Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fired for Being Catholic? Report and Comments from Inside Higher Education

Teaching or Preaching?
July 15, 2010
The headline on the press release sure sounds like this is a case to be outraged over: "Ill. prof. fired for teaching about Catholic beliefs in class on Catholicism," says the announcement from the Alliance Defense Fund. Many newspapers articles ran variations of that headline -- "University of Illinois Instructor Fired Over Catholic Beliefs," read one. Framed that way -- and plenty of people think that's exactly how it should be framed -- it's not surprising that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has taken a lot of heat for telling Kenneth Howell, an adjunct, that he is no longer wanted to teach a course on Roman Catholicism, his faith.
Others, however, say Howell's conduct was problematic, and raises issues either of church-state separation or of intolerance of gay people. While public universities have long taught about religion, some say that a professor at a state institution should not be advocating for a particular faith's views, even in the context of a course on religion. And some say that, regardless of whether the university was right to stop offering him courses, it was appropriate for the department to be alarmed by Howell's characterizations of gay people. A faculty committee at Illinois is now studying whether Howell's academic freedom was violated.
The dispute involves different kinds of tolerance: for religious views that may not be popular at secular institutions, for gay people, and for faculty members who don't want their every word dissected by potential critics.
And the situation is but the latest to involve an adjunct's academic freedom. Most observers of what's going on in Illinois believe that the debate would be very different if a tenured professor had sent the e-mail message that got Howell in trouble.
But the case is hardly unique in involving adjuncts and controversy. In California, June Sheldon lost her job teaching science courses at San Jose City College after a student complained about Sheldon's discussion, in a class on heredity, of the causes of homosexuality. Sheldon was talking about the "nature vs. nurture" debate with regard to why some people are gay, and students complained that her comments suggested that she did not believe anyone could be born a lesbian, and that the way she endorsed the "nurture" side of the debate was offensive. Sheldon disputes the statements that were attributed to her, and she is being backed in a lawsuit against the college by the Alliance Defense Fund, which is now backing Howell at Illinois. San Jose officials have said she was not assigned further courses because of questions about the appropriateness of what she was telling her students.
What the E-mail Said
In the Howell case at Illinois, the dispute centers on an e-mail message he sent students, so there is less of a debate over what was said (although plenty of debate over its meaning). In the e-mail, published by a local newspaper, The News-Gazette, Howell wrote that since the final exam would have a question on utilitarianism, he wanted to help with an example, and he then used issues related to homosexuality to illustrate. The e-mail is key to the case because Howell was told he would no longer be teaching after a friend of a student in the course sent a copy of the e-mail, along with a complaint, to faculty members.
The complaint stated that the e-mail is part of a pattern. "It sickens me to know that hard-working Illinoisans are funding the salary of a man who does nothing but try to indoctrinate students and perpetuate stereotypes. Once again, this is a public university and should thus have no religious affiliation. Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. 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," the complaint states.
In the e-mail in question, Howell explored how simplistic analysis could lead to poor decisions about sex. For instance, he said that to say that sex is not a problem as long as it is consensual could result in acts that aren't in fact "morally okay." He wrote: "If two men consent to engage in sexual acts, according to utilitarianism, such an act would be morally okay. But notice too that if a 10 year old agrees to a sexual act with a 40 year old, such an act would also be moral if even it is illegal under the current law. Notice too that our concern is with morality, not law. So by the consent criterion, we would have to admit certain cases as moral which we presently would not approve of.
"The case of the 10 and 40 year olds might be excluded by adding a modification like 'informed consent.' Then as long as both parties agree with sufficient knowledge, the act would be morally okay. A little reflection would show, I think, that 'informed consent' might be more difficult to apply in practice than in theory. But another problem would be where to draw the line between moral and immoral acts using only informed consent. For example, if a dog consents to engage in a sexual act with its human master, such an act would also be moral according to the consent criterion. If this impresses you as far-fetched, the point is not whether it might occur but by what criterion we could say that it is wrong. I don't think that it would be wrong according to the consent criterion."
Then, citing Natural Moral Law, he focused on his view of gay sexuality. "To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the 'woman' while the other acts as the 'man.' In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don't want to be too graphic so I won't go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body."
He closed the e-mail by saying: "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. As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends upon religion. Catholics don't arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality."
The Academic Freedom Issue
Based on the e-mail, he was told that he would not be asked to teach again -- even though he has a record of positive teaching evaluations. As soon as the issue went public, Howell received strong support from a variety of groups.
Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, which frequently defends the rights of religious students or professors and has written to the university on Howell's behalf, said that the case raises key issues of academic freedom. He said that academics who question Howell's rights to send students such an e-mail "are creating a precedent that will come back to haunt them if anonymous students are allowed to complain about professors."
"The bigger picture problem is that this is teaching students -- the next generation of American leaders -- that you don't respond to opinions you disagree with with more debate, but by feeling offended and then complaining to some school authority so that the person is disciplined in some manner and censored," Lorence said. "We are teaching students they can have an environment cleansed of opinions that they disapprove. That's shocking."
While the Alliance Defense Fund is sympathetic to Howell's views, some of those backing the now-out-of-work adjunct are decidedly not. Claire Potter, a historian at Wesleyan University, writes frequently on her blog Tenured Radical as a scholar and a lesbian about issues of bias. She has questioned the criticism of Howell. In a blog post about the controversy, she noted that she teaches material dealing with religion and sexuality -- material that has the potential to offend some students -- and said that some have complained about her using a similar phrase ("hate speech") to one used by critics of Howell at Illinois.
"Don't get me wrong: the point of this post is not some narcissistic desire to demonstrate how super-tolerant I am of homophobic, right-wing theology," Potter wrote. "My question is: do we think it is OK to do unto others as they would do unto us? Do we guarantee academic freedom for some people and not others? Most important, to avoid public controversy of all kinds, is higher ed simply going to give students permission to shut out things they find offensive as if they live in an entirely different country from the people they disagree with? Worse, should we not begin to talk about how students -- in their teaching evaluations and in complaints to the administration -- are now routinely urging that teachers be fired who do not provide suitable validation for their students' view?"
Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, agreed. He called Howell's views "kooky and despicable, but I'm still inclined to protect his rights."
Church and State
The Alliance Defense Fund cited in its letter to Illinois numerous legal cases that grant faculty members at public universities broad First Amendment protection to teach their courses without fear that unpopular views will get them fired. Nelson cited AAUP policies as well.
But one issue at play is whether -- in teaching about religion at a public college or university -- a professor has a specific obligation to, as several in the debate have said, "teach, not preach." In other words, to be concerned about Howell you need not believe that professors have no right to express their views in class, but you might think that while it's fine to espouse neoconservative foreign policy or postmodern literary theory, it's not fine to push much of anything on religion.
Ayesha N. Khan, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that those backing Howell "are wrong about the law" and said of the Illinois officials who told Howell he couldn't teach again that they made "the only reasonable choice because the teacher has no First Amendment right to engage in that kind of speech." When Howell and his backers say that he should be protected because he was just espousing his Catholic beliefs, they show that he crossed a line, she said. "Certainly professors can teach about religion, they can tell you what the Catholic Church has to say about certain matters, including about homosexuality, but what they can't do is advocate. You can teach but you can't preach," she said.
Khan noted that even as court after court has granted wide freedom of speech rights to public college and university faculty members, limits have been set about promoting religion. She cited three U.S. appeals court decisions: Edwards v. California University of Pennsylvania, which in 1998 upheld a public university's right to tell a professor that he could not inject religious materials into his courses on educational media (a decision written, before he was elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court, by Judge Samuel Alito); Bishop v. Aronov, which in 1991 upheld the right of a public university to bar an exercise physiology professor from sharing views on religion in class; and Piggee v. Carl Sandburg College, in which in 2006 upheld the right of a community college not to rehire an adjunct in cosmetology who gave anti-gay pamphlets based on her religious beliefs to a gay student.
A key difference between all three of those cases and the one at Illinois is that the courses involved were not about religion -- and so the issue of relevance came into play. But Khan said that the real commonality of those decisions with the Illinois situation is that courts believe that religious issues are different from other expression when it comes to public institutions.
The anonymous blogger Lesboprof also raised church-state issues in a post this week in which she noted that she normally finds herself in agreement with people like Cary Nelson and Tenured Radical on academic freedom issues. But she found herself, upon reading Howell's e-mail and its closing charge to students, with questions. "Aren't there valid arguments to say that Howell was not just expressing his opinion ('This is what I believe') but proselytizing? Can we hold the instructor to a different standard in the classroom than he holds in his role at the Newman Center?," referring to the Catholic center at the campus. She also asked whether Howell should "get a pass on saying anti-gay things repeatedly because he [is] articulating his personal Catholic faith?"
Further, Lesboprof questioned the idea that a university exists to have someone simply offer up the views of a religion. She recounted her frustration with a presentation on Islam by a Muslim woman at an academic conference who did not engage in discussion, but simply suggested that "real" Muslims would respond to issues in certain ways. Similarly, Lesboprof asked, why is it good for a university to have someone simply outline views of some Catholic leaders? "While one might teach 'what the Church says' in church or bible study, aren't we asking for something more critical, more thoughtful, and more historically and intellectually grounded in our college classrooms?"
Still other scholars are suggesting that -- whatever the academic freedom issues involved -- Howell's e-mail offers grounds for not wanting him to teach. Brian Leiter, the John P. Wilson Professor of Law and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago, blogged: "I imagine any philosopher reading the e-mail can see a legitimate reason for terminating Howell's contract, namely, that his characterization of utilitarianism and the quality of reasoning and argument are incompetent."
Adjunct Rights (or Lack Thereof)
Comparing those appeals court cases also points to another issue raised by Howell's situation. As the court records detail, when tenured professors are accused of conduct that may raise church-state issues, they get visits or memos from administrators, chances to talk about the situation and perhaps disciplinary hearings. Adjuncts tend to simply not get rehired.
Matt Williams, vice president of the New Faculty Majority, a national group promoting adjunct interests, said that he didn't know the details of the complaints against Howell, but that he was concerned about the lack of due process. "The contingent faculty member has to be afforded due process, a chance to offer facts," he said. When that doesn't happen, and a faculty member is simply not rehired, "it really invites abuses" in that adjuncts can be unfairly denied employment.
Nelson of the AAUP said that he also viewed non-renewals of this sort as dubious. While administrators make the point that these adjuncts aren't being fired, Nelson said that "to the employee, the impact is the same." They lose the courses and the income.
The AAUP believes, he said, that any time an instructor is being judged based on teaching or other professional duties, a faculty committee should be doing the judging, with the instructor having the chance to present evidence under clear procedures. That should be the same, he said, for an adjunct or a tenured faculty member.
Nelson said that an open process might also yield solutions other than ending Howell's teaching career at Illinois. The campus has no shortage, he said, "of people disputing Howell's views" and that a department concerned abut those views might look to provide challenges in various ways -- lectures, other courses and so forth. "What's better for a student? To in a variety of learning environments hear these positions and the consequences of these positions advocated with passion and commitment or to hear them all presented with a style of even-handedness? I would rather hear them advocated strenuously."
Ann H. Franke, a lawyer who consults with many colleges on legal and other issues, said that the Howell case raises many issues related to the way colleges treat adjuncts. "A public institution effectively can fire an adjunct for no reason, but you can't fire an adjunct for a wrong reason," she said, referring to decisions on whether to renew a contract.
"A right reason to fire an adjunct would be that she refused to use the textbook required in a multi-section course. Another right reason would be that he was supposed to be teaching French, but he mostly talked about his Thursday night poker games," she said.
Whether disagreeing with an approach to a course was a valid reason could depend legally on a number of factors, she said. For instance, if the norm at a college is that people are hired year after year, there can be "an expectation" of renewal, barring a significant reason. At a college where renewals aren't the norm, they can't be said to be expected, she said.
Franke stressed that even if adjuncts don't have the same legal rights as tenured professors, they deserve real protection. "Adjunct faculty are teachers and they need academic freedom in the classroom -- so they are not just looking over their shoulders and mouthing the script somebody gives them to teach," she said. "That's not what a college classroom is about."
There is also, she noted, a middle ground between ignoring a complaint like the one filed about Howell and simply not renewing his contract. "When a department chair hears news of plausible concerns about any professor's classroom conduct, it's appropriate for the department chair to go to the individual and say 'Here's what I'm hearing. I'd like to talk to you about it.' I think it does a service to the institution and the individual and it doesn't need to be contentious," she said.
She said she would suggest in such discussions "reframing the objectionable statement" and substituting race or religion or gender or age for whatever group is being discussed. She said that it is possible to discuss these issues in ways that may allow a faculty member to continue to teach with freedom, but to be aware of student reactions.
Franke also said that she would urge those assessing such situation to look not only at the e-mail. "Could the e-mail have been better written? Probably so. But perfection is not, and should not be, the standard," she said. What would she like to know? Her questions point at a key part of the dispute, since the person who filed the complaint about Howell answered them in one way and his defenders do so in another way. Franke would ask: "Did Professor Howell respect different points of view that his students might take? They would be obliged to learn the course material. Beyond that, did he allow them, even encourage them, to argue with his views?"
— Scott Jaschik

Comments on Teaching or Preaching?
• Free speech under attack in colleges and universities.
• Posted by Jim McGovern , Retired College Math Professor at George Brown College Toronto Ontario Canada on July 15, 2010 at 5:15am EDT
• Professor Howell was teaching a course on Catholic doctrine. A student, not in his class, doesn't like the Catholic Church's teaching on same sex marriage and gets the professor fired ... without any chance for the professor to defend himself. I would have to assume Catholic teaching on adultery and divorce would have the same result. Whatever happened to free speech and the idea that I might not like what you say, but I will defend your right to say it. The small minds at this university need to grow up and act as adults.
• I'm with Leiter
• Posted by JNC on July 15, 2010 at 5:30am EDT
• The best reason not to rehire Howell is that he's a horrendously weak thinker. His email message is filled with gross generalizations, leaps of logic, mischaracterizations, only slightly veiled ad hominem attacks on gays, egregiously homophobic slippery slope arguments that do not hold up to scrutiny (a dog consenting to sex?), and a clear misunderstanding of basic concepts (utilitarianism, nature, gender, sex). He labels gender roles natural (sex is natural, gender is learned). Similarly, he confuses what is traditional with what is natural. While he says he wants the students to respond based on research into homosexuality, he clearly is unfamiliar with the empirical research that exists on the subject, because it completely refutes what he says. He focuses on one weak argument for same-sex marriage (empathy with known gays), while ignoring all the strong arguments for it (plus the fact that animosity to gays is the main reason in opposing same-sex marriage). He shows an incredible lack of historical knowledge about sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. He should not be retained because his thinking is mush.
• students getting faculty fired
• Posted by sb , Prof/Economics at public liberal arts on July 15, 2010 at 7:45am EDT
• OK there are many reasons a faculty person, adjunct, tenure track, or even tenured might have their continued employment questioned, or in extreme cases terminated (excluding issues of financial constraints or change in program, etc. which may well justify termination/non-reemployment). Student complaints over being offended by a point of view is not one that should qualify beyond a "trigger" to investigate based on general student complaints in large numbers over a period of time (everyone has a bad day) and in different class or lab / studio settings. Peer review, observation, etc. must be part of any such decision. Differences of opinion are not sufficient to remove a person from the classroom. Personality conflicts that are well within the range of normal disagreement, civil discourse are not sufficient reasons - blunt as they can be in an academic setting. Students finding a topic, argument, issue too challenging for their emotional or intellectual comfort zone is not sufficient. Pushing student exposure to alternative perspectives is to be rewarded if it leads to broader and deeper understanding (not necessarily acceptance) of a topic, argument, issue, etc. On sensitive / difficult issues faculty should warn students of the nature of the issue, provide support for those who find it difficult, as they might in advanced organic chemistry, Social and philosophical issues that are known to be difficult and sensitive should be handled without faculty bias no matter the intellectual setting. Administrators who knee jerk over student comments, particularly administrators who only look (seek) negative student reactions upon which to base a decision are the ones that should find alternative venues. Student popularity, happiness, lack of intellectual stress, personality politics, muddled second or third hand information, differences in personal philosophy or opinion do not qualify as justification for such personnel decisions. Most of us reading this report do not have specific confirmed data upon which to register an informed opinion re the specific cases. Thus we have no basis to suggest the individuals did or did not create an effective appropriate learning experience in their classrooms and should or should not have been retained. (though Howell's e-mail is less than a stellar piece of work - it is only one observation seemingly edited and not the entire syllabus of the course) All of us who read the report should be concerned about the criteria and process leading to a dismissal, censure, or non-retention in an institution of higher learning.
• Posted by OhioTeach on July 15, 2010 at 7:45am EDT
• That he is adjunct faculty complicates the situation in ways additional to those outlined in the article: fulltime faculty undergo a rigorous process of scrutiny both before they are hired and routinely through their career arcs. Contingent faculty are often hired after a cursory glance at a letter and cv byt a chair desparate to staff sections and kept on primarily because of their willingess to teach at unpopular times. Many--most--adjunct faculty are terrific teachers and really know their stuff, or at least know how to separate personal views from course content. But some are not good teachers (evaluations are not useful in determining this) and do not know their stuff. Yes, the chair should have called him in and spoken with him about it. But it may be that this is only the most recent in a history of complaints about the instructor foisting his views on a powerless minority of students taking the course.
• Hearing Required
• Posted by Cary Nelson , president at AAUP on July 15, 2010 at 7:45am EDT
• As I pointed out in my conversation with IHE, when a faculty member claims that he or she has been fired or nonrenewed for reasons that violate academic freedom, he or she is entitled to a hearing before a committee of his or her peers. That right applies to all faculty, whether they are tenured or not, full-time or part-time.
• Students as customers
• Posted by Shoshana Keller , Professor of History at Hamilton College on July 15, 2010 at 8:45am EDT
• Another aspect of this case I find deeply disturbing is that the student who filed the complaint was not enrolled in the class. Why didn't that stop the process immediately? Is Illinois now treating students as consumers who must be kept happy at any cost? While I agree that Howell phrased his e-mail extremely poorly, and it would be legitimate to fire him for lousy reasoning, how is it than an anonymous, second-hand denunciation can cost an adjunct his job?
• Faith & Reason
• Posted by Thomas Lawrence Long , School of Nursing at University of Connecticut on July 15, 2010 at 9:45am EDT
• First, three disclaimers. I am a U Illinois alumnus (MA English, 1977) and a former Roman Catholic priest (MA Theology, Catholic University of America, 1981). I am also a gay man.
A secular public university can reasonably offer courses in religious traditions, including courses that study the traditions' moral discourses. Roman Catholicism has had and continues to have signficiant historical influence, much of it salutary (e.g. American Catholicism's support of organized labor). Students with a variety of philosophical or spiritual commitments (or not at all) may benefit from a scholarly exploration of this religious tradition.
However, Dr. Howell's email (oh, damn you, email, for what you have made us say!) raised for me several concerns. First, the introduction of the issue of sex with a minor (para. 7) in the context of a discussion of male homosexuality is a lighted match in a room full of gasoline cans. It is one of the oldest libels, and one currently being used in Uganda to urge passage of anti-gay legislation.
Second, Dr. Howell appears to have little or no knowledge of gay male relationships. He opines, "To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the 'woman' while the other acts as the 'man.'" Huh!?! I don't even know how to begin to respond to that bit of ignorance.
Third, Dr. Howell's sole medical source("a physician has told me that these [sexual] acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men") is similarly ignorant about the range of sexual behavior in gay relationships. In the age of AIDS it also constitutes another frequent slander. It also prompts one to wonder, though Howell doesn't seem to explore it, might lesbian sexual intimacies be permitted under the utilitarian critique since they do not present these supposed risks?
So the email is poorly written, sloppily thought, and poorly informed.
Maybe he can claim that it was all a joke: He was just trying to set up a weak straw argument that he wanted his students to respond to.
• Teachin or Preaching
• Posted by Kjenkins , Prof. on July 15, 2010 at 10:00am EDT
• To the idea that he should be fired because his teaching isn't up to par or his thinking is mushy. Well, I guess about 1/3 of all professors might fit that description at some time. Should they all be fired?
• I agree with JNC - 'Thinking is mush'
• Posted by E at BMCC-CUNY on July 15, 2010 at 10:00am EDT
• I would add that we should be careful as to assuming exactly why said individual was fired. The student brought the adjunct's e-mail to the attention of the administration and faculty. That doesn't mean that the reason they let him go was the same as what upset the student.
In addition to the adjunct's seriously flawed argumentation, I found the way he concluded his e-mail to his students somewhat disturbing. He seemed to suggest that the measure of the soundness of students' argumentation in response would be how closely their conclusions approximated his own. I'm a bit nervous about "scholars" who so readily declare the obvious logic of their own thinking, particularly when the argument in question is so obviously and heavily flawed!
• Posted by indep , English at pace University on July 15, 2010 at 11:15am EDT
• There has beena pattern of student complaints leading to immediate firings of adjunct faculty, or other immediate removals of classroom instructors without prior discussion with administrators (tenured biology instructor removed from her class in the middle of the semester due to high failure rate among the students).
In this era of students as customers paradigm, perhaps the major factor contributing to this trend may be administrators' fear of litigation, since it has become quite acceptable to sue for any minor form of dissatisfaction in our politically correct and easily offended society.
• The First Amendment issue
• Posted by Art Leonard , Professor of Law at NY Law School on July 15, 2010 at 11:45am EDT
• The Supreme Court's decision in Garcetti v. Cebalos casts some doubt on the degree of First Amendment protection that this professor might enjoy. In Garcetti, the Supreme Court said that public employees' speech in the context of performing their job is really government speech, and the government has a right to control it and to take action against employees whose speech is objectionable to the government in that context. Garcetti was a case involving a prosecuting attorney who made statements of which his boss disapproved, and incurred discipline. In "dicta" (non-binding comments because they related to an issue not before the Court), the Supreme Court's majority opinion suggested that its holding might not apply fully in the context of higher education where academic freedom concerns are significant.
Lower federal courts have been divided on this since Garcetti in cases involving discipline against public university teachers for classroom statements deemed unacceptable by academic administrators. These cases tend to involve adjunct faculty who find their contracts not renewed after students complain about their statements, usually statements related to sexuality. Some lower federal courts, citing the "dicta" in Garcetti, find First Amendment protection. Others, noting that the comment is just "dicta" and not part of the holding, apply Garcetti to deny First Amendment protection. In one recent case involving a librarian who claimed to have been constructively discharged due to adverse faculty reaction to his recommendation of a book with homophobic content for assignment to entering college students, the court found that grounds were insufficient to find constructive discharge, and on the First Amendment point noted that the plaintiff was not a professor, so it was doubtful that he could appeal to "academic freedom" concerns to qualify for any exception to the Garcetti rule. His statements were not made in the course of instructing students or producing scholarship, core First Amendment activities implicating the First Amendment if there is an academic freedom exception under Garcetti.
In this situation from Illinois, the email in question was sent to students in connection with their upcoming exam, and so would undoubtedly be seen as speech in the context of the instructional process, and so within the scope of traditional academic freedom concerns.
I think it's important for one of these cases to get to the Supreme Court so we can get some clarification about whether there is, in fact, an "academic freedom" exception to Garcetti, and, if so, how broad it is. On the merits of the situation at Illinois, as a gay academic who teaches sexuality law and finds the moralistic arguments made against gay rights to be quite offensive, I nonetheless feel that it was inappropriate for administrators to non-renew this instructor without first undertaking a careful inquiry into whether he had crossed some line from "teaching to preaching" and, if so, how serious the transgression was. It is certainly legitimate for a state university to offer a course about religious thought, and for instructors to describe religious doctrine as part of such a course. An interesting point to discuss is whether it is better or worse for instructors to reveal their personal views about controversial issues? Such transparency might be useful to students in deciding how to evaluate what their instructors say.
• Worse than Mush
• Posted by cts on July 15, 2010 at 12:15pm EDT
• There is much to be concerned about in this case. Nelson is certainly correct that the adjunct should have a hearing, and UofI is reviewing the non-rehiring.
But anyone who is trained in ethics - or philosophy in general - ought to be alarmed by the completely dreadful representation of utilitarianism and consent theories [ which are not the same ]. In other words, this man does not know the basics for teaching ethics. That his reasoning and modeling of reasoning are also appallingly poor seals the indictment.
Not rehired for being Catholic or explaining his own views as a Catholic? No. Not rehired because he is incompetent? Yes.
• This guy shouldn't have been fired
• Posted by H. E. Baber , Professor, Philosophy at University of San Diego on July 15, 2010 at 12:15pm EDT
• Jeez, how careful does one have to be? I don't see why I, teaching an ethics class or in some other academic context where hot-button issues are on the table cannot express my opinions and give arguments for them.
What I cannot do is assess student work on the basis of agreement with my views. That is what seems to me the real issue.
There's always discussion about whether we should come clean about our real views on the controversial issues we discuss. My view is that I do, and I advocate views that are controversial, e.g. I support affirmative action with hard quotas and the legalization of all recreational drugs. But I make the strongest case that I can for opposing views and students know--once they get back their graded papers--that I don't reward them for agreeing with me.
So what's the problem with "preaching"--so long as there are no adverse consequences for students in terms of their grades. If it could have been shown that this adjunct was rewarding or punishing students according to whether they agreed with his views, that's cause for a hearing and, IMHO dismissal. If he just shoots off his mouth about his views about homosexuality, so what?
• Selective Outrage
• Posted by mb on July 15, 2010 at 1:00pm EDT
• I see nothing in the email that Howell wrote that is any less academically rigorous or more offensive than much/most of what comes from women's studies and other feminist-leaning professors and lecturers when they discuss men and masculinity, so I think this is a case of selective outrage.
When I was an undergrad and grad student at several Tier 1 public universities, feminists in women's studies and other departments engaged in all manner of (to use the verbiage of JNC) "gross generalizations, leaps of logic, mischaracterizations, only slightly veiled ad hominem attacks" against men and traditional masculinity, thereby potentially offending the vast majority of men on campus. This occurred in classes as widespread as the aforementioned women's studies courses, psychology, english, music and even the biological sciences (in the context of "ecofeminism"). And the reasoning and logic of those professors and lecturers were every bit as mushy and inept as those in Howell's email. Yet not once was any action taken, nor do I think there should have been. And while I have serious questions regarding the utility of women's studies and other sorts of feminist proselytizing, I support their right to teach what they wish - if students wish to avail themselves to it, then that's their business.
And as others have already discussed, there is also the very serious and obvious problem associated with an anonymous student who is not even enrolled in the class making the complaint that got Howell fired.
The administrators at UI Champagne-Urbana should be ashamed of themselves.
• Sometimes simplicity is the best course
• Posted by Michael on July 15, 2010 at 1:45pm EDT
• To my mind, the most cogent argument is Brian Leiter's: the quality of Howell's reasoning and argumentation is incompetent--at best. In addition, it is also bullying. He anticipates his students' reaction to his views and attempts to silence it in advance, implying that unless one has done "extensive research" on homosexuality and is cognizant of the history of moral thought--neither of which Howell appears to be or have done--one is not ready to make judgments. This is sophomoric at best; and the added comment on the harmfulness of anal intercourse is not only stupid (ONE physician told me--come on!) but insulting and, yes, hateful. How can one be so insensitive to the lived experience of some of one's students? How could a gay student not experience this as hate speech?
I do understand that there are serious issues of due process, the rights of contingent faculty, free speech, etc.; but I also know that the ability to give credence to all these points of view can be paralyzing. I also know that the function of freedom of speech these days seems to be simply to justify everyone's obligation to put up with speech that is ultimately intolerable and socially harmful--and that obligation is inconsistently applied. Though I disagree with much of what Ward Churchill said, there's no question that he suffered punishment for his speech; but who punishes Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, and the others? Who punishes Fred Phelps? (Why would any thinking society even characterize what he preaches as religion?)
Yes, there are complicated issues here, but Howell is obviously not the guy anyone wants teaching is a public university, especially if you're gay. Why not just take the easy and simple way out? UI has no legal obligation to renew his contract.
By the way, I attended a Catholic college and have worked for several Catholic colleges. I can't imagine that anyone at those institutions would want this guy either.
• much ado about email
• Posted by bradley bleck , English instructor at Spokane Falls CC on July 15, 2010 at 1:45pm EDT
• I don't know how much weight we should give to the "sloppy" thinking of the email. I'm not a philosopher but I write enough email to know that we can't hold it to the same formal standards we might an article submitted for review and publication. Must every email offering an example or explanation be so perfect as to not get us fired? I'm sure we could all dredge up an email or two from our past, from communications with students where we seek to explain something and shoot something off, that would paint us in a bad light. To uphold that is the primary indicator of our thinking ability, well, we're all in deep doo if that's the case. To fire someone for it, that too would be a gross over-generalization with regard to one's intellectual powers and teaching ability.
• Faith, Reason and Retention
• Posted by Anthony Husemann , Director of Graduate Studies at International College of the Cayman Islands on July 15, 2010 at 2:00pm EDT
• I have to say, the post from "Faith and reason" is well put. Deliberately picking a topic for discussion like beastiality, and tying the so-called debate on utilitarianism and homosexuality to it IS like tossing a match into a room full of gasoline. Even here in Cayman, where being gay isn't "legal", we strongly discourage faculty from preaching their personal views in the guise of debate.
But, in terms of retention, there is an issue. Professors at some State colleges virtually "preach" an anti-religion course, even if they are professors of Art History. Being gay is not only a right, it is more right than being straight, and no-one is allowed to get them fired for saying so. Even if students find it offensive. So what? Grow up. Deal with it. That seems to be how it is viewed.
However, today, even imply anti-gay sentiment and you get blasted. While it is absurd to attack gays, maybe just plain stupid, if you will, just as an attack on blacks or Native Americans would be, why does it carry more weight than an attack on say Christians or Jews? ANTI-religious views get a free pass in American public universities, but not the other way around. The protection of religious veiws and practices, for all the arguments to the contrary is, in fact enshrined in the Constitution, and especially when the course itslef is on one. But, why not pick a more neutral topic of debate for this discussion on utilitarian views of morality? Would've been more utilitarian to do so, I think.
In other words, yes, some things are just "dumb" and wrong to do. But, where do we academics draw the line on terminations for the same? Students can, and will, always complain. So, discipline or at least warn someone, then document failure to comply, then, if you must, terminate. That's just good HR practice. But the failure to retain a faculty member who did something academically reprehensible has wide, even wild, implications for the future of academe in America.
• Selective outrage?
• Posted by Penn on July 15, 2010 at 2:00pm EDT
• To mb:
Nothing was ever done to attack women's studies or gender studies? It is a favorite sport of the right. It's regular fodder for right wing radio and television. Plenty of left-wing professors have been booted from their colleges or denied tenure because their views did not correspond with right-wing political correctness, with ample media attention.
More to the point, Howell is teaching theology, which likes to think of itself as a branch of philosophy. If he cannot model proper philosophical argumentation and critical thinking skills, it is indeed cause for concern.
• bad test case
• Posted by Jersey , Professor on July 15, 2010 at 2:30pm EDT
• If there are organizations thinking that Howell's case presents the perfect test case for academic freedom for contingent faculty, they would be wise to rethink their approach. Just as in Civil Rights struggle, you have to pick your cases carefully. Academic Freedom for contingent faculty is an important cause--too important to be jeopardized by such a bad test case. That won't stop the right from making much ado here, but it should make those actually interested in a valid challenge to Garcetti stop and think whether support, legal or otherwise, for this incompetent instructor will weaken the case for genuine and necessary academic freedom in the long run.
• Posted by mb on July 15, 2010 at 2:45pm EDT
• @Penn: Got any verifiable examples for your statement "Plenty of left-wing professors have been booted from their colleges or denied tenure because their views did not correspond with right-wing political correctness, with ample media attention"? Except for perhaps Ward Churchill (who had a lot of other problems beside his political views) I've never encountered it.
As for right wing radio, etc., that's a Red Herring. Who cares what those people say? For that matter, who cares what the folks on MSNBC, Air America, etc., say? Certainly not college or university administrators, at least any who are worth their salt. I would think that basing such decisions on the opinions of Beck, et al., would be cause for termination of said administrator.
• Note hate speech
• Posted by Assistant Professor on July 15, 2010 at 3:00pm EDT
• "How can one be so insensitive to the lived experience of some of one's students? How could a gay student not experience this as hate speech?"
This is a good example of why this issue is concerning. The above statement implies that any statement a professor makes that "is insensitive to the lived experience of some of one's students" qualifies as hate speech. Is that really the case? Is that really the standard we should be appealing to here? I teach classes in philosophy, in the course of which I have students who are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Republican, Democrat, atheist, male, female, etc. In a class that is treating controversial topics like an ethics course one would expect that some students will find themselves uncomfortable on certain topics. Are we to stop discussing controversial issues that do not fit with a particular student's (or society's) views about what is morally right whenever someone is offended? The above comment suggests that anytime a professor says something "insensitive" to a student they should be disciplined, or worse. I think it is wrong to describe the issue in these terms. I think the professor's claims in this case about homosexuality are indeed mistaken, but that is a separate issue from whether professors should be permitted to express a wide variety of views in the classroom.
• Reason, not outrage.
• Posted by Jeffrey Hall on July 15, 2010 at 4:00pm EDT
• Penn: " Plenty of left-wing professors have been booted from their colleges or denied tenure because their views did not correspond with right-wing political correctness, with ample media attention"
If there were "plenty" you'd have named them. In fact, can you name a single instance of anyone on the left who was fired for a single informal email answering student questions before an exam, when the complaint wasn't even brought by a student?
Censorship is not the preserve of the left or the right. But even a small sample of the cases at will confirm that it is overwhelmingly left-on-right censorship that threatens public discourse today. Academic freedom benefits everyone, and fighting this sort of petty intolerance makes all real scholars more free.
You must not be very sure of your ideas if a single dissenting adjunct at Urbana must be silenced for you to feel safe.
• Possible Double Standard?
• Posted by Econmike , Assoc. Prof on July 15, 2010 at 4:15pm EDT
• Does anyone on this discussion board believe for one minute that the university’s reaction would have been the same were this a course on the religious precepts of Islam? Genital mutilation, stoning of adulterers, hanging of homosexuals, honor killings by brothers and fathers of women who were raped, women not equal to men in a court of law… Would teaching of any of these lead to the dismissal of the instructor on the grounds of hate speech? Or would it result in the university assuring all that we must welcoming of all views, even those with which we disagree?
• Posted by Penn on July 15, 2010 at 4:15pm EDT

@mb In the case of Howell, we have a concrete, documented example of his faulty reasoning and argumentation. You respond with a vague anecdotal reference citing no specifics to verify that what you're saying happened actually happened. It seems odd that you would demand concrete evidence of someone else.

You claim that feminist professors made ad hominem attacks, etc. against men. I seriously have my doubts. That you do not think gender studies a legitimate discipline and that you not realize that gender studies and ethnic studies are among the most attacked fields in academia leads me to believe there's not a lot of objectivity in your view. If there were evidence to examine, I could be more certain, but my hunch is this is much ado about nothing on your part.
But here's a list to get you started on the purge of the left in academia: Ward Churchill, Norman Finkelstein, Assaf Oron, Clare Dalton, David Trubek...
• Posted by Penn on July 15, 2010 at 4:45pm EDT
• @Jeffrey Hall I did provide several names in response to mb's request. My mention of the left-wing professors denied tenure was not about the Howell incident. It was about mb's clearly erroneous contention that this is selective outrage on the part of the left and that left-wing faculty are allowed to express their opinions without incident. mb provided no evidence that his gender studies professors were actually doing the things he said they were doing, but I am guessing you don't have a problem with that. I did not censor anybody. All I said was that Howell has remarkably poor reasoning and argumentative skills for someone proclaiming to be teaching philosophy.
• Posted by mb on July 15, 2010 at 5:00pm EDT
• @Penn: You said: "You respond with a vague anecdotal reference citing no specifics to verify that what you're saying happened actually happened. It seems odd that you would demand concrete evidence of someone else." Strawman. I spoke to your assertion of discrimination against left-wing professors vis-a-vis providing evidence; I did not challenge Howell's lack of rigor in his writing. Indeed, I agreed that Howell's writing lacks logic and reasoning in the same way that feminist writings with respect to so-called "ecofeminism" are lacking in logic and reason.
You also said: "You claim that feminist professors made ad hominem attacks, etc. against men. I seriously have my doubts." Well you may have your doubts, but on my campus and elsewhere in the context of "Take Back the Night" events feminists have posted pictures of male students with the caption "Potential Rapist." That may not qualify as an ad hominem to you, but in my book it does.
Finally, your list is interesting, but as Jeffrey Hall points out the vast majority of documented cases are left-on-right censorship.
• Posted by Penn on July 15, 2010 at 7:00pm EDT
• @mb You claim (with no specifics, no names, no evidence, no documentation) that you had an anecdotal experience that no one else can verify, and I'm supposed to take you on your word. Never mind that your statements directly echo right-wing caricatures of academia, rather than what actually happens in academia. Well, I guess if you and Jeffrey say that there are all these documented cases of persecuted right-wing professors, it must be true. No evidence necessary. Don't bother actually producing these documents. The right-wing claims about academia being a bastion of "liberalism" are about as accurate as the claims that the mainstream media is "liberal." Condoleeza Rice was an academic. Real liberal there. Palin and Coulter get to speak on college campuses across the country, but heaven forbid Bill Ayers should be afforded that privilege.
PS: A photo of a generic male with the caption "potential rapist" is not an ad hominem attack. It is the case that sexual assault is one of the most prevalent crimes on college campuses. You're talking about a poster warning female college students that they should be careful. That does not mean all men are rapists.
• Posted by Penn on July 15, 2010 at 7:30pm EDT
• I forgot to mention in my previous post (assuming it gets published) that Take Back the Night is a student-run activity, hence your argument about it being faculty practicing hate speech is moot.
• A Disturbing Story
• Posted by Jonathan Cohen , Mathematics at DePaul University on July 15, 2010 at 7:30pm EDT
• This story is very disturbing. The University of Illinois has dismissed someone from teaching a course on Catholicism for explaining the Catholic Church's position on sexuality. That is like banning a calculus teacher from discussing derivatives and integrals. The Catholic Church believes that sexual activity is for the purpose of procreation. A lot of people may find the Church's view problematic but they need to take it up with the Church and not with someone who is explaining Catholicism. It seems to me that a serious classroom discussion of Catholicism might very well involve debate about the church view of masturbation, pre-marital sex, birth control, the celibacy of priests as well as its view of homosexuality. And it seems to me that students who differ from the Church on their teaching in these matters should be allowed and even encouraged to express such differences. But to dismiss someone for being a Catholic and attempting to explain the Church's position in a class on Catholicism is not only an injustice to the individual faculty member but calls into question the University of Illinois' claim to be an educational institution.
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