before taking it to the university, or to social media. His general observation: that when it comes to being “woke, an essential part of that culture is not having any conversation with someone who you think offended you. It’s just, ‘I’m going to demonize you and I will attack you mercilessly and relentlessly until I get what I want, period.’ So that’s what I’m afraid of.” ...

The flip side to this dynamic is that many students find open letters and social media to be effective in forcing institutional attention to issues that have been historically ignored. Many student activists say it shouldn’t be up to them to educate professors about what’s offensive and what isn’t, either, and that now is the time for action on equity, diversity and inclusion.

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