The Illinois Railroad: Making Quick Work of a Catholic Prof

Peter Wood

Kenneth Howell, an adjunct professor of religion at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was dismissed from his position after the end of the spring semester.  His firing has provoked widespread condemnation of the University’s actions and demands for his reinstatement.  The National Association of Scholars concurs with the critics:  Professor Howell should not have been fired and the University of Illinois should move immediately to restore his appointment.

The case involves a few simple facts.  Professor Howell has taught at the University as an adjunct professor since 2001, in an arrangement with the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center.  His major assignment was to teach an “Introduction to Catholicism.” This was the course he was teaching in spring 2010 when the trouble began.  It was a course aimed at teaching students about Catholic thought, not a course aimed at persuading students to accept Catholic beliefs. On May 3, Professor Howell lectured on “The Question of Homosexuality in Catholic Thought.” Central to Catholic teaching on that topic is the idea that homosexual behavior is contrary to natural law because it violates the purposes of human sexuality. 

There appears to be no question that Professor Howell accurately represented Catholic teaching during his lecture. The next day, he sent his students an email (full text here) in which he elaborated on the main point of the lecture.  The email was forwarded by one or more students to others and went into broad circulation in the weeks following May 4.  This eventuated in a complaint (full text here) from a student who was not in the class but who characterized Professor Howell’s email as “hate speech.” 

On May 28, the Head of the Religion Department, Dr. Robert McKim, called Professor Howell into his office for a meeting and informed him that, as a consequence of complaints about his email, an unnamed “higher official” of the University had determined that Professor Howell would no longer be permitted to teach classes there.  Howell asked if he would be permitted to defend himself against the accusations and received no response.  Howell the next day emailed McKim in an attempt to reopen the discussion.  McKim responded on June 2 that “the decision has already been made.”  A subsequent statement by an associate dean, Ann Mester, offered the further explanation that Howell’s email “violate[s] university standards of inclusivity.” 

The chronology I have provided here follows an account in a letter (text here) sent to University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, officials by the Alliance Defense Fund, checked against original documents and other various news reports.  Having worked for many years in University administration, however, I know that cases can be very complicated and that important details can go unreported for long stretches.  So I don’t assume that we know each and every relevant fact.  The facts we do know, however, cast the administration of the University in a dim light. 

In plain terms, Professor Howell was fired for properly carrying out his responsibilities.  He was appointed to teach students about Catholic doctrine.  Some students and other members of the University community, however, so dislike the doctrines he described that they organized an effort to remove him from the classroom.  We can only speculate why the University administrators acceded to this effort to censor Howell.  Do they really think that Catholic teaching on homosexuality is “hate speech?”  Or did they calculate that there are advantages in siding with the gay rights activists and others intent on silencing Howell?  A combination of the two?  Whatever their reasons, their actions are completely unacceptable. 

The Alliance Defense Fund has framed this as a matter of First Amendment rights.  Last week, the University Chancellor, Bob Easter, asked the Faculty Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure to review the decision before the start of the fall semester—an unusual timetable, since most such committees do not meet during the summer.  A University graduate student in mechanical engineering, Eli Lazar, is leading a student campaign for Howell’s reinstatement on the grounds that such efforts to censor faculty speech “censor [students’] abilities to understand each other.” The Catholic League wrote in a press release, “The University of Illinois should be sued, and we will work with Professor Ken Howell in seeing to it that it is.”

FIRE’s Adam Kissel wrote to Chancellor Easter today, expressing concern about “the serious threat to academic freedom, freedom of speech, and due process” inherent in the University actions. 

Various figures on the left have likewise come forward to defend Howell.  Peter N. Kirstein, professor of history at Saint Xavier University in Chicago and a former student of Howard Zinn, wants to leave no doubt about how vehemently he disagrees with what Howell teaches:

To state that consensual sex between same-sex partners is wrong, sinful and violative of so-called natural law is intolerable in a modern, progressive, diverse society. It is contemptible and utterly without justification. 

But Professor Kirstein also believes that the University violated Howell’s academic freedom and denied him due process.  AAUP President Cary Nelson likewise says that Howell deserves a hearing before the Department of Religion faculty and should get his job back if it turns out he was fired because of his opinions.  Nelson also takes up the point that the University was able to treat Howell so shabbily because of his adjunct status.  “That damages everyone’s academic freedom.” 

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, deserves this opprobrium from nearly all sides.  It truly did show contempt for Professor Howell’s First Amendment Rights, his academic freedom, his rights to due process, and the vulnerability of adjunct faculty members.  It demonstrated what looks for all the world like anti-Catholic bias and craven submission to PC extremism. 

As far as I can tell, no one was forced to take Professor Howell’s course; no one has made a serious case that Professor Howell taught his material incompetently or inaccurately.  The case against him rests solely on the hearsay claim that he conflated his role as a teacher in a secular university with advocacy of the views he was describing and explaining.  That is a complaint that has no substantial support from students who took his courses, but it seems plain that Professor Howell, a one-time Presbyterian who converted to Catholicism, regards the doctrines he teaches as true.  For his critics, that is the heart of the matter.  If he taught the same material with sufficient irony and a sneer towards those who believe in Catholic views of homosexuality, it seems unlikely he would have become the object of complaints about “hate” speech. 

As for Howell’s email:  his tone is generally temperate.  If he is describing views that are anathema to some, he certainly doesn’t do so from a vantage that all discussion is closed.  He does, however, reach for examples that would seem unnecessarily provocative, the most extreme of which is this: 

[I]f a dog consents to engage in a sexual act with its human master, such an act would also be moral according to the consent criterion. If this impresses you as far-fetched, the point is not whether it might occur but by what criterion we could say that it is wrong. I don't think that it would be wrong according to the consent criterion. 

The case against Howell comes down to whether a handful of sentences of this sort add up to some kind of firing offense.  Or as associate dean Ann Mester put it, words that “violate university standards of inclusivity.”  We don’t really know what those standards of inclusivity are, but it doesn’t take much imagination to think that faculty members at the University say things every bit as provocative or more so than Howell did without any risk at all to their University standing or their careers.  What makes the difference in this case is that Howell perturbed the sensitivities of an identity group looking for ways to manifest its power.  That’s how identity politics works on campus.  Declare that you are deeply aggrieved by someone’s action and demand an apology or better yet a firing.  Success at either one moves your identity group up a notch in the status hierarchy. 

Notwithstanding comments such as those of Professor Kirstein (“contemptible and utterly without justification”) it seems doubtful that anyone confused Howell’s words with “hate speech.”  This was rather, an opportunistic attack.  And Cary Nelson surely has it right that the University saw Howell as an expendable sacrifice precisely because of his adjunct status. 

But I disagree with Kirstein and Nelson on another part of their responses:  their assumption that Howell really was preaching.  They both defend Howell on the grounds that using your classroom as a platform for summoning students to your ideological program is legitimate.  Much as they dislike his views, they feel obliged to defend this principle because it is a bedrock position of the academic left.  But in truth there is no evidence that Howell used his classroom or his email to students in this fashion.  Howell leaves no doubt that he himself believes in Catholic teachings, but a mere statement of belief is not the same as an effort to win converts.  The National Association of Scholars would not defend Howell if he had in fact abused his position in that fashion. 

The Alliance Defense Fund and FIRE call for Howell’s immediate reinstatement.  Cary Nelson has called for a department-level review of the decision.  The National Association of Scholars believes reinstatement is the right answer.  Chancellor Easter’s convening of a special session of Faculty Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure to consider the case looks to us like a face-saving device.  It may eventually reach the right answer, but it allows a basic affront to good academic governance to linger. 

At its heart, this is a story of PC bigotry and bullying.  A handful of activist students, faculty members, and administrators decided to punish a professor for holding views they disagree with and dislike.  It is the ignominy of the contemporary university that such academic bullying so often succeeds.  The case of Professor Howell is further evidence of the need for strong public scrutiny of our colleges and universities.  Freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and freedom of intellectual inquiry are widely supposed to flourish on campus, but in truth these freedoms have a tenuous hold and often crumble when the zealots of “progressive” values see a target of opportunity. 

Restoring Professor Howell to his classroom is important, not just for his sake but for the quality of academic inquiry and classroom teaching throughout the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  

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