Faculty Committee Finds That Dr. Howell's Academic Due Process Rights Were Denied
Faithful readers of our blog will recall the case of Dr. Kenneth Howell at the University of Illinois. I have posted on his firing and subsequent rehiring here, here, here and here. Briefly, Dr. Howell taught a course on Catholicism at the University of Illinois under contract between the Newman Center at the University of Illinois and the University since 2001. Dr. Howell describes the events which led to his firing:
This past semester was unusual. In previous years, I had students who might have disagreed with the Church’s position but they did so respectfully and without incident. This semester (Spring 2010) I noticed the most vociferous reaction that I have ever had. It seemed out of proportion to all that I had known thus far. To help students understand better how this issue might be decided within competing moral systems, I sent them an email contrasting utilitarianism (in the populist sense) and natural moral law. If we take utilitarianism to be a kind of cost-benefit analysis, I tried to show them that under utilitarianism, homosexual acts would not be considered immoral whereas under natural moral law they would. This is because natural moral law, unlike utilitarianism, judges morality on the basis of the acts themselves.
After the semester was over, I was called into the office of Robert McKim, the chairman of the Department of Religion, who was in possession of this email. I was told that someone (I presume one of my students) sent this email to the Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Concerns at the University. It was apparently sent to administrators in the University of Illinois and then forwarded on to Professor McKim. I was told that I would no longer be able to teach in the Department of Religion.
Professor McKim and I discussed the contents of the email and he was quite insistent that my days of teaching in the department were over. I offered that it would be more just to ask me not to address the subject of homosexuality in my class. In fact, the other class I regularly taught (Modern Catholic Thought) never dealt with that subject at all. I also averred that to dismiss me for teaching the Catholic position in a class on Catholicism was a violation of academic freedom and my first amendment rights of free speech. This made no difference. After that conversation and a couple of emails, Professor McKim insisted that this decision to dismiss me stood firm.
The Newman Center and the Diocese of Peoria did not stand behind Howell initially, seeming to want to avoid a conflict with the University. Dr. Howell contacted the Alliance Defense Fund which contacted the University and threatened to file suit. Catholic bloggers raised a huge hue and cry about the firing. Eventually the firing decision was reversed, and Dr. Howell was re- hired to teach Introduction to Catholicism in the fall semester of this year. However, the contract between the Newman Center and the University of Illinois was ended, and Dr. Howell would simply teach the course as a regular adjunct professor of the University.
The faculty committee has finished its examination of the firing of Dr. Howell. Inside Education has obtained a leaked copy of the report, and a story on the report may be read here, along with a link to the report.
Alliance Defense Fund senior counsel David French has a look at the report here. Here are some of his observations with comments by me:
The good: You have to wade through a fairly classic example of obtuse academic prose to get there, but once you find the bottom line of the report, you’ll note that the committee agreed with Professor Howell in virtually every material respect. They note that he did not receive due process, they agree with him that adjunct professors should receive due process before they’re terminated, they agree with him that religion classes can be taught like other academic subjects (in other words, the professor can have a perspective), and — critically — they agree that students do not have a right not to be offended, even when teachers address sensitive subjects. Since Dr. Howell was terminated without due process simply for offending a student (not even in his class), the report offers near-complete vindication.
This of course was simply a recognition of reality. Any other result would have been an obvious attempt to ignore glaring irregularities in the firing of Dr. Howell.
The bad: I say “near-complete,” because it contains a section transparently dedicated to saving face for the university. Despite the fact that the university stated in writing that Professor Howell was terminating for violating its alleged “standards of inclusivity,” the committee suggested that the real reason for his termination was his department chair’s dissatisfaction with Professor Howell’s description of utilitarianism. The committee rightfully noted, however, that firing a professor for an inaccurate description of a political theory would require actual “collegial review” of his statements, “and no review was ever undertaken.”
The underlying defense by the university here — that an allegedly inaccurate description of utilitarianism in a single email could constitute a firing offense — is almost laughable. No, there’s no “almost” about it. It is laughable. During my time at Harvard Law School, I heard Christian theology described to me by multiple professors, and perhaps one or two got the major elements right. I’ve heard Vietnam War strategy outlined by English professors, climate science discussed by political scientists, and the true nature of Islam debated by — well — just about everyone. Is it really the university’s position that it can comb through professors’ emails to find the one or two paragraphs that a couple scholars disagree with, and then start firing people? Really? Well, if that’s the case, then the ground will soon be littered with the academic careers of secular leftists after their decades of grotesquely inaccurate descriptions of Christian orthodoxy.
I found this pretty ludicrous also. I spent seven years at the University of Illinois getting my BA and JD, and I have vivid memories of boneheaded statement after boneheaded statements made by professors in class. Get most of the professors wandering away from their prepared notes and the results were often not pretty.
The ugly: This whole affair has been ugly. I’ve seen quite a few academic abuses in my time, but firing a professor for teaching his subject then claiming he had to be excluded from his job in the name of “inclusivity?” Well, that fits in the academic freedom hall of shame. It’s understandable that the university — including the professors who initiated his termination — would be scrambling to cover themselves.
Ultimately, however, more than a little good has come out of Professor Howell’s ordeal. For the first time in my career, students mobilized to help save the career of a Christian professor, and his case has awakened many in the Catholic community to the reality of ideological and religious oppression on campus. Unlike many stories, this one has a happy ending (at least so far). Dr. Howell is back in the classroom, and academic freedom has been vindicated.
I concur. Catholicism faces raw bigotry against it in most of the groves of academia in this country. The firing of Dr. Howell was motivated by pure bigotry and nothing but. Catholics fought back, and that is the most important lesson from this affair: the necessity for Catholics to stand and fight when they receive bigoted treatment.
Go here to read the story in the News-Gazette, the local paper for Champaign-Urbana, on the report of the faculty committee.