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.