Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fired for Being Catholic 2: First Things blog

Another Academic on Kenneth Howell
Tuesday, July 13, 2010, 10:23 AM
David Mills
Fired for Being Catholic? reported on the troubles of Dr. Kenneth Howell, who lost his adjunct job at the University of Illinois for admitting in a class on Catholic teaching that he, as a Catholic, agreed with it. A friend who teaches in a state university wrote:
Having read his e-mail, the reason for Dr. Howell’s situation has become clearer: He taught the doctrines of the Church as being his as opposed to being those of the Church. This was the more honest thing to do, but, as Howell’s experience makes clear, it’s dangerous.
If the teacher teaches in a detached way, the student treats whatever he says abstractly. He might be mad, but he won’t be mad at him. Once the teacher says that these beliefs he’s describing are his personal beliefs, he becomes the focus, and it is much easier for a student to complain to an administrator about a teacher than it is about what he is being taught, and it is easier for an administrator to defend the teaching of subject than it is the teacher of the subject. The facts are as they are, but the teacher can be changed.
My friend said that this story shows the importance of giving professors tenure, even though it can encourage laziness, poor teaching, and the like. Tenure would, he said, “have helped the administrator (if he wanted help) in this case.”
It is all about time. About the only tool or asset a university administrator has is time. The most important thing in listening to student complaints is that they leave the office convinced that they have been heard and paid attention to seriously. The goal for a lower-lever administrator (and I know them well) is to keep the complaint from going higher.
If the dean has to hear every complaint on their time, why do they need an assistant? If the provost hast to hear every complaint on his time, why do they need a dean? If you can tell the student there is nothing you can do “because X has tenure,” the student can reply “That’s just stupid” and walk out in a huff but he won’t go any higher. If you say that you fully support the teacher on grounds of academic freedom, they are going to go higher. They will bug the dean, the provost, the president.
From the evidence I’ve seen, it looks like this was poorly handled by the administrators involved. As someone else pointed out, you never listen to someone who is “speaking for a friend.” You always assume he is speaking for himself alone.
The press coverage associated with this should be a good incentive for any administrator to adopt that tactic. It’s bad when the student goes to the next level. It’s worse when the press picks up the story.
James Stephens
July 13th, 2010 | 11:04 am
The commentator is absolutely correct that tenure is designed to prevent this sort of thing, and I was hoping someone would point this out. But it’s also easy to criticize tenure when it serves just this purpose and we don’t like the message. But as practical as it might be for an official to simply say ‘he has tenure, we can’t do anything about him’ is also weak, it amounts to implying ‘I agree with you but I can’t do anything about it.’
Tom Carty
July 13th, 2010 | 11:07 am
There is no doubt a future president among the small minds at the University of Illinois.The question is whether it is the weak-kneed anti-free-speech crowd that runs the university or the whiny back-stabbing student who had no tolerance for Dr.Howell, the only honest person in this sorry episode.
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Gregory K. Laughlin
July 13th, 2010 | 11:47 am
And as tenure become less and less frequent, situations like this may become more and more common. In a recent article in the CHRONICLES OF HIGHER EDUCATION, “Tenure, RIP: What the Vanishing Status Means for the Future of Education,” July 6, 2010. The article noted:
“Over just three decades, the proportion of college instructors who are tenured or on the tenure track plummeted: from 57 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 2007.”
The result: “What does vanishing tenure mean for higher education? For starters, some observers say that college faculties are being filled with people who may be less willing to speak their minds: contingent instructors, usually working on short-term contracts. Indeed, the American Association of University Professors says instructors need tenure to guarantee that they can say controversial things inside and outside the classroom without being fired.”
Dr. Howell’s situation certain will serve as a warning to adjunct professors to be bland and disengaged and avoid saying anything which could possibly offend anyone. So much for academic freedom and the spirit of hearty debate and challenging ideas.
July 13th, 2010 | 12:05 pm
It’s absolutely true that this is an object lesson in why tenure is essential for teachers (and why many colleges have been heavily relying on adjuncts, to avoid having obligations to professors).
However, even without holding tenure, there is no way that Howell should have been punished. It is not hate speech to say that Catholics believe that homosexuality violates natural moral law any more than it is hate speech to teach that some Christians believe abortion is murder or that Pat Robertson believes that terrorists are the result of the evils of feminism.
The fact that Howell holds at least one of these views is only a problem if it interferes with his teaching.
Presumably Howell has no more trouble teaching homosexuals than he has teaching the unmarried fornicators who (this being a college campus) doubtless also attend his classes. There is a wide gulf between Howell’s beliefs and practice and that of a man who, believing females are intellectually inferior, refuses to engage with them in the classroom.
–Leah @ Unequally Yoked
July 13th, 2010 | 12:29 pm
Re: Gregory K. Laughlin Dr. Howell’s situation certain will serve as a warning to adjunct professors to be bland and disengaged and avoid saying anything which could possibly offend anyone.
That horse has left the barn because even tenured professors are bland and disengaged in this way. The Academy is now largely an intellectual ghetto of political correctness and arcane victimology. One has to at least feign agreement with the normative mindset to even be considered for tenure. The close-minded Weltanschauung of the University is strongly self-reinforcing.
So my point is that even if all faculty members were tenured, the selection process pretty guarantees conformity with Academic orthodoxy.
Perversely UI was stupid. They did not need to explicitly fire Professor Howell. They could have just dropped the course and Professor Howell’s position would have went poof without the political fallout.
UIUC Student
July 13th, 2010 | 1:27 pm
As a student in Professor Howell’s Intro to Cathlicism class, I can tell you that the real problem was not that he taught his opinion or the Catholic view on issues such as homosexuality. The real issue was that he taught his opinions as facts. While he may believe them to be facts, he should not have presented them as such.
I found the professor to be sensitive about other topics, such as damnation, during the semester. I was suprised that he did not choose to maintain his sensitivity when discussing homosexuality. He chose to use homosexual actions as an example of natural moral theory. In other words, he told the class that homosexuality violates natural moral law and went on in great detail to explain why.
I am glad that Professor Howell has a voice in the discussion, but I would like people to know both sides of the issue.
July 13th, 2010 | 2:37 pm
UIUC Student — Given that the course was titled “Introduction to Catholicism,” I’m not sure where the confusion would arise between the presentation of facts as such and the presentation of what Catholics believe are facts. Did you forget that you were in that class? Do you need to be reminded before each lecture which course you’re enrolled in?
Or, and I think this gets to the core of the issue here, do you simply want to be told what to think without having to distinguish fact from opinion using your own reasoning?
C.C. Inglish
July 13th, 2010 | 2:53 pm
@ UCIC Student.
Please clarify a few items in your statement concerning what exactly Dr. Howell taught about the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. Did he say that the homosexual inclination violates the natural moral law or that homosexual acts do so? If the former, then yes he is in error. If, however, he stated the latter, then he has not erred. The inclination is objectively disordered, but does not violate the natural moral law. Homosexual acts do in fact violate the natural moral law and hence are intrinsically evil.
If Dr. Howell correctly taught and agreed with the Church’s teaching on the matter and made his agreement known to the class, then so what? He is not simply teaching his opinion; he is teaching the Catholic faith with which he happens to agree. It is a fact, not an opinion, about what the Church teaches on this issue. Unless he condemned homosexuals to hell, disparaged them as less then human, or treated students who disagreed with the Church’s teaching on the matter with contempt, which neither his e-mail nor any other information regarding this incident remotely suggests, then Dr. Howell’s perceived insensitivity is rooted in one’s dissatisfaction with the fact that the Church teaches that homosexual acts are intrinsically evil.
For Dr. Howell to not teach his opinion as fact, assuming that he logically justified the factual basis of this “opinion,” is morally relativistic and schizophrenic. It is obvious from Dr. Howell’s e-mail that the point of the assignment was to demonstrate logically and factually that according to natural law theory that homosexual acts are intrinsically evil. I highly doubt that changing the issue of the assignment from homosexuality to abortion, in vitro, embryonic stem cells, premarital fornication, adultery, etc., would satisfy the friend of a friend whose “tolerance” caused him/her to whine to the department chair.
The Church does teach that homosexual acts violate the natural moral law and Dr. Howell explained why. So what’s the problem? I guess it’s the fact that a prof. is openly and unabashedly teaching something which threatens the cancer of hedonistic nihilism that has matastasized in humanities departments across America’s campuses.
UIUC Student
July 13th, 2010 | 3:51 pm
I can see that people on this site are inclined to agree with Professor Howell’s teaching style. I was unhappy with the course and feel that I learned very little about Catholicism. I do not have an issue with a Catholicism professor expressing the Catholic viewpoint or openly agreeing with that viewpoint. I took issue with the way he expressed himself. He expressed his opinions as facts and left little room for opposing viewpoints. Even if he does believe them to be facts, he should have been respectful of the fact that others may disagree. Natural moral theory is a theory like any other theory, such as evolution. If an instructor in a public school taught that the theory of evolution was fact rather than stating that it is a theory, than I’m sure you all would have plenty to say about that as well.
I took the course hoping to learn more about Catholics. I think I have learned more by reading your strongly expressed comments than I did from Howell all semester.
July 13th, 2010 | 4:12 pm
UIUC Student — So you felt Dr. Howell left little room for opposing viewpoints to Catholicism, and yet at the same time you learned very little about it?
Dr. Howell has won several awards for teaching and seems to have made it very clear that what was being presented was the Catholic viewpoint (hence the name, “Introduction to Catholicism,” and that the students were not required to agree, but they were required to understand it.
And although other viewpoints are, strictly speaking, outside the purview of the course, Dr. Howell seems to have at least spared a thought for them, as you can see in the very e-mail which generated this controversy and which explains a utilitarian standpoint on homosexuality, as well as the Catholic one.
Frankly if you were not interested in a serious presentation of Catholicism and were looking instead for a general survey of all sorts of various religious beliefs, then you probably should not have registered for a course called “Introduction to Catholicism.”
Gregory K. Laughlin
July 13th, 2010 | 4:22 pm
In response to the UIUC student who took Dr. Howell’s course, I would admit that none of us were in the course and you were, so you have a much better ability to have observed all the dynamics than we do.
On the other hand, many of Dr. Howell’s students and former students support him and, according to news accounts of this matter, “Howell was recognized by the religion department in 2008 and 2009 for being rated an excellent teacher by students.”
Apparently, not everyone shares you view of Dr. Howell’s teaching style. I say that not to impugn your views, but to merely assert that they are not universally held by all you have been students of Dr. Howell.
I’m not a Catholic, by the way.
July 13th, 2010 | 6:29 pm
That horse has left the barn because even tenured professors are bland and disengaged in this way.
The real problem with tenure is that it is naturally the biggest attraction to those who are most afraid of being punished for what they say.
Jeffrey L Miller
July 13th, 2010 | 6:31 pm
Of course tenure would also protect dissidents from not being fired.
July 13th, 2010 | 6:42 pm
It seems to be a case of rhetorical games.
Dr. Howell seems to be in trouble because he assumed that he could speak assertively- assertive speech is no longer tolerated in “polite society” unless the assertion reinforces relativistic deconstruction.
A professor shouldn’t be obligated to pay lip service to beliefs that they do not hold, just as a student shouldn’t be forced to agree with the professor’s view.
Whether the “debate” is over evolution or political bias- our society is becoming too obsessed with erasing the lines between public and private speech and we are worse off. What used to be assumed (if X speaks about Y, he is speaking for himself and I can choose to agree or disagree) has become politicized and militarized to the point where no one in a position of authority is allowed an expression of views or the very human need to speak as an individual with their own biases and view points and subjective experiences.
We are doing harm to communication and it’s only going to get worse from here.
Eugenio Zapollini
July 13th, 2010 | 7:30 pm
Howell’s teaching of Catholicism, like many feminist and postmodern pedagogical “interventions,” is a sign of the ideological politicization of the classroom. A competent scholar of religion who is non-Catholic is able to teach a course on Catholicism, just as a Catholic scholar with the appropriate competence is able to teach a course on Islam or any other religion, or even on the history and arguments of atheism. It is routine for scholars to teach courses on beliefs or practices they do not share. When someone teaches a course which aims to inform students about a religion (or ideology) the teacher does practice, the same kind of objectivity in presenting the material is possible and usually appreciated by students. That is one place where Howell (and countless feminists and marxists) failed. Leaving aside the incompetence of his presentation of Catholic and utilitarian viewpoints, he failed just in the way the student commentator has indicated: he presented what could only be taken by students as his personal opinion as if it were settled fact. He could have avoided this by prefacing a presentation of Catholic views with “The official teaching of the Church is X” or even (less accurately though) by saying “We Catholics believe X.” Framed in this way, the statements inform the students about what Catholicism holds and the students are thus in a position to learn something. Presented without such framing and, thus, as moral truths available to natural reason, the views he put forth will inevitably be taken as his personal opinion. When this happens, some students will feel they are learning nothing and some will feel offended or coerced. Howell’s teaching is as bad as that of so-called “scholars” who insist on promoting marxist or feminist ideological agendas in the classroom. There, too, many students rightfully feel coerced, offended, and denied the opportunity to learn in an objective and scholarly environment.
UIUC Student with a Different Opinion
July 13th, 2010 | 8:53 pm
I took Dr. Howell’s class in Fall 2007. From what I’ve gathered, the class hasn’t changed much.
Contrary to “UIUC Student” I personally thought Dr. Howell was very open to hearing opposing sides of arguments, and whenever someone raised an issue he would always listen and validate their idea.
Dr. Howell would also try to clarify the Catholic position on whatever topic was on debate so that the questioning student might better understand the Church’s opinion. This was not to change the student’s opinion, but to educate the student on the Church’s official stance.
July 13th, 2010 | 10:21 pm
Why is the (LGBT) office needed?
From their web page:
“The campus environment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign mirrors the larger society in that it reflects and contains homophobic and/or heterosexist attitudes and beliefs which are oppressive and devaluing of LGBT people.
The LGBT Resource Center seeks to help in the efforts to address homophobia on the campus and to work to MAKE THE ENVIRONMENT SAFE, AFFIRMING, AND INCLUSIVE FOR ALL STUDENTS, FACULTY, STAFF, and LGBT students, faculty, and staff in particular. ”
They made it so ***safe***, ***affirming***, and ***inclusive*** for ALL STAFF that they had to have Howell inclusively fired.
Orwellian indeed.
(and an *anonymous* letter stabbing him in the back? vile, Stasi-like)
July 14th, 2010 | 12:04 pm
Contrary to the suggestion in the quotation, the good Prof. Howell will not find any protections from the principle of academic freedom. Indeed, this principle found its contemporary renaissance in cases lodged against religiously affiliated colleges that disciplined aberrant faculty members. It is a tool used not only to suppress the institutional expression of religion in colleges, it further views all religious and moral claims as matters of mere opinion. Thus it can also be used to punish professors in secular schools who express religious belief as anything more than a personal opinion—this is the sin of Dr Howell that he committed when he said that he not only believed the Catholic position on homosexuality, but that it was objectively true. In a class on religion and morals, no such claim of objectivity can find protection under the principle of Academic Freedom.
Nor is Dr Howell likely to find any moral support coming from the administrators of the major catholic colleges, such as Notre Dame, all of whom agree with the principle of academic freedom. Recall the Land O’Lakes declaration (1967) authored by then president of Notre Dame, T. Hesburgh, signed by all the big-name catholic educators of that time. The declaration stated precisely this point that religious doctrine is fundamentally opposed to the idea of free inquiry, and that free inquiry is the purpose of all higher education. “To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” The natural law doctrine on sexual behavior would certainly fall under the purview of “authority of whatever kind.”
Dr Howell has become another Christian casualty of the authoritarian “academic community itself.” My prayers are with him.
July 14th, 2010 | 5:27 pm
I am a former student and former colleague of Ken’s in Religious Studies, and I consider him a close friend. I likewise have great esteem for the other Religious Studies faculty at the U of I, some of whom I had as a student. You can therefore take the following for what you will.
Ken Howell does believe what he teaches, and is even excited to teach it. This indeed where he first “goes wrong,” from a certain (mistaken) point of view. Is he “objective” in the classroom? Not if being objective means utter detachment from whether students truly confront the subject matter and appreciate its bearing on society. In any case, Ken is about as “objective” as one can pretend to be, based on my observation. He allows for arguments contrary to his own, but he does not hesitate to point out the weaknesses of arguments presented by a student on either side of the aisle on this issue. He is a man of God and to my mind an incredibly tolerant individual. I can see how a student might mistake his zealous arguments for a personal attack. However, as an academic I frequently see this inability of individuals to distinguish rational argumentation from personal attacks. Ken’s work is so fundamental because he makes this distinction and tries to help students learn to make it as well. Is this work of his perhaps even more vital than his teaching regarding natural law?
As many of us probably recognize, this issue has numerous layers (academic freedom, the ability of individuals to virtuously engage in dialogue, homosexuality itself, etc.) Among the many questions and concerns I have right now on this topic, I’d like to continue considering how to foster authentic academic dialogue in the classroom–and to ensure that third parties don’t infringe on this merely because their sensibilities have been offended. I suppose Ken’s possible suit is a great starting point. I think it would be a travesty for our country to go the way Canada is apparently going, as mentioned above.
Paul H
July 14th, 2010 | 7:43 pm
Dr. Howell appeared on Kresta in the Afternoon on Ave Maria Radio today. It was a very informative interview, though it would have been helpful to get the university’s side of the story too.
Here is the link to the mp3 for anyone who is interested:
Retrieved July 15, 2010 from

Fired For Being Catholic?
Monday, July 12, 2010, 12:31 PM
Meghan Duke
Here’s the latest development in the ongoing story of Dr. Kenneth Howell, the former adjunct professor at the University of Illinois, who recently lost his job for teaching his students the Catholic Church’s position on homosexual acts in an introductory course on Catholicism.
FIRST THINGS has obtained a letter sent today by the Alliance Defense Fund to the University of Illinois on Dr. Howell’s behalf. ADF has charged the university with violating Dr. Howell’s First Amendment right, citing numerous cases where the Supreme Court has upheld the right and emphasized the value of university professor’s freedom to debate and share ideas. Read the letter here.

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