CHAMPAIGN – Kenneth Howell has been offered his job back teaching Catholicism, but from now on the University of Illinois will pay his salary, the UI said Thursday.
He has until Aug. 6 to respond.
And the university will dissolve its relationship with the local Catholic Newman Center, which for decades has been paying instructors to teach Catholicism under the UI's Department of Religion.
John Prussing, the aerospace engineering professor who heads Faculty Senate's General University Policy committee, said the decision on relations with the Newman Center had nothing to do with Howell personally.
"We thought the basic problem was a structural one, having nothing to do with Mr. Howell per se. When one has two employers, the missions of each may not always agree," Prussing said.
Howell was told in May that he would not be returning in the fall. A student had complained in an e-mail to campus officials that Howell had written an e-mail about natural law and homosexuality, though the UI has not confirmed that this was the reason for a decision not to rehire him at the time.
Howell's dismissal and comments made by him, the unnamed student and campus administrators were first reported in The News-Gazette on July 9.
The News-Gazette was unable to reach Howell for comment Thursday. An attorney for his defense fund told The Associated Press he was happy with the offer.
"We're extremely pleased that Dr. Howell is back in the classroom," said David Hacker, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund. "But we'll be watching carefully to make sure his academic freedom is protected through this ongoing process."
In August, if Howell agrees, the Urbana campus will pay him $10,000 a semester to teach one course in Catholic thought.
His status continues to be that of an adjunct professor, hired on a year-to-year basis, said Robin Kaler, the chief spokeswoman for the Urbana campus. The job does not lead to tenure.
Kaler declined to say whether the rehiring was related to publicity about Howell.
"The university values academic freedom. As the fall semester was fast approaching, the decision was made to contract with Professor Howell to teach Catholic studies, while the (academic freedom and tenure) committee continues to look into the matter," she said.
The UI will pay the salary of instructors teaching any Catholic studies courses taught for university credit, rather than St. John's Catholic Newman Center, as in the past.
A press release said "the university values its relationship with the Newman Center and plans to continue offering courses in Catholic studies."
The move comes with the recommendation Thursday of the Faculty Senate's General University Policy committee. The committee called for dissolution of the arrangement whereby St. John's Catholic Newman Center funds instructors for credit-bearing UI courses in Catholic studies.
"This offer of appointment does not affect the process or outcome of a review by the Faculty Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure," the release said.
Prussing, who heads the policy committee, called the former agreement, in which the Newman Foundation paid the salary of a UI professor, "pretty much an anachronism that goes back 40 years."
He said other religious foundations had supported teacher salaries for teaching about their denominations, but several decades ago, all discontinued the practice, save the Newman Center.
"This is probably a good solution," he said.
Prussing said that separation of church and state may have come up in the discussion, but it wasn't a major factor in the decision.
"We didn't get that lofty," he said. "This was a practical decision."
The head of a group that represents university-level religious studies teachers said religious scholars must be aware of the contrast between the secular and the religious.
Ann Taves, the president of the American Academy of Religion, is the Virgil Cordano OFM Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She said religious scholars teaching in state-supported institutions are well aware of the Abington Township School District v. Schempp case of 1963, in which the Supreme Court ruled that public schools cannot sponsor Bible reading.
"The ruling in the Schempp case states that the test in terms of constitutionality is that the state should neither advance nor inhibit religion. The ruling specifically states that 'Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment,'" she said in an e-mail.
She said professors need to understand what is meant by secular.
"In terms of 'secular program,' we generally interpret that to mean that our goal is not to teach students to be religious or nonreligious, but to teach them about religion using comparative methods and methods drawn from history, literature, philosophy and the sciences (the arts and sciences of the modern secular university)," she wrote.
She added: "For the most part, I think we refrain from saying much about our personal religious beliefs (or lack thereof) as that can easily leave the impression that we are trying to advance or inhibit religion."
A current member of the Department of Religion said it's not the job for a religious studies professor to preach or make value judgments.
Valerie Hoffman teaches Judaism courses.
"All religions are contested domains, but this is especially true when multiple interpretations compete with one another. Our role as professors is not to advocate any particular interpretation, but to try to convey the range of existing interpretations, indicate which interpretation has tended to predominate, and to analyze the basis for each opinion," she wrote in an e-mail to The News-Gazette.
"The academic study of religion should no more be about 'preaching' than any other field in the humanities," she continued. "It is comparable to teaching philosophy, literature or history. The professor certainly may tell the students his or her point of view, especially when critiquing the viability of particular interpretations of scripture – not to make a judgment about the truth of an interpretation, but to assess whether the language of the text can legitimately be construed to mean what is alleged."
She said an analytical attitude by a professor could lead to a misunderstanding of a hostile attitude – "though in reality we are not hostile, and some of us actually practice the religion that we teach. In a secular institution, it should be irrelevant whether the professor practices the religion he or she is teaching."