Saturday, July 10, 2010

Adjunct Religion Professor, Dr. Kenneth Howell, Fired for Catholic Moral Beliefs by the University of Illinois

This is an ominous sign. It means, I believe, that to be an outspoken creedal Christian--Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox--on moral and social questions is to court loss of employment in the secular academy, no matter your accomplishments, pedigree, winsomeness of presentation, or sophistication of argument.  Writes Jeff Culbreath at What's Wrong with the World:
Dr. Kenneth Howell was an adjunct professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Congratulated by the university for  excellence in teaching in the Fall of 2009, he was recently fired for affirming, in an e-mail to the students of his "Introduction to Catholicism" course, the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexuality. According to The News-Gazette:
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 offensive e-mail was forwarded by an irate student to university officials, and the rest is history. It appears that he was fired from the Newman Center as well. At this point the diocese does not seem to be standing behind him, but according to an update on a Facebook page in support of Dr. Howell, Bishop Jenky is trying to get him re-instated. There are stories herehereherehere, and here
So, let's not expect any more tolerance from the Tolerant Ones. I am reminded of Msgr. Benson's "Lord of the World" in which the humanitarians turn on a dime from gentle doves to ferocious persecutors, the logic being that the intolerant Catholics must be eliminated to create a tolerant world. Don't get me wrong - the firing of a Catholic university professor is far from red martyrdom - though, perhaps, not quite as far as it seems. 
Imagine everything in reverse.

Suppose the LGBT center on campus has a director who teaches adjunct in the philosophy department, and because of an arrangement with the university he teaches one course every semester, "A Philosophical Introduction to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies." The professor is a good teacher and tells the students that they do not actually have to agree with him, but because he is an honest and forthright teacher, the professor says that these are his views. Over the course of the semester several students write him concerning his views, and he proceeds to dialogue with them in a variety of email notes in a candid though respectful manner. One of the students, a devout Catholic, expresses offense about comments made by the professor. In a lecture and several email notes the professor asserted his belief that the Catholic view of human sexuality is mistaken, disordered and ultimately harmful to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders. Even though the professor is respectful, offers reasons for his position, reminds the student that he need not agree with him, etc., the student complains to the Dean that he feels "excluded" from the university community because of the professor's comments. The student also makes the point that the message sent to him is that Catholics are not welcomed as full participants in the life of the university. The Dean is moved by this complaint and does not renew the professor's contract. He offers the very grounds offered by the Dean to justify the university's termination of Dr. Howell: "the e-mails sent by the professor violate university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us."  

If this had actually occurred, no one would have seen this as anything but the employment of naked power to punish a professor who is properly exercising his academic freedom.  But the real case of Dr. Howell, in terms of the issue of academic freedom, cannot be distinguished from this fictional case in any meaningful way. 

When I was in college (79-83), I was told by my professors, who ranged from liberal to Marxist, that at the university I would hear and read things that would challenge what I learned at home and church. In fact, my favorite professor, Randy Sheldon (a Marxist sociologist), called it "culture shock."

But, as Randy would sometimes put it, if you disagree with your professor, your job is to offer contrary arguments, and it is the duty of the professor and your fellow students to answer you with reasoned respect, even if they find your views as troubling as you find theirs.

This was the animating spirit of university life that drew me to it. It was not a place for crybabies or bullies. It was a place for serious men and women willing to undergo mutual interrogation in a climate of brutal honesty in which recrimination for holding controversial views was worse than being wrong.

The aggrieved student in the Howell case is the product of a generation of institutional coddling that rewards intellectual immaturity if it can feign personal offense. 

(For those who want to know more about Dr. Howell and his academic pedigree and accomplishments, see his CV posted on the website of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology)


Ruth Ann said...

What a fiasco! I hope Dr. Howell sues the University.

Frank said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Francis J. Beckwith said...

Note to Return to Rome Readers:

I deleted the hateful comments posted by a fellow named "Frank."

My sincerest apologies to anyone who caught a glimpse of his comments before I deleted them.

As regular readers know, it is rare that I delete comments, unless they are beyond the pale. (And, by the way, after 7 days the combox is shut down on each post)

Michael said...

I'm not sure what role this will play with any legal action, but Dr. Howell was employed by the Newman Center, rather than the university. There was an agreement of long standing between the diocese and the university to let students take these courses for university credit. That agreement has been dissolved. While I'm concerned about the issue of academic freedom here, I'm also concerned about the notion of a secular institution giving credit for a course taught by someone in the employ of a sectarian church.

Francis J. Beckwith said...


As I understand it, Dr. Howell was employed by both the Newman Center and the university. This sort of arrangement is not uncommon.

His university employment was an adjunct status, which means that his teaching was work for hire, though he had been doing it for a decade. Adjunct pay is pretty skimpy, usually $1200 a credit hour with no benefits. So, if he was teaching two classes a semester, UofI would be paying him 14,400 before taxes without benefits. (Remember, I am just speculating). I suspect, then, that the Newman Center was giving him a real salary with benefits in order to live in Champaign-Urbana with him and his family.

If Dr. Howell had taught the same course at a Catholic school and the students who took that course were allowed to transfer it to the University of Illinois (or any other public university) towards their degrees, this would not only be acceptable, it's done all the time.

Your observation, oddly, is the opposite of what people you usually object to. They usually object to the state supporting the Church. But in this case the Church was underwriting a professor's salary that state does not have to pay. In a sense, it's a voluntary tax, which would be something that many strong church-state separationists would welcome!

Michael said...

Francis, Dr. Howell received no salary from the university: he was entirely an employee of the Newman Center. I'm aware of his adjunct status, but it was purely an administrative designation. The same thing held true when priests with Ph.D.s taught the course before Howell arrived.

As to the voluntary tax, that's an interesting observation, but I don't buy it. What we have here is a sectarian institution paying someone to put its point of view across at a public institution. It's giving the hiring power to a body outside the university. This arrangement had been put in place decades ago under the great Newman chaplain Fr. Duncan. Once he was ousted (another story, and one that redounds to his credit), the diocese got a bit more ambitious, and created an Institute of Catholic Thought and brought Howell in to run it. Howell can still teach the classes, but not under the auspices of the university, and not for university credit (unless the diocese gets the Institute accredited, or they hook it up with a community college in the area). Once the university said he couldn't teach the class, the diocese fired him, as he had outlived his usefulness.

Again, the university, according to the public databases I've searched, paid him nothing: he was entirely an employee of the diocese.

What would people's reaction be (I'm not assuming here: I'm really wondering) if the teacher here had been Muslim, and employed by an independent Muslim Studies Association or a local mosque?

Michael said...

BTW, I'd be astonished if this was the first such complaint.

Michael said...

Here's an article from today's local paper:

My suspicion was, I think, correct: the problem is the relationship between the Newman Center/Diocese and the university.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

If there had been prior complaints, and if they are like the most recent one, then they are of no merit. I taught for 7 years at a public university, UNLV (1989-1996), and often lectured on some very controversial issues, including abortion. (In fact, my students had to buy my book on the subject in which I defend the prolife position). I never had one complaint, and the students clearly knew my view and why I believed it. On the other hand, I strove, and I think I succeeded, in exposing my students to the best arguments on the other side.

But, sadly, times have changed. We have created and nurtured an environment at the public university in which the serious, and sometimes uncomfortable, discussion and assessment of controversial points of view may be permanently stalled by the intellectually immature. It seems to me that the student's complaint in the Howell case is borne of an ignorance shaped by empty platitudes he uncritically assimilated from the wider academic culture. "Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing," the student wrote. "Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another."

If Howell was teaching Catholicism correctly--and I have no doubt that he was--the student would know that Catholicism, like most every other religion, affirms its beliefs are true. But unlike some other faiths, that rely exclusively on special revelation (i.e., Scripture), Catholicism believes that it can marshal arguments that offer support for some of its doctrines, especially in moral theology. That is, the Church believes that it can make a reasonable case for its moral doctrines that may be accepted by those who are not Catholic. If I understand the situation correctly, Howell offered a modest version (after all, it was an email and not an academic treatise) of why Catholic moral theology rejects homosexual acts as licit. And if the student had been paying attention, he would not have referred to such a case as "the natural laws of man," since in Catholic thought it is the positive law, and not the natural law, that is man made. Moreover, Howell's presentation was not in the form of a "declaration." He did not declare anything. He offered an argument.

So, it seems to me that the student's entire account is the consequence of interpreting Howell's presentation through a grid of secular slogans. That is, religions have tenets that its believers declare and that cannot be backed by reasons that even unbelievers have to take seriously.

So, essentially, what the student was requesting is that Dr. Howell teach Catholicism as if it were not Catholicism.

The University of Illinois, I suspect, is an embarrassment of riches for any student who wants to learn views that are contrary to Catholicism and not be troubled by hearing opposing voices. Thus, this was perhaps the only opportunity he will ever have at the university to show tolerance toward a professor who really challenges his cherished dogmas. Speaking from personal experience, I learned much from my professors who thought my religious beliefs were mistaken. It's a real pity that this student has been denied that good.

the grim reaper said...

You have not answered Michael's question:
"What would people's reaction be (I'm not assuming here: I'm really wondering) if the teacher here had been Muslim, and employed by an independent Muslim Studies Association or a local mosque? "

Will all you good Catholics show the same outrage?

Francis J. Beckwith said...

""What would people's reaction be (I'm not assuming here: I'm really wondering) if the teacher here had been Muslim, and employed by an independent Muslim Studies Association or a local mosque? "

That's a great idea. It would enhance the diversity of the University of Illinois. I would support it.

Michael said...

Oh, I do agree that the student was not being a student in any real sense of the word (I'm also reminded of the faculty member at Steubenville who was heard to say, "I've been a professed religious for 35 years, and I'm not exactly pleased when my orthodoxy is challenged by an 18-year-old who doesn't really know anything; or the Fordham Jesuit who would begin the first class in the freshman theology class by saying, "OK, the first thing you need to do is to forget anything any nun ever taught you"). Learning takes place when we realize we don't really know anything.

Still, most of this isn't about Howell: it's about a long-standing conflict between two local institutions.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

"Still, most of this isn't about Howell: it's about a long-standing conflict between two local institutions."

That's a fair comment, and one with which I have a sympathy. I think that a better arrangement would be a Catholic university offering courses at the University of Illinois Newman Center and the university allowing the courses to transfer.

During my days at UNLV, Bethany College (a Pentecostal undergraduate institution in Northern California) had such an arrangement. Local Pentecostal kids could take up to 30 credits at Bethany (through modular courses held at local Pentecostal churches) and either transfer those courses to UNLV or transfer UNLV courses to Bethany to earn a Bethany degree.

Michael said...

I think that would be a good compromise. The question then would be whether they'd be accepted as generic credit or as specific courses in the university's catalog. That would, of course, be up to the university's religious studies department.

Jordanes said...

I'm concerned about the notion of a public university refusing to give credit for courses taught by someone in the employ of a church. Such an arrangement is ideal in the American polity, in which religious freedom is the first and most important human right: a religion is granted its divine right to a place in the public square, and taxpayers of other faiths or no faith don't foot the bill. An anti-religious animus, at odds with America's identity, might object to such an arrangement, of course.

Michael said...

I'm concerned about the notion of a public university refusing to give credit for courses taught by someone in the employ of a church.

I don't think that's what's at issue here. Although Dr. Howell was paid by the church, he was, technically, employed by the university, although at no salary.

Michael said...

Much more information from the Chicago Tribune, including some historical background:,0,5015388.story

Jordanes said...

I don't think that's what's at issue here. Although Dr. Howell was paid by the church, he was, technically, employed by the university, although at no salary.

I have to disagree -- that's exactly what is at issue. As I said, the arrangement whereby Dr. Howell was employed by the state university but paid by the Church (thus, he was really employed by the Church -- his employment by the university was nominal, in the sense that he was permitted to teach classes there) was ideal, removing any valid objections of the state directly sponsoring Dr. Howell's faith while granting the church its rightful place in the public square.