UI grad student protests dismissal of instructor of Catholicism

UI grad student protests dismissal of instructor of Catholicism

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.

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Concerned in Illinois wrote on July 15, 2010 at 9:07 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 by the instructor of presumably comparable examples justifies firing, frankly, and even were he tenured he would have had terrible problems.

G.J. wrote on July 15, 2010 at 10:07 am

The thing that must be kept in mind here is that in Catholic theology, there is a very clear distinction between the morality of actions and the inherent goodness or badness of persons. That's not something that comes through in this email, but that's because the email is not meant to be an introduction to Catholic moral theology--it is rather a supplement to two lectures on the topic at which this very distinction was certainly discussed.

Why does this matter? We (that is, modern people in general) tend to categorize and label people based on their actions. It's a useful filter that lets us think about how to act around people with whom we're familiar without constantly recalculating our opinions of them. This is evident in the way we speak and write: If Jones has killed an innocent man, we don't say, "Jones once killed an innocent man"; rather we simply say, "Jones is a murderer." If Smith rapes a woman, we don't talk about what, specifically, Smith did in the past--we simply call him a rapist, and so on and so forth. We don't refer to the complicated calculus of determining Smith's intrinsic goodness or badness; we simply figure that Smith must be a bad guy by saying "rape is evil; rapists are people who commit rape; therefore, rapists are people who commit evil; therefore, Smith is evil," and then we seek to treat Smith accordingly.

When Dr. Howell's email is taken away from its proper context, it's very easy to conclude that he's arguing that "if rapists are bad people deserving of punishment, and pedophiles are bad people deserving of punishment, and homosexual acts are equal to acts of rape or pederasty, then homosexual people are bad people deserving of punishment." But that's squarely at odds with what the Catholic Church teaches: her own Catechism makes a crystal-clear distinction between the immorality of homosexual actions (CCC 2357) and the dignity and respect that must be afforded all persons, even persons of homosexual orientation (CCC 2358).

The key to understanding this is to realize that the logic I applied to Smith earlier doesn't have a corresponding place in Catholic moral theology. Catholics would say, "Rape is intrinsically evil; a rapist is a person who has committed an intrinsically evil act; therefore, rapists are sinners." But in Catholic thought, "sinner" does not mean "person who should be ostracized and jailed"--that was what the Pharisees thought, and Jesus rebuked them for it (see Luke 5:30-32). A person who has committed homosexual acts (which, mind you, is not the same as a person who merely has a homosexual orientation, at least for the Church's purposes) is as much in need of repentance as a thief, a rapist, an idolater, an adulterer, or anyone else; and that equivalence is the only one that matters to the Church, because once she's established that people are sinners, she can go about the business of leading them to redemption.

So, to sum up: The argument being made here is that certain kinds of actions run afoul of the natural moral law in similar ways. That argument does not intend to imply anything about any particular person with any particular sexual orientation--or, for that matter, any kind of sexual history. If the reason people are offended by Dr. Howell's mail is that they think he thinks that homosexual persons should be treated in the way we treat rapists and pederasts (i.e., by ostracizing them, finding them guilty as a matter of law, and jailing them), then they've (understandably, given the lack of context) missed the real point. If this is a recurring problem, then Dr. Howell should be more careful what he assumes about who will read his emails, but it is by no means grounds for his dismissal.

bearstone11 wrote on July 16, 2010 at 12:07 pm

We know the overwhelming majority of the professors are far left leaning at UIUC; especially in the college of LAS. Howell offered a class that allowed students to critically think about other viewpoints, an alternative view, and he was crushed for it.

UIUC Administration should be ashamed if they do not reverse this. I took Mr. Howell's class, and he does a fine job, one of the best jobs as an educator teaching at UIUC. He covered a large amount of material and offered views most only see in graduate level courses. He was a good educator and developed students' critical thinking skills. His firing hurts future students more than anything.

I for one will not donate another penny to the university until they get their act together on this. Moreover, I'm going to send an email around in my company asking everyone to think twice before committing further. We have millions in prior and future commitments, and until now I have fought to keep recruiting at UIUC, despite others that urge we recruit at competing schools. This is not good timing UIUC. You dropped the ball on the Chief, honest application acceptance, etc.. can I with good conscience hold back the rising tide of opinion that we go elsewhere to hire? Your actions affect your students. Wake Up!

jerrysbear wrote on July 15, 2010 at 11:07 am

Concerned in IL: You are taking the quote out of context by only taking that small part. He is not saying that consent is a part of NML. He is saying first we must consider consent and only if considering consent then the relationship between the 10 and 40 year old is moral. BUT we also must consider NML, says the Catholic church, so once mutual consent is established, we then establish the REALITY of action.

There is nothing wrong with this argument. He MUST use the 10 and 40 year old example because it runs so contrary to what we believe as moral. That is why he introduces the NML criterion. It probably would have been better to put it as a 10 year old girl and 40 year old man to circumvent the homosexuality opinion of the Church. He still could have come to the same conclusion since a 10 year old female is not physically ready for the sexual interaction. Therefore, the NML criterion would say that this relationship is immoral also due to REALITY. Then the professor could have used this framework to demonstrate how the Catholic Church is against pedophilia and not against homosexuality.

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

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.

First of all, Catholic morality indeed does say that homosexual acts, pederasty, and bestiality are all morally wrong -- just as many other sexual and non-sexual acts are also morally wrong. But that does not necessarily mean that these acts are equivalent to each other. Catholic moral theology also says that stealing a pencil is wrong and that murder is wrong, but we shouldn't conclude therefore that stealing a pencil is equivalent to murder, either in severity or in kind.

More importantly, I read Dr. Howell's e-mail twice, but I didn't read it as making those comparisons. It seemed to me that he was trying to say something like the following:

"We may disagree on whether homosexual acts are wrong, so let's put that topic aside for a moment. Instead, let's look at something that we all agree is wrong, such as pederasty or pedophilia, or bestiality. If we examine one of these practices through the lens of utilitarianism, we can easily conclude that it is not wrong. But presumably, we indeed DO think that these acts are wrong. Therefore, it seems that there are some limits on how well utilitarianism matches with our own moral judgments. It may match in some cases (e.g., homosexual acts) but not in others (e.g., bestiality). So then let's look at natural moral law as another system for evaluating the morality of various acts...."

I do agree that Dr. Howell's e-mail seemed a bit muddled and rambling. However, I suspect that it makes much more sense when taken in the context of the lectures that he gave in class -- lectures which all of the intended recipients of the e-mail should have already been familiar with. I think we should remember that the rest of us are in fact NOT the originally intended audience for this e-mail, and that we are reading this e-mail outside of its proper context.

Clearbrook wrote on July 16, 2010 at 4:07 pm
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Actually, If talking about Natural Moral Law as a basis for your moral code versus Utilitarian Codes, those examples are not just relevant, but to exclude them would be sheltering the truth from the students. This is a class on the Catholic Church and it's ideals. In that view they ARE comparable and equally abhorent. To fail to bring that to light would be negligent on his part. For your objection, I would say you have an agenda more than his email did. To object to a comparison that is more than legitmate in the eyes of many focuses us instead on YOUR narrowmindedness, not his. Is the email saying that pedophilia and beastiality are the same as homosexuality? I did not see that. I saw the correct presentation to make students realize that in some ways, they *can* be compared, and that if your reference framework for Morality is NOT the same as what shall we say, YOURS is (whatever that might be -- if it exists at all) such *could* be on the same moral grounds. You can deny that until you are blue in the face, but it will STILL remain the truth!

Was it shock value? Maybe. It also could be using extreme examples to make the concept clear, which I am sorry to have to tell you, is a WELL USED and JUSTIFIED approach used in Sociology, Psychology and <gasp!!!> Religious Studies and Philosophy all the time! The subject matter can appear to be dry at times. Picking up dangerous subjects can be a way to help the students learn!

capt80 wrote on July 15, 2010 at 9:07 am

So the U of I tolerates Bill Ayers on the faculty, but Howell is out the door. I continue to be disgusted by my University. Not one red cent to this school EVER again.

mandy wrote on July 15, 2010 at 10:07 am

Money..money....money.....what cheap threats. What about the fact that this man is not competent to teach at a public university? There is much dishonesty among Howell's supporters using the academic freedom argument. They are are not interested in the freedom of ideas. What they want is freedom for him to advocate his Catholic dogma.
This is a public university not a Catholic institution.
The university should not cave in to this kind of pressure.

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

This is a public university not a Catholic institution.

Whether or not UIUC is a Catholic institution is irrelevant. The courses taught by Dr. Howell are electives, and not required for any particular degree at UIUC, at least not to my knowledge.

But if a public university cannot offer an elective course that teaches about Catholic moral theology, then I guess it will also have to cancel the following classes which could be considered sectarian and/or offensive by some students:

RLST 121: Introduction to Christianity
RLST/AIS 140: Native Religious Traditions
RLST 170: Nature Religion
RLST 213 & 214: Introduction to Islam
RLST 223: Qur'an: Structure and Exegesis
RLST 260: Mystics and Saints in Islam
RLST 410: Islam in Egypt (study abroad course)
RLST 480/LAW 792: Islamic Law
GWS 370: Intro to Queer Studies
GWS 458: Postcolonial Queer
LLS/GWS 465: Race, Sex, Deviance
GWS 325: Lesbian Print Cultures

I could list quite a few more courses, but surely you get the idea. :-)

Vasari wrote on July 15, 2010 at 11:07 am

In discussing frameworks for the discussion of natural law, positive law, divine law, ethics, or moral theology, a professor has no choice but to compare how various frameworks operate using a variety of concrete examples.

A professor, furthermore, has the perfect right to use whatever form of pedagogy he pleases to illustrate a point and whatever technical means he chooses as an instrument of that pedagogy, including emails, a standard format for years and years now. It is assumed that students, who have already undergone hideous forms of sexual re-education in today's sovietized public school system--including such subjects as cross-dressing, transgender training, and homosexuality--are well beyond being shocked at how materials are presented.

Indeed, Professor Howell presented the subject of natural law and Catholic teaching on homosexuality in a straightforward, perfectly pedagogical manner totally commensurate with a university course offered to adults. To say that homosexuality violates the natural law is not hate speech. To say that a three-sided square violates the laws of geometry, or that apples dropping upward from a tree violate the law of gravity, is not hate speech by the same token. If it were otherwise, than virtually all forms of speech may be construed as hate speech by a hardened ideologue.

Also irrelevant is the question of Professor Howell's personal adherence to what he teaches, at least in terms of the First Amendment. A professor is free to present anything he pleases as factual, just as students are free to support opposing arguments if they so desire--as was the case here.

If students pretend that they are superior to their own professors in wisdom and knowledge, then they remain in class only as hypocrites who never intended to learn anything in the first place.

And the student who brought the complaint against Professor Howell is just that, a hardened ideologue and hypocrite who, by definition, is no student at all. No longer having anything to learn from his professors, he sees his role as that of controlling the speech of all those around him who would dare to contradict his personal, government-molded narrowness, the very kind of narrowness which a real university education exists to remedy.

The citizens of Illinois should immediately withdraw funding and support from any so-called "institution of higher learning" which produces only counterfeit students with no intention of learning anything from anyone, because these will ultimately be the ruin of society and a burden to the general economy.

increvable wrote on July 16, 2010 at 1:07 am

I am so tired of the phrase "natural law". Please just say "divine law" and make it clear that you think you know what God wants.

To say that homosexuality violates the natural law is not hate speech.

You're making an assertion about a particular set of moral standards which demonstrably does not and has not held for every human being.

To say that a three-sided square violates the laws of geometry, or that apples dropping upward from a tree violate the law of gravity, is not hate speech by the same token.

You have made two assertions about the axioms of mathematics and the physical rules of the universe, respectively, which do hold for every human being. Two completely different tokens for two completely different subway systems. Please stop mixing them up.

Clearbrook wrote on July 16, 2010 at 4:07 pm
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I understand that these allegories might be too difficult for you to understand. (sarcasm) Math an Philosophy have a long history together. Obviously, you are not much of a student of Philosophy. Otherwise you would not be making "Gibbering" noises like the Press Secratary does when he doesn't want to address a question.

If I express the opinion that General Motors makes crappy cars, is that Hate Speech? By the broad definitions you seem to want to use it would seem to be. But if you applied that same standard to everything you have said. Oh My!

cats kradle wrote on July 15, 2010 at 11:07 am

At what point in time did setting up a Facebook page become more newsworthy than, say, muttering over your beer at a bar? I have seen so many news reports referring to this 'Save Dr. Ken' Facebook page as if its creator just built a 200-foot obelisk on the Quad. This is what happens in a so-called information society. Opinions become news and Facebook pages become news pegs. I wonder how many supporters for this guy have done something SUBSTANTIVE in his support? No, being a Facebook fan doesn't count. If I were an administrator I'd ignore this as just another meaningless Internet controversy until someone showed me that they felt it was important enough to get off their rears.

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

Not being a fan of Facebook, I somewhat agree with you. But if you aren't impressed with Facebook activism, then please consider the hundreds of people (including students, alumni, and other concerned citizens) who have taken the time to write letters and e-mails to various officials at U of I, expressing their concern over Dr. Howell's dismissal.

Vasari wrote on July 15, 2010 at 11:07 am

Eli Lazar is to be congratulated. He is a true student.

sahuoy wrote on July 15, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Professor Howell is the real victim of a hate crime just as priest, just as gay bashing, etc. I am a catholic, gay behavior is immoral. What Howell was teaching is true but to be ousted for teaching a truth? This is the worst kind of censoring in that to teach is to navigate the truths of our world, not avoid, hide, ignore them for sake of other views or beliefs. How could anyone advance a position without knowing what the truths are. To teach anything other than truth would be to undermine integrity and to prematurely render that education null and void of any value. I applaud Eli and especially Howell. U of I misses the boat again...

Tony wrote on July 15, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Best wishes to his family! He is a real scholar

Concerned in Illinois wrote on July 15, 2010 at 5:07 pm

I would simply like to note that the entire coverage in News Gazette has been abysmally one-sided. I still haven't seen even an effort to interview ANY members of the local gay community, including students. Moreover, his reference to pederasty and bestiality are pertinent to his argument or he wouldn't have included them; he saw them as comparable.

Additionally, looking over the e-mail more carefully, I'm simply amazed that the man seems incapable of engaging in critical thought concerning Catholic moral theory. His final sentences reveal that the man is a zealot rather than an academic--and the News Gazette has utterly ignored this element as well:

"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. As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends on religion. Catholics don't arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality."

As we can see, Howell makes a REAL claim about Catholics, and in doing so he suggests that they do not make moral reasoning based on "religion" but upon "natural reality." The man wouldn't receive a C for making an argument like that in most courses, because he's made a claim that takes Catholicism out of history. He's theologizing, if not preaching. There's no place for such behavior in the classroom of a secular (public) university. He writes as a REPRESENTATIVE of the Faith. That aspect is what violates the basic distinction between critical thought in the public institution and what is, effectively, a mode of evangelization couched in philosophical terms. The very fact that he refers to NO sources here speaks volumes.

increvable wrote on July 16, 2010 at 1:07 am

Hear, hear. I particularly like that assertion of a "thorough understanding of natural reality" in light of this passage.

To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the "woman" while the other acts as the "man." In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don't want to be too graphic so I won't go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.

As I said in the thread attached to the text of the letter, Howell shouldn't be fired for believing these deeply ignorant things. However, if this is really "the best of his knowledge", if this is the depth of thought and analysis he's capable of applying to the morality of homosexuality, then perhaps Howell's just not up to scratch as a teacher and scholar. I thought this firing was unjustified at first, but the more I look into this, perhaps Howell's just a walking, talking Baltimore Catechism. That's not good enough, especially for a 400-level class at a Big Ten university.

Paul H wrote on July 16, 2010 at 6:07 am

That's not good enough, especially for a 400-level class at a Big Ten university.

The class was RLST 127. Not a 400-level class.

Concerned in Illinois wrote on July 17, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Did you read Howell's e-mail? It says:

"Utilitarianism and Sexuality (for those in 447 FYI)"

PAY attention: it's a 400-level course.

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

Overlooking the comments, it appears that Dr. Howell has met his responsibility as a professor while unfortunately being set up for victimization by close minded persons and or the organized gay community. Free speech, academic freedom based on personal beliefs are not punishable by law but only at the U of I. School is learning about truths, accepting of to better understand and shape our world by either positive or negative means, depending on the individual. Dr Howell is to be applauded for his efforts in teaching the catholic truths and his personal convictions at the academic level to empower students to act upon their personal beliefs opening the class to debate and expanding ideas in preparation for their future. Acceptance or rejection of truths, speech, academics is always optional and evolutionary to the age at hand as well are the repercussions there of. Having met his obligation and responsibly empowering his students is the foundation of teaching and learning. The U of I has every reason to hold Dr. Howell as an esteemed beacon by his colleagues and the benchmark of the teaching craft. Anything less would be inadequately ineffectual for preparing the young minds of today for tomorrow and less than the best opportunity to explore, discover and advance the views of the world.