URBANA – A University of Illinois graduate student is protesting the dismissal of an adjunct professor from teaching classes on Catholicism.
Eli Lazar, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, said he is upset about the dismissal of Kenneth Howell, who taught in the UI's Department of Religion, and he wants to raise awareness of the issue among UI students.
Howell was told he will no longer teach courses on Catholicism after a student complained about a discussion of homosexuality in which Howell taught that the Catholic Church believes homosexual acts are morally wrong.
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. After losing his teaching position with the UI, Howell was told by the Newman Center that he would no longer be employed there either.
Howell claims the actions of the UI are a violation of his academic freedom.
Lazar and a group of students put up fliers on bulletin boards in campus buildings. One of them says, "Professors Beware. Teaching your course could cost you your career." They also chalked the sidewalks on the Quad, with the phrase, "Search 'Save Dr. Ken' on Facebook."
A post on the Facebook page says supporters are also organizing a vigil for Howell.
Because most students are away from campus for the summer, Lazar plans to hand out fliers in the Chicago suburbs this weekend, and via e-mail.
"What upset me about this, and what's upset other people, is we kind of feel students' sensitivity is starting to dictate what is taught at the university," Lazar said.
He said talking about controversial subjects promotes understanding of differing viewpoints and allows people to agree to disagree. He also said discussion of the Catholic Church's beliefs about homosexuality is relevant to a course on Catholicism, as well as to social issues such as legalization of gay marriage.
"I think peaceful discussion should always be encouraged," he said.
Lazar is Catholic, but he said his focus is on the issue of academic freedom, rather than a defense of the Catholic Church's beliefs.
"This was not about 'hate speech' (speech to incite violence and prejudice) and if we censor speech, we censor our abilities to understand each other," he said. "The flier distribution is only to raise awareness on the issue and protect the University's own statement of academic freedom."
Lazar said he trusts the UI's review process to come to the right conclusion, which he says is to reinstate Howell.
UI President Michael Hogan announced Monday that the Faculty Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure will review the decision regarding an adjunct professor in the Department of Religion.
"We want to be able to reassure ourselves there was no infringement on academic freedom here," Hogan told faculty members Monday.
He said he'd received 100 e-mails by Monday morning on the matter. The story, first reported by The News-Gazette last Friday, has been picked up by other media outlets and blogs.
A University of Illinois administrator and an official from the Diocese of Peoria have also been talking about Howell's dismissal.
Ruth Watkins, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which includes the Department of Religion, spoke with Chancellor Patricia Gibson of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria on Tuesday and Wednesday, said Robin Kaler, UI associate chancellor for public affairs. Watkins is to meet again next week with representatives from the Peoria Diocese and St. John's Catholic Newman Center.
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.
Alliance Defense Fund attorneys sent a letter to the UI on Monday, claiming Howell's dismissal is a violation of his First Amendment rights.
"The University's only reason for removing Dr. Howell is that other students, faculty and staff disliked his speech," the letter states. "Such a 'heckler's veto' has no place in the 'marketplace of ideas,' particularly since the First Amendment exists precisely to protect controversial ideas from being silenced."
The letter calls for Howell's reinstatement and states the organization will advise Howell to file a lawsuit if he is not reinstated.