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.