Instructor of Catholicism at UI claims loss of job violates academic freedom

URBANA – An adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism at the University of Illinois has lost his teaching job there, and he claims it is a violation of his academic freedom.

Kenneth Howell was told after the spring semester ended that he would no longer be teaching in the UI's Department of Religion. The decision came after a student complained about a discussion of homosexuality in the class in which Howell taught that the Catholic Church believes homosexual acts are morally wrong.

Howell has been an adjunct lecturer in the department for nine years, during which he taught two courses, Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought. He was also director of the Institute of Catholic Thought, part of St. John's Catholic Newman Center on campus and the Catholic Diocese of Peoria. Funding for his salary came from the Institute of Catholic Thought.

One of his lectures in the introductory class on Catholicism focuses on the application of natural law theory to a social issue. In early May, Howell wrote a lengthy e-mail to his students, in preparation for an exam, in which he discusses how the theory of utilitarianism and natural law theory would judge the morality of homosexual acts.

"Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY," he wrote in the e-mail, obtained by The News-Gazette. "In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same."

He went on to write there has been a disassociation of sexual activity from morality and procreation, in contradiction of Natural Moral Theory.

The student complaint came in a May 13 e-mail to Robert McKim, head of the religion department. The author of the e-mail said he was writing on behalf of a friend – a student in Howell's class, who wanted to remain anonymous. The e-mail complained about Howell's statements about homosexuality, which the student called "hate speech."

"Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing," the student wrote in the e-mail. "Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another. The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one's worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation."

Howell said he was presenting the idea that the Catholic moral teachings are based on natural moral law, and the Catholic understanding of what that means.

"My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches," Howell said. "I have always made it very, very clear to my students they are never required to believe what I'm teaching and they'll never be judged on that."

He also said he's open with students about his own beliefs.

"I tell my students I am a practicing Catholic, so I believe the things I'm teaching," he said. "It's not a violation of academic freedom to advocate a position, if one does it as an appeal on rational grounds and it's pertinent to the subject."

Cary Nelson, a UI emeritus professor of English and president of the American Association of University Professors, agreed. He said while many professors choose not to share their beliefs with students, they are free to do so and to advocate for a particular position.

"We think there is great value in faculty members arguing in a well-articulated way," Nelson said. "What you absolutely cannot do is require students to share your opinions. You have to offer students the opportunity to freely disagree, and there can be no penalty for disagreeing."

Nelson is the co-author of a 2007 AAUP statement on "Freedom in the Classroom," as well as the author of a recent book that deals with academic freedom.

"It's part of intellectual life to advocate for points of view," he said, adding he has often used it to start a lively discussion in his classroom.

"Hopefully when they go out in the world, they can emulate that. They can argue a case, and do it in a well-informed and articulate way, and can make a more productive contribution to our democracy that way," he said.

Nelson also said it would be inappropriate to remove someone from a teaching position because they advocated for a position, unless they also required that their students to share the same belief.

Howell said when McKim talked with him about his teaching position, McKim expressed concern that Howell's statements in class would hurt the department. McKim is currently out of the country, and he deferred questions to Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs.

Kaler declined to comment on the specifics of a personnel matter. She said adjunct lecturers are hired on a semester-by-semester basis, and they have no expectation that their employment will last longer than that semester.

Kaler also said the UI is "absolutely committed to teaching the theory of Catholicism, but it's up to the department as to who teaches a class."

The religion department's website says Howell was recognized for excellent teaching in the spring and fall semesters of 2008 and 2009.

In a series of e-mail exchanges between McKim and UI administrators about how to proceed regarding Howell's teaching and his appointment as an adjunct professor, McKim states he will send a note to Howell's students and others who were forwarded his e-mail to students, "disassociating our department, College, and university from the view expressed therein."

In another e-mail, Ann Mester, associate dean for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, wrote that she believes "the e-mails sent by Dr. Howell violate university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us."

Howell said he and McKim have deep disagreements over religious matters, and his job loss was the result of "just a very, very deep disagreement about the nature of what should be taught and what should not be taught.

"It's an egregious violation of academic freedom," he added.

The UI Academic Staff Handbook's statement on academic freedom states that faculty members must teach their courses in a way consistent with the scheduled time, course content and course credit. "Within these constraints, they are entitled to freedom in the classroom in developing and discussing according to their areas of competence the subjects that they are assigned."

They must also provide students with "the freedom to consider conflicting views and to make their own evaluation of data, evidence, and doctrines. Furthermore, faculty members have a responsibility to maintain an atmosphere conducive to intellectual inquiry and rational discussion."

Howell said he disagrees with the idea that a professor must present lessons without even hinting at his own beliefs on a subject.

"It doesn't seem to me to be particularly honest or fair to a student. If you believe something, you can tell the student that," he said. "Where it becomes problematic is if it becomes injurious to a student by penalizing them for their beliefs. I always tried to be fair and honest and upfront with my students, and engage them on questions of human reason."

In his e-mail to students, Howell wrote: "All I ask as your teacher is that you approach these questions as a thinking adult. That implies questioning what you have heard around you. Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter. All I encourage is to make informed decisions."

Howell said he's often had students who disagree with him, but "that's always been done with courtesy and respect on both our parts. This semester the students were the most negative and vociferous and critical that I've ever seen."

Howell is working with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian-based organization that "provides the resources that will keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel through the legal defense and advocacy of religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and traditional family values," according to its website. Howell said his goal is to be restored to the classroom so he can continue teaching his courses.

The Alliance Defense Fund has just begun looking into Howell's situation, according to a spokesman.

Senior counsel David French provided a written statement, saying "A university cannot censor professors' speech – including classroom speech related to the topic of the class – merely because some students find that speech 'offensive.' Professors have the freedom to challenge students and to educate them by exposing them to different views. The Alliance Defense Fund is working with Professor Howell because the defense of academic freedom is essential on the university campus."

After losing his teaching position with the UI, Howell was told by the Newman Center that he would no longer be employed there either. The Newman Center referred requests for comment to the diocese office in Peoria.

Patricia Gibson, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese and an attorney, said, "We funded the position so he could teach at the UI. He has been told he cannot teach these classes in the future.

"We are very concerned and very distressed by what we understand is the situation from Dr. Howell," she said, adding the diocese has contacted the UI and hopes to meet to talk about the matter.

Howell was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1978. In 1996, he converted to the Catholic faith. He came to the UI in 1998 to teach at the Newman Center.

News-Gazette staff writer Lynda Zimmer contributed to this report.

Comments

Comments for this post are read only.

Paul H wrote on July 15, 2010 at 10:07 pm

Les,

You need to understand the way that the words "nature" and "natural" are used in Catholic moral theology. They do not mean the same thing that they mean in common, everyday speech. That is why your analogy in the second paragraph does not work; you are assuming natural means "not man-made," which is not the meaning of "natural" in Catholic moral theology.

JNC wrote on July 15, 2010 at 1:07 am

Howell's arguments are very superficial and contrived to reach only one conclusion - that the Church is right and gay sex is bad. He attributes support for same-sex marriage solely to the empathy people might feel for particular LGBT people. Actually, the opposite is true. Opposition to same-sex marriage is based primarily on the animosity people feel towards gays. There are many substantive reasons to support same-sex marriage based on facts, not mere emotions. In fact, this is going on in our court system regularly, and only last week a judge ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional because it did not provide for equal protection under the law, was based mostly on hatred toward gays, and violated states rights. Another recent study found that children raised by lesbian parents have fewer emotional problems than those raised by heterosexuals. It's long been known that lesbian relationships are the longest lasting on average. The American Psychological Association ruled long ago that people in same-sex relationships can have meaningful, profound, caring, long-lasting relationships, and therefore to label homosexuality a mental disorder, as was done in the past, is completely wrong. There is more and more evidence that homosexuality is genetically caused, and therefore immutable. There is no evidence of an effective homosexual cure, no matter what the churches say. Howell conflates marriage with the need to procreate, but there is no requirement that people procreate in order to get married, as the courts have said repeatedly in these cases challenging the denial of same-sex marriage. See? I just gave a number of facts, not opinions or feelings, supporting same-sex marriage. What Howell does is take one weak argument and turn it into the only argument, ignoring all the strong arguments that contradict his and the church's position.

His arguments comparing gay sex to sex with a dog or a 40 year old man with a 10 year old child are the product of a hateful mind. The students who complained pegged that one correctly. Apparently Howell is unaware that in the past it was not uncommon for poorer parents to marry off their 14 year old daughters to 60 year old rich guys. Since they could procreate, though, Howell would not find that morally objectionable. Regarding same-sex marriage, we're talking about consenting adults (for Howell's benefit, I'll add human). Since when does a dog consent? It's not difficult to make distinctions. The fact that Howell has to resort to such extreme and ridiculous comparisons illustrates the weakness of his arguments.

Men and women are complementary in their psychology? Really? How old school could you get! If that were the case, you'd see a lot less divorce than actually occurs. Those who study gender roles, and actually know what they're talking about (meaning people other than Howell), will tell you that gender is learned and socially conditioned, not natural, as Howell insists it is. There is nothing natural about women wearing makeup and men watching football. These things are learned and conditioned into us.

The sweeping generalizations, the polarity in his thinking, the ad hominem attacks on gays and lesbians, the leaps of logic, the conflating of tradition with natural law - all of these point to a weak thinker. I find it very hard to believe this guy was ever a good instructor. That he's an indoctrinator seems clear - and all in defense of a church known for its pedophilia. Go figure.

JNC wrote on July 15, 2010 at 1:07 am

I should add that Howell's knowledge of history is also quite poor. Contraception did not lead to promiscuity - and it certainly did not lead to homosexuality. That's not even logical. If heterosexuals could have sex without it resulting in pregnancy, why would they then turn to homosexuality to avoid pregnancy? The fact is homosexuality has existed throughout history. And if Howell had read any Medieval literature, he'd know that promiscuity was rampant back then. In fact, a common joke in Medieval literature is about the voracious promiscuity of Catholic priests. Maybe Catholicism leads to promiscuity? :D

Paul H wrote on July 15, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Contraception did not lead to promiscuity . . .

Really? It didn't? Do you honestly think that "hooking up" (or whatever the kids are calling it these days) would still be as common if there were no such thing as contraception?
 

. . . and it certainly did not lead to homosexuality

I haven't seen anyone argue that contraception leads to homosexuality, but certainly the same idea lies behind both -- that it is fine to divorce sexual pleasure from procreation.
 

If heterosexuals could have sex without it resulting in pregnancy, why would they then turn to homosexuality to avoid pregnancy?

Where or when has Dr. Howell or ANY Catholic ever claimed such a thing???
 

The fact is homosexuality has existed throughout history.

Granted. And this proves what, exactly?
 

In fact, a common joke in Medieval literature is about the voracious promiscuity of Catholic priests. Maybe Catholicism leads to promiscuity? :D

Isn't it funny how if Dr. Howell repeated a "common joke" about homosexuals, you would be up in arms, but you see no problem with repeating a mildly insulting "common joke" about Catholics. This is precisely the type of double standard that the university appears to have employed in dismissing Dr. Howell.

JNC wrote on July 16, 2010 at 5:07 pm

"I haven't seen anyone argue that contraception leads to homosexuality, but certainly the same idea lies behind both -- that it is fine to divorce sexual pleasure from procreation."
- Howell makes that argument in his email message. And sexual pleasure, thank god or whatever, is divorced from procreation in most instances. Otherwise our overpopulation problem would be worse than it is.

"Where or when has Dr. Howell or ANY Catholic ever claimed such a thing???"
- In his email message.

"Granted. And this proves what, exactly?"
- It proves that Howell is wrong. The rampant promiscuity that Howell says followed the advent of easily accessible contraception did not lead to homosexuality being rampant.

"Isn't it funny how if Dr. Howell repeated a "common joke" about homosexuals, you would be up in arms, but you see no problem with repeating a mildly insulting "common joke" about Catholics. This is precisely the type of double standard that the university appears to have employed in dismissing Dr. Howell."
- Howell's email was funny, but only because it was so incredibly stupid. There was no intentional humor in it, I am sure. He was not repeating a joke. If you have a problem with the Medieval texts, you're going to have to talk to the Medieval writers who wrote them. But you are wrong. It is Howell who employs the double standard. He invokes only positive images of heterosexual relationships, ignoring the abundant instances of dysfunction in heterosexual relationships. At the same time, he paints only a negative picture of homosexual relationships.

Paul H wrote on July 15, 2010 at 10:07 pm

Hi JNC,
 

Opposition to same-sex marriage is based primarily on the animosity people feel towards gays.

It's sad to know that someone thinks that. That isn't true of anyone I have encountered who opposes same-sex "marriage."
 

The American Psychological Association ruled long ago that people in same-sex relationships can have meaningful, profound, caring, long-lasting relationships

I'm not sure if this is exactly what they said, but so what? If an association of psychiatrists and/or psychologists says something, does that mean it must be true?
 

There is no evidence of an effective homosexual cure, no matter what the churches say.

The Catholic Church, which was the subject of Dr. Howell's class, does not teach that there is a "cure" for homosexuality. You are arguing against a straw-man.
 

There is more and more evidence that homosexuality is genetically caused, and therefore immutable.

Again, the Catholic Church takes no position on whether homosexual inclinations are caused by genetics, upbringing, other factors, or some combination. Again, you are arguing against a position that your opponent does not hold. (Also, just because a condition has a genetic cause does not necessarily mean that it is immutable.)
 

Howell conflates marriage with the need to procreate, but there is no requirement that people procreate in order to get married

And Catholic moral teaching does not say that procreation is a pre-condition for a valid marriage (though the couple must at least be open to the possibility of procreation). Again, you are arguing against positions that Dr. Howell presumably does not teach, assuming that he is giving accurate information about Catholicism.
 

His arguments comparing gay sex to sex with a dog or a 40 year old man with a 10 year old child are the product of a hateful mind.

Apparently Howell is unaware that in the past it was not uncommon for poorer parents to marry off their 14 year old daughters to 60 year old rich guys. Since they could procreate, though, Howell would not find that morally objectionable.

These comments reveal more about your prejudices than about Dr. Howell. You have no way of knowing his motivations, and there is no logical basis in his e-mail to conclude that he would approve of a marriage between a 60-year-old and a 14-year-old.
 

Those who study gender roles, and actually know what they're talking about (meaning people other than Howell), will tell you that gender is learned and socially conditioned, not natural, as Howell insists it is.

I can only guess that you must not have ever spent much time around children, if you believe this.
 

The sweeping generalizations, the polarity in his thinking, the ad hominem attacks on gays and lesbians . . . [snip] . . . and all in defense of a church known for its pedophilia.

Ad hominem attacks? Pot, meet kettle. :-)

JNC wrote on July 16, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Animosity to gays is the primary reason for opposing same-sex marriage. People opposed to same-sex marriage might not want to admit it, but it's true. They think that gay relationships are not worthy of the same recognition as straight relationships because they think it's icky, or they think gays are subhuman, or whatever.

I was giving reasons besides empathy for being for same-sex marriage, not responding directly to Howell. The APA said that a sexual disorder is one that prohibits forming healthy sexual relationships, so being gay doesn't cut it. And people care what psychologists and psychiatrists say about human psychology because they're the experts.

I know a lot about Howell's motivation when he uses a homophobic accusation against gays. And that was not ad hominem.

JNC wrote on July 16, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Now that I have a little time, let me respond to you more carefully.

"It's sad to know that someone thinks that. That isn't true of anyone I have encountered who opposes same-sex "marriage."
- It's actually true of everyone you encounter who opposes same-sex marriage. Without the animosity towards gays or toward the fact of homosexuality, there's no reason to decide their relationships do not warrant the protection of marriage afforded to heterosexuals.

"I'm not sure if this is exactly what they said, but so what? If an association of psychiatrists and/or psychologists says something, does that mean it must be true?"
- Yes, that is what they said. A sexual disorder is something that prevents or inhibits you having a healthy relationship with another person, and that simply is not true of gays and lesbians, ergo it's not a disorder. Psychologists and psychiatrists know this because they are experts, they study these things, and they base their conclusions on actual evidence, not the teachings of a church stuck in the Middle Ages.

"Again, the Catholic Church takes no position on whether homosexual inclinations are caused by genetics, upbringing, other factors, or some combination. Again, you are arguing against a position that your opponent does not hold. (Also, just because a condition has a genetic cause does not necessarily mean that it is immutable.)"
- I wasn't arguing against the church. I was showing that, contrary to what Howell said, there are many reasons besides empathy to support same-sex marriages. Let me spell it out for you. If people are simply born gay or straight, if being gay is simply one variety of the human condition, if gays can have happy, stable, loving relationships, and if children raised by gays are just as emotionally adjusted or even better off than children raised by straight people, then denying them the right to marry is merely discriminatory. Therefore gays should be afforded that right. I made the argument without appealing to empathy for a gay person I happen to know. Howell claims that the main reason people have for supporting same-sex marriage is empathy, but that is not the case. Same-sex marriage is being argued for in the courts using evidence like this.

"And Catholic moral teaching does not say that procreation is a pre-condition for a valid marriage (though the couple must at least be open to the possibility of procreation)."
- That is definitely not true. I'm a recovering Catholic myself. Infertile couples are still allowed to marry in the Catholic Church. Post-menopausal women are still allowed to marry in the Catholic church. The only time this possibility of procreation comes up is when it comes to gays. And Howell most definitely does indeed confer only one reason for sex - to procreate.

"These comments reveal more about your prejudices than about Dr. Howell. You have no way of knowing his motivations, and there is no logical basis in his e-mail to conclude that he would approve of a marriage between a 60-year-old and a 14-year-old."
- Homophobes regularly compare gay sex with bestiality and pedophilia. It's a common accusation. That Howell chose to associate gay sex only with bestiality and pedophilia, while conjuring up images of happy, complementary heterosexual sex tells us a lot about his motivations. Why, when he was talking about heterosexual sex did he not conjure up images of a 60 year old man with a 14 year old girl, when that sort of thing was actually quite normal as recently as the early 20th century? He chose to ignore dysfunctional heterosexual relationships and characterize homosexual relationships solely as dysfunctional. That tells us plenty about his motivations.

"I can only guess that you must not have ever spent much time around children, if you believe this."
- I spend a lot of time around children. Not that that has anything to do with what I said. Gender and sex are two entirely different things. You are born male, female, or intersex. Your gender is a performance that you learn. That's not me saying that. That's what the word means in social science. You can be biologically male in the US and biologically male in Sweden, and your performance of the male gender will be different in both countries because what you learn about gender performance is different. It doesn't come with the anatomy. BTW they've done studies of dressing up toddlers as the opposite sex, then asking adults questions as they observed them playing about which they thought were more assertive, passive, etc., and the adults invariably thought the toddlers dressed as boys were more assertive and those dressed as girls were more passive, along gender lines, even though the assertive boys were really girls and the passive girls were really boys. In other words, you see gender in children because you want to see it. Then you reinforce it, and the children learn how they're supposed to behave. That's how we learn gender.

"Ad hominem attacks? Pot, meet kettle. :-)"
- That was not an ad hominem attack. That was a description of his argument. And don't tell me the Catholic church is not known for its pedophilia. It's been in the press quite a bit for years now. That's probably one of the things the church is most famous for of late.

sahuoy wrote on July 16, 2010 at 4:07 am

U of I is its own worst enemy, ousting a teacher based upon a student complaint that in turn is supported by the administration. It appears the school not only censors free speech but is taking a leading role in the evolution of the gay community by acting on behalf of learning students and withholding the accomplished status quo. How the U of I could ever accomplish any thing of value with my tax dollars has morphed from the 8th truth to the 8th myth. Hypocrites at best and a very sad waste of time and money not best spent on free thinking, free speech, guiding, educating persons paying for an education but spending it on throwing a tantrum. Good bye U of Illinois, my nephew has crossed you off his list, I agree his money is better spent at a teaching university school of thought.

mandy wrote on July 17, 2010 at 1:07 pm
Demoder wrote on July 17, 2010 at 3:07 pm

To JNC, and others:

Many of you have completely missed the point of this entire dispute--just like, apparently, the department chair who fired the professor. If you, like this professor, are being PAID to teach a subject--be it Catholicism, Islam, evolutionary theory, or electromagnetics--you ought to be expected to teach it accurately. It is--indisputably--a tenet of the Catholic faith that homosexual acts (please note: acts, not people) are immoral, disordered, and against the natural law; also please note, that this faith likewise holds pre-martial and extra-martial sexual acts to also be immoral, disorderd, and actually sacrilege (martimony is a sacrament in Catholicism). You might not agree with this, and I can tell that JNC obviously does not agree with this, but it is a simple fact, and you cannot dispute it: THIS is what Catholicism teaches. Thus, if you are a professor, teaching a class on Catholicism, you had better get that right.

If your students don't want to hear it because they think its "hate speech," then it is your students who need to learn adamedic honesty. Read: just because you don't like what the subject teaches doesn't mean that your teacher is wrong for teaching you what the subject actually DOES teach. I have an baccalaureate in anthropology, with a concentration in human evolution, and never once did I think it was "hate speech" for one of my evoultionary theory professors to say that I was evolutionary and genetically similar to scavenging australopithicines who froliced about the Rift Valley two-million years ago. I never once thought, "Hey, did she just say that all you black people are descendants of poop-eating apes?! OMG, That's so HATE SPEECH! I'm writing an email!"

Seriously: what is the issue here? You either teach a subject accurately, or you don't. There is absolutely no argument that any sophist on the planet can offer that will contradict this professor's accurate teaching of Catholic morality. Period. If you don't like Catholic teachings, that is another topic: you're not in class to learn what you agree with, you're in class to learn what the subject is about. Again, you might not happen to like the idea that Ohm's Law says voltage is equal to the product of resistance and current, but if you ever take a circuits class, you'd better hope you teacher teaches you EXACTLY that. And if your professor doesn't, you need to get your money back. Same with this professor and teaching Catholic beliefs. Any professor worth her/his weight in sand will take very seriously what her/his students learn while in class, and no professor should knowingly present information on the topic of her/his expertise that is contrary to facts of it (at least not without prefacing that discussion with certain caveats). As far as this professor is concerned, he did exactly what the university hired him to do: he taught exact Catholic teaching. So what did they do? They fired him because a student didn't like what he/she was LEARNING. That is insane--and an affront to academic honesty: he should have only been fired if he DIDN'T teach this.

JNC wrote on July 18, 2010 at 5:07 am

I haven't missed the point at all. He's a lousy teacher. Period.

silas1898 wrote on July 17, 2010 at 5:07 pm

I would never sign up for one of his courses. True believers make lousy teachers.

Good for UI for finally booting him.

mandy wrote on July 17, 2010 at 8:07 pm

I agree.

Kayla wrote on July 18, 2010 at 10:07 am
PanchoAngry wrote on July 18, 2010 at 11:07 am

The U of I was created as a land grant university for good reason: the hard sciences are our best chance of building a society on reality, not myth or sensibilities, or other subjective distortions. The addition of religion and other departments to the university's offerings was a huge and perhaps fatal mistake. With our poor finding situation we should divest ourselves of all non-land grant studies and get back to brass tacks.