UI administrators ask committee to examine academic freedom over issue of fired professor

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.

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Concerned in Illinois wrote on July 13, 2010 at 8:07 am

I think that what most people do not realize is that the following part of his comment undoubtedly contributed to his firing. Not only did he show terrible judgment in the format and timing of the e-mail--and seems to have been incapable of behaving as a scholar rather than a "representative" of Catholic thought--he used inflammatory and prejudicial examples to support his case. Here's the relevant part of the e-mail:

" If two men consent to engage in sexual acts, according to utilitarianism, such an act would be morally okay. But notice too that if a ten year old agrees to a sexual act with a 40 year old, such an act would also be moral if even it is illegal under the current law. Notice too that our concern is with morality, not law. So by the consent criterion, we would have to admit certain cases as moral which we presently would not approve of. The case of the 10 and 40 year olds might be excluded by adding a modification like "informed consent." Then as long as both parties agree with sufficient knowledge, the act would be morally okay. A little reflection would show, I think, that "informed consent" might be more difficult to apply in practice than in theory. But another problem would be where to draw the line between moral and immoral acts using only informed consent. For example, if 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.

But the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. "

We have here a comparison of the ethics of homosexuality with:
1. pederasty: an adult having sex with a 10-year-old child.
2. bestiality.
The inflammatory and brazenly prejudicial choice of presumably comparable examples justifies firing, frankly, and even were he tenured he would have had terrible problems.

galway wrote on July 13, 2010 at 8:07 am

"The inflammatory and brazenly prejudicial choice of presumably comparable examples justifies firing"

Why? Because you don't like it? Homosexuality, pederasty, and bestiality are all examples of sex detached from its natural biological purpose. That's not prejudicial unless you consider an acquaintance with the basic facts of biology to be prejudicial. (Although the "queer studies" crowd probably would argue that biology represents some kind of "oppressive phallocentric power structure" -- watch out biology department, next in the firing line is your "gender tyrrany!' :P )

Furthermore, it is what the Catholic Church teaches, and has taught for millennia, whether you agree with that or not. The students signed up for a course on Catholicism, and they were taught a course on Catholicism. Is a college education about presenting challenging ideas in an academically rigorous environment, or is it about flattering students' decadent lifestyles and indoctrinating them into politically correct "goodthink?"

This case makes me ashamed to be a resident of Illinois and I hope the administration there chooses the First Amendment and academic rigor and freedom over caving in to the intimidation tactics of the corrupt "queer studies" racket.

vcponsardin wrote on July 13, 2010 at 9:07 am

The fact is, he's an adjunct lecturer without tenure. The university can fire him any time they want for any reason. "Academic freedom" is simply not an issue in this instance.

galway wrote on July 13, 2010 at 9:07 am

For any reason? So could they fire a professor for being homosexual?

vcponsardin wrote on July 13, 2010 at 9:07 am

The university can fire an adjunct lecturer for any reason. In fact, they don't even have to give a reason. A tenured professor, on the other hand, is virtually impossible to fire for any reason. People who don't recognize this, fail to understand or appreciate the purpose of tenure at a major research university.

galway wrote on July 13, 2010 at 10:07 am

Really? So professors can be fired for being homosexual, or for being black, or for being women? Do you really believe that?

And yes, I know what tenure is. However, there are basic rights which are guaranteed by law to all employees, and particularly employees of the government, which guarantee freedom of speech; and there are university policies concerning academic freedom which are applicable to all faculty.

The fact is, the queer studies racket made a misstep here by explicitly giving the reason for firing as being the email in question, and (in a richly ironic use of newspeak) explicitly making reference to the university's policy of "inclusion."

Inclusion, it seems, only applies to certain approved groups: homosexuals, women, minorities, Muslims, atheists, etc.

mandy wrote on July 17, 2010 at 2:07 pm