URBANA – A University of Illinois faculty committee investigating the dismissal of adjunct professor Kenneth Howell  says he lacked essential academic due-process protections, a situation faced by hundreds of other non-tenure-track instructors at the UI.
The Urbana-Champaign Senate Committee on Academic Freedom did not say explicitly whether the Department of Religion erred in terminating Howell's appointment last May after a student complained about his teachings on religion and homosexuality in a Catholicism class. Threatened with legal action, the UI later reinstated Howell for this fall.
The committee's report , issued last week, said offending students does not constitute grounds for dismissal. But it also said an email Howell sent to students raised questions about his "professional competence," something that should be subject to review by his colleagues. And it said there was a "real question" about whether Howell had observed the distinction between teaching and "indoctrination."
No review was done because of the unique circumstances surrounding Howell's employment through St. John's Newman Foundation and the lack of clear procedures for adjunct faculty, the committee said.
"By academic rather than legal standards, a persuasive argument could be made that his summary removal ... because of the content of his email was a dismissal on which he should have been afforded academic due process," the report said.
Chancellor Robert Easter had asked the committee in July to look into Howell's case after it was reported in The News-Gazette.
Howell could not be reached for comment.
Howell, who had taught courses on Catholic thought for nine years, was told last May that he would not be returning in the fall. The decision came after a student complained about a class discussion in which Howell taught that the Catholic Church believes homosexual acts are morally wrong. Howell also sent students an email about Catholic natural law and utilitarian theories of homosexual behavior, comparing it to the morality of adults who have sex with children or dogs.
Howell claimed the department's action violated his academic freedom.
The university in July dissolved its relationship with the Newman Center, which had paid Howell's salary. The UI is now paying Howell $10,000 per semester.
Robert McKim, head of the Department of Religion, told the committee that Howell's actions had raised questions of professional competence, citing inaccurate statements about utilitarianism. McKim also said Howell had failed to maintain the "distance" expected of religious studies professors by referring to the Catholic position on homosexuality as a statement of fact.
Howell maintained that he never required his students to accept his position, but rather wanted them to think critically about the subject.
The committee said the "distinction between advocacy and indoctrination can be a delicate matter: what is said and what is heard can be very different," and concluded that Howell's email message could be read different ways.
"(W)e believe that there is a real question of whether, in this instance, Professor Howell has observed the distinction he drew," the report said.
Students have "no right not to be offended," the committee said. "We could not do our job, which is to instill the habits of a critical mind, if we had to be (wary) of giving offense." But Howell's comments can be faulted for "being unlearned and jejune," the report said.
The committee said the Department of Religion is free to decide whether to continue offering courses in Catholic thought and to appoint any candidate it deems "best qualified" to teach them, and it should consider Howell for the job. If he is not chosen, that alone is not subject to a challenge under academic freedom, the committee said.
But because of the unique circumstances of this case, Howell should be given the opportunity for a hearing if he believes the decision is based on considerations that do violate academic freedom, the committee said.
Professor Matthew Finkin, who chairs the committee, said the report wasn't intended to be released publicly and declined to discuss the sections dealing with Howell's case.
The News-Gazette filed a Freedom of Information request for the report last week but has not received a response. The report was published Monday online by Inside Higher Ed .
Howell's attorney, senior counsel Jordan Lorence at the Alliance Defense Fund  in Scottsdale, Ariz., praised the committee for "taking such a strong stand in favor of academic freedom."
"I think it vindicates him. They basically dismissed him without following any due process," Lorence said. "Professor Howell said something that was deemed politically incorrect on campus, and he lost his job. What the committee is recommending is that processes be set up so that it won't happen again in the future."
The report provides details of the internal debate within the university about Howell's position.
McKim told the committee that Associate Dean Ann Mester felt Howell should not be reappointed because she worried the university might be sued by "the gay community." McKim said he was more concerned about Howell's "ongoing and systematic crossing of the boundary between teaching and indoctrination," though it was mainly "conversational evidence" and the department had not documented it, the report said.
Mester told the committee she was concerned about the email's content, by its treatment of Catholic thought as truth, and the fear that it could create a hostile environmental for gay and bisexual students. She said she was told by UI attorney Steven Veazie that the campus had no obligation to keep Howell because he wasn't paid by the university and was not technically a UI employee. Another adjunct professor had been discontinued for "inappropriate teaching" without incident, according to the report.
Veazie testified that he saw no problem with terminating Howell "so long as no apology on the department or university's part was made which might have implied institutional acceptance of responsibility for Howell's email message," the report said.
Mester told McKim he was free to terminate Howell as long as he addressed Veazie's concerns, the report said.
Lorence noted that Howell was told in an email that he was not following the university's policy on inclusivity – not that he had the wrong ideas about utilitarianism.
"It is important to give protections to the people who are giving opinions that are least likely to be supported on campus. The unpopular viewpoints have to be protected, or eventually nobody's going to have protection for freedom of speech and their academic freedom," he said.