UI administrators ask committee to examine academic freedom over issue of fired professor
URBANA – University of Illinois administrators are asking a faculty committee to determine whether the UI violated the academic freedom of an adjunct professor who lost his job after a student complained about a class discussion on religion and homosexuality.
Chancellor Robert Easter on Monday asked the Urbana-Champaign Senate's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure to review the case of Kenneth Howell, an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Religion for the last nine years.
Howell was told this spring he would no longer be teaching courses on Catholicism for the department. The decision came after a student complained about a class discussion of homosexuality in which Howell taught that the Catholic Church believes homosexual acts are morally wrong. Howell claimed the action was "an egregious violation of his academic freedom."
"We want to be able to reassure ourselves there was no infringement on academic freedom here," UI President Michael Hogan told faculty senators on Monday. "This is a very, very important, not to mention a touchy and sensitive, issue. Did this cross the line somehow?"
Hogan said he received 100 e-mails Monday morning about Howell's case, which was first reported in Friday's News-Gazette and picked up by other media outlets and blogs.
Easter said he'd like to get a ruling from the committee by the start of the fall semester on Aug. 23.
"We need to resolve this within a reasonable time frame," Easter said.
Prof. Jeff Dawson, outgoing chair of the committee, said he would meet Tuesday with Prof. Matt Finkin, who will take over the chairmanship on Aug. 16, to discuss a timetable. Finkin said the case would be placed on the agenda for the committee's next meeting, but he's not sure yet when that will be, given that many faculty are out of town.
Finkin said Easter's Aug. 23 deadline is "a fast track, but not impossible."
"If the facts are sufficiently clear, if we don't need a hearing to resolve controversial facts, if the policy is clear as to how it plays out on the agreed-upon facts, it's conceivable we could have a report by that time," said Finkin, who also works as a labor arbitrator. He declined to comment on the case.
Easter said the decision not to reappoint Howell was made by the Department of Religion, in consultation with the School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
One of Howell's lectures in his Introduction to Catholicism class focused 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 discussed 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. "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 Howell's statements about homosexuality amounted to "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."
Howell, a former Presbysterian minister who converted to Catholicism, 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. He said he's open with students about his own beliefs but made it "very, very clear" that they weren't required to believe what he taught and would not be judged on their views.
Howell also taught a course called Modern Catholic Thought and was 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, though officials there have informed Howell that he will no longer have that job, either.
Hogan and Easter said Monday the senate may want to review the agreement between the Department of Religion and the Newman Center, to see if it is unique on campus or if there are others like it. Senate Council President Joyce Tolliver said the senate's General University Policy Committee might be the appropriate forum.
"My understanding is that there have been longstanding questions about this relationship," said Professor Nicholas Burbules, professor of educational policy studies and a member of the Senate Council.
Burbules, who was a religious studies major at Grinnell College in Iowa, said "a religious studies program is not a seminary. There's a difference between teaching about religion and teaching religion."
He said the case isn't "just about one e-mail or the issue of homosexuality."
"My understanding is this line has been crossed a long time ago, and repeatedly. This email was kind of a last straw," Burbules said.
McKim was out of the country last week and deferred questions to Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs. Kaler said adjunct lecturers are hired on a semester-by-semester basis and have no expectation that their employment will last longer than that semester.
She 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.