Professor Fired for Catholic Beliefs?

The Fox News headline "University of Illinois Instructor Fired Over Catholic Beliefs" is grossly misleading.

A Fox News headline* blaring “University of Illinois Instructor Fired Over Catholic Beliefs” is grossly misleading.

The University of Illinois has fired an adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism after a student accused the instructor of engaging in hate speech by saying he agrees with the church’s teaching that homosexual sex is immoral.

The professor, Ken Howell of Champaign, said his firing violates his academic freedom. He also lost his job at an on-campus Catholic center.

Howell, who taught Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought, says he was fired at the end of the spring semester after sending an e-mail explaining some Catholic beliefs to his students preparing for an exam. “Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY,” he wrote in the e-mail. “In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”

An unidentified student sent an e-mail to religion department head Robert McKim on May 13, calling Howell’s e-mail “hate speech.” The student claimed to be a friend of the offended student. The writer said in the e-mail that his friend wanted to remain anonymous. “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.”

Howell said he was teaching his students about the Catholic understanding of natural moral law. “My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches,” Howell said in an interview with The News-Gazette in Champaign. “I have always made it very, very clear to my students they are never required to believe what I’m teaching and they’ll never be judged on that.”

Howell also said he makes clear to his students that he’s Catholic and that he believes the church views that he teaches.

[…]

In an e-mail to other school staff, Ann Mester, an associate dean at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said Howell’s e-mail justified his firing. “The e-mails sent by Dr. Howell violate university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us,” Mester wrote.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, said professors should be able to tell students their own views and even argue in favor of them, provided students can disagree without being penalized. “It’s part of intellectual life to advocate for points of view,” said Nelson, an emeritus English professor at the University of Illinois. “Hopefully when they go out in the world, they can emulate that. They can argue a case, and do it in a well-informed and articulate way, and can make a more productive contribution to our democracy that way.”

First off, I’m not sure that it’s possible for an adjunct teacher to be “fired.’  By definition, he’s not a permanent employee.   Nor was he terminated mid-term.  He was simply not offered another course because university administration felt his emails made it impossible for him to teach gay students.

Second, he’s not being let go because of his “beliefs” but because of his conduct.   If a professor believed blacks were inanely inferior to whites or that women should be at home having babies rather than attending college, he would be wise not to share said beliefs with his students in mass emails.

Now, as to the merits of the situation, my sympathies are with the AAUP.   Homosexual students taking a course in Catholic thought ought to come away understanding the church’s views on homosexuality, their origins, and have their own views challenged. I had plenty of professors along the way whose views greatly differed from my own and gained much in the give-and-take.

But Howell would have been on much firmer ground had he simply presented the arguments as those of the Catholic Church, not his own.  In this case, he wasn’t simply challenging the deeply held beliefs of some of his students — a perfectly valid and even laudable thing for a professor to do — but challenging their worthiness as human beings.   That’s going too far.

Additionally, I mostly disagree with PZ Myers, who thinks “it entirely reasonable to boot Kenneth Howell out of UI because he’s not very bright and doesn’t meet the intellectual standards I expect of UI professors.”

He begins with a view of the exchange more charitable than my own:

A letter that condemned students, that threatened students if they didn’t agree with his views, that discriminated against a segment of society, or that denied people full participation in the culture for their views or background or private practices…that would be hate speech. This letter, though, is a pedantic and polite explanation of the views of the professor and of the Catholic church and of his interpretation of utilitarianism, and in fact is careful to say that he isn’t condemning any individuals. We can’t endorse using this kind of discussion as an excuse to expel people from academia — we want professors and students to be able to communicate freely with one another, without fear of retaliation. I see no sign that the professor was discussing the matter in a way that disrespects any of his students.

And the student complaining was doing so poorly. The professor’s ideas made him uncomfortable. He disliked what he said. He thought the professor was insensitive.

Those are not good reasons. If a student is never made uncomfortable, that student is not getting an education.

But he then rips apart the intellectual quality of the ideas being offered in the email exchange, which are based on a combination of Catholic dogma, woeful ignorance about human sexuality, and sheer laziness.  That requires several paragraphs and defies excerpting.

I get a queasy with this, as professors frequently verge a bit too far out of their intellectual comfort zone, as Howell did.  That’s not a fireable offense.  But, as already noted, Howell isn’t technically being fired here.  (Although he did also lose an ancillary full-time job that required him to be eligible to teach.)

I’m also a bit leery of this:

Of course, part of the reason for his weird shortcomings is the fact that he’s a professor of religion who is spitting up Catholic dogma, and one big problem is that a respected major university is offering courses in Catholicism taught by its adherents as serious philosophy, rather than teaching it as cultural anthropology by someone who can maintain a little distance from its weird precepts.

I agree that courses of these type — indeed, all courses — ought be taught by subject matter experts with solid intellectual grounding.  I disagree, however, with the implication that someone with said training who also holds strong religious beliefs — and such people do exist, by the way — is intellectually unqualified to teach.

_______________________
*The story is from AP; it’s the Fox-supplied headline that I object to.   Alas, most of the headlines I’m seeing at this juncture are blog-supplied.  The non-editorial headlines seem to be along the lines of “Illinois Instructor Fired for ‘Hate Speech'” — which is also misleading.

FILED UNDER: Education, Religion
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jay Dubbs says:

    Fox News headline misleading? Isn’t that redundant?

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I took a course in Marxism from that same institution from a Professor who was an avowed Marxist, who communicated the ideas of Marx, not merely as those of Marxists, but as his own personal beliefs. He too made it very clear to his students that they are not required to believe the subject matter.

    He was a good professor, who if anything seemed to favor the “Reagan youth” who liked to challenge his beliefs. The problem with the framework is that if the student gets poor marks, they are likely to blame the professor’s ideology, and not their own shortcomings. College students these days don’t like to be challenged.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I certainly had plenty of liberal profs as an undergrad in the 1980s and later grad school in the early-mid 1990s.

    But there is a fundamental difference between challenging a student’s political attitudes and their sexuality. The former are intellectual and the latter innate.

  4. floyd says:

    “The former are intellectual and the latter innate.”

    Does anyone dare doubt this ersatz truism?

  5. James Joyner says:

    Does anyone dare doubt this ersatz truism?

    Please, recount for me the factors you weighed in your decision to become heterosexual. For the life of me, I can’t recall making such a decision — it was just how I was wired. Further, I can’t understand why anyone would conceivably choose to be homosexual, given both the odds and the social consequences.

  6. Ben says:

    Yeah, this professor wasn’t just “challenging his students”. He was specifically telling some of his students (and you HAVE to assume that you have some gay students, no matter the course) that they are immoral abominations. That is definitely a difference in kind from the unorthodox arguments my Con Law professor through at me.

  7. GS says:

    I’ve been told by a Women’s Studies prof that I’m an “immoral abomination” (or something very close). Anyone want to lay odds on her be disallowed from teaching at my university?

  8. GS says:

    Should say “being”, not “be”.. my bad.

  9. JE says:

    >I’ve been told by a Women’s Studies prof that I’m an “immoral abomination” (or something very close).

    Well, are you?

  10. floyd says:

    James;
    The answer to my question is soon to be “no” under threat of dire consequences, if it is not already.
    Since all social structures are, at their root, systems of coercion and domination, this new paradigm like all others will ultimately be enforced by any means necessary.
    Moralizing it is just , as always, an excuse to silence opposition, people are born with all sorts of urges, which must eventualy be sublimated for social reasons. We must all now be forced to not only admit that 2+2= 5, but to believe it as well. Soon silence alone will not be sufficient.
    This applies to pretty much all human behavior. This issue is near to being settled, as soon as the opposition is completely criminalized, Thus…” hate crimes” legislation. So let’s not pretend it holds any claim to some imagined moral high ground. That is necessarily the purview of God, which is why He must be driven from our midst .
    The question is more an observation of human nature than any particular judgement of it’s application.

  11. An Interested Party says:

    “The answer to my question is soon to be ‘no’ under threat of dire consequences, if it is not already.”

    Oh? And what “dire consequences” have been directed towards you?

    “…people are born with all sorts of urges, which must eventualy be sublimated for social reasons.”

    Like what, pray tell?

    “This issue is near to being settled, as soon as the opposition is completely criminalized, Thus…’ hate crimes’ legislation. So let’s not pretend it holds any claim to some imagined moral high ground. That is necessarily the purview of God, which is why He must be driven from our midst .”

    You are certainly free to oppose laws banning discrimination towards gay people, just as others might oppose laws banning discrimination towards black people…how, exactly, would you be “criminalized” for your beliefs?

  12. Jules Siegel says:

    I must be getting something wrong here. As I understand it, he did not endorse the Catholic view on homosexuality, he simply summarized it in a theology course and expanded on it in an email. How would that be considered hate speech? Why would a homosexual student object to it?

  13. tom p says:

    Personally I think anyone who holds “Catholic Beliefs”should be fired … and yes, I was raised Catholic.

  14. floyd says:

    Aip;
    Please read first, knee-jerk later.
    Your remarks were all impertinent,and off point, but then what else could they be.

  15. Juneau: says:

    … because university administration felt his emails made it impossible for him to teach gay students.

    What? Gay students can’t bear to hear that their position and lifestyle choices may be disagreed with by some people, and that some religions teach it is not acceptable? Gosh, it sure would be great if everyone thought it was OK to “not re-hire’ someone because they tool a position that I didn’t agree with.

    But I realize it’s just fine for someone to disagree with my positions, mainly because I know how to “man-up” (no pun intended) and walk through my life realizing I don’t need people to remain silent in order for me to feel secure in my beliefs.

    Some folks just need to get a spine and quit trying to claim victim status just because other people have the freedom to speak their mind.

  16. An Interested Party says:

    I did read, floyd…no “knee-jerk” here…your obfuscation betrays you…

    “Some folks just need to get a spine and quit trying to claim victim status…”

    Like some Tea Partiers who whine about the government, or some white people who whine about how their tax dollars go to help brown and black people, or some Palinites around here who whine about how horribly she’s treated…”victim status” is claimed by many different people…meanwhile, I await all the defenders of other professors who espouse views which would challenge the worthiness of, say, blacks, as human beings…

  17. Juneau: says:

    Like some Tea Partiers who whine about the government…”

    Nice jump to relativism. Not even an analogy that provides a common base for comparison. Surely you can do better as an illustration to justify the silencing of anyone that doesn’t feel appropriately “muzzled” when the PC police are sniffing around.

  18. An Interested Party says:

    The analogy was used solely in reference to the term “victim status”…

  19. floyd says:

    Aip;
    A lack of comprehension on your part does not constitute obfuscation on my part.

    Perhaps you should take counsel from your second sentence, since I have not claimed any “victim status” and it is clearly you who is doing the whining.
    You consistently read so much into the writing of others that you can get nothing out of it, so go ahead and choke on your own bile , but don’t blame me for producing it! [lol]

  20. Franklin says:

    “Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY,” he wrote in the e-mail. “In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”

    I tend to be supportive of the LBGT community, but I’m not understanding the fuss here. I guess I’d have to take the class and see the whole e-mail for context. Does the professor really have to preface every single sentence with the words, “The Catholic Church teaches that …”? The answer would seem to be ‘no’ – that’s what the frickin’ class is about!

  21. An Interested Party says:

    re: floyd Monday, July 12, 2010 at 10:50

    Since I never stated that you claimed “victim status” nor did I whine, I suggest you look at your own comprehension skills…

  22. floyd says:

    Aip;
    You do have a point there!
    I did notice that the “victim status” remark was a partial quote,and took advantage of it in light of your use of the following….
    “Oh? And what “dire consequences” have been directed towards you?”
    and…
    “how, exactly, would you be “criminalized” for your beliefs?”
    I saw it as a distinction without a difference.

    If you expect tight standards of adherence to technicalities in response to your posts, then you should at least aim to stay on point when making your response to others.
    For taking this license, I apologize… as for the points made I see no need to do so.
    You may, of course, whine about that if you choose,but I suggest that you instead revel in what appears at least to be a point scored.
    Congratulations and touché… [LOL]