Law prof says he was forced to undergo lengthy mental examination & drug test after exam question caused students ‘distress’

A University of Illinois-Chicago professor included a redacted reference to a racial slur on an exam about employment discrimination.

After the school announced an investigation, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) issued a stern warning to administrators, urging them to protect the professor’s rights.

A University of Illinois-Chicago professor included a redacted reference to a racial slur on an exam. The professor told Campus Reform that the controversy surrounding the incident led to him being subjected to an hours-long mental examination.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — which defends the legal right to free expression for college students and faculty members — law professor Jason Kilborn created a hypothetical fact pattern in a mock employment discrimination case for his final exam. The fact pattern referred to “profane expressions for African Americans and women,” identified as expurgated text (“‘n_____’ and ‘b_____’”).

More than 400 people signed a petition condemning Kilborn’s actions.

“The slur shocked students created a momentous distraction and caused unnecessary distress and anxiety for those taking the exam,” said the petition. “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.”

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The petition authors demanded that Kilborn step down from all of his committee appointments. They also asked the school to implement “mandatory cultural sensitivity training” for faculty and staff.

Kilborn told Above The Law that he has been using the same question for ten years and was “just flabbergasted at the reaction here.” He said that he has “no idea” who launched the petition against him.

On January 19, FIRE sent a letter to the University of Illinois-Chicago, demanding that it protect the rights of faculty members.

“As a public institution bound by the First Amendment and to fundamental principles of academic freedom, UIC is obligated to refrain from initiating investigations or disciplinary action over faculty members’ protected expression,” wrote FIRE Director of Individual Rights Defense Program Adam Steinbaugh. 

“We call on UIC to immediately end any such investigation,” Steinbaugh added.

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Kilborn directed Campus Reform toward an article detailing a flippant comment that he made during a Zoom call with students discussing the incident. One participant reported the comment as a homicidal threat, which reportedly justified swift discipline from the administration against Kilborn.

Kilborn says his comment in question was as follows: “I suspect [the dean is] afraid if I saw the horrible things said about me in that letter I would become homicidal.”

Kilborn told Campus Reform that his classes “were cancelled for the entire semester on the very first day of class. He said he also had to undergo “an agonizing several-week period of ‘administrative leave,’” during which he was “barred from campus and prevented from participating in normal faculty communications and activities, including my elected position on the university promotion and tenure committee.”

Kilborn said he was compelled to submit to three hours of mental examination and a drug test by university doctors and a social worker, broken into two segments spanning the course of a week.

“This whole episode is an unfortunate reflection of the state of public debate in our country today,” Kilborn told Campus Reform. “Compromise and moderation have been left completely behind in almost all dialogues on any issue today, and the students’ and administrators’ reactions here illustrate the no-holds-barred and take-no-prisoners approach to modern conflict.”

“It would have been so easy to foster understanding, compassion, and growth by engaging in meaningful and open discussion with me, but my dean and other university administrators in particular took the easy way out (as administrators so frequently do today) and succumbed to the lust for instant gratification of righteous indignation,” he added. “There were so many options for a healthy, healing reaction to the students’ pain; none of those options was taken, and probably none was even considered.”

Campus Reform has reported on several instances of professors facing sanctions due to perceived insensitivity over racial slurs used in an academic context. 

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In August, a business communications professor at the University of Southern California received pushback after saying a Chinese phrase that sounds similar to a racial slur during a lecture. According to the university, the professor “agreed to take a short term pause” while the administration reviewed ways to “better understand the situation and to take any appropriate next steps.” 

Campus Reform reached out to FIRE and the University of Illinois-Chicago for comment; this article will be updated accordingly.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @BenZeisloft