More Developments at UIUC in Case of Punished Catholic Professor

By on July 19, 2010

Meghan reported last week on FIRE’s letter to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Robert A. Easter in the matter of adjunct professor Kenneth Howell, who was let go as the teacher of his UIUC courses on Catholicism after he sent his students an e-mail comparing what he described as the Catholic and the utilitarian criteria for making moral judgments about sexual behavior. According to The News-Gazette, Associate Dean Ann Mester told other UIUC staff that "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."

This adverse employment action left Howell with no courses and no job at UIUC. Since he held his job through a contractual arrangement between the school and the independent college ministry St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, the Newman Center also declined to rehire him.
But University of Illinois President Michael J. Hogan is disputing that such a decision has been made in a form letter responding to critics, as reported on Facebook:

Prof. Howell has not been dismissed from the University, as misreported on the Internet and by several media outlets. He continues to hold his appointment as an adjunct professor. No decision has been made regarding the appointment of an instructor for the course Prof. Howell previously taught in the Fall semester; and no decision will be made until the review is complete.

This is a weird statement, even if it were true that Howell was not actually let go (although Howell himself apparently believes he has not been retained, and has e-mails and conversations to back up his claim, not to mention public statements by university officialsand the Newman Center, Alliance Defense Fund, and others who are close to the situation apparently believe that Howell was cut loose as well). Does UIUC really keep up a relationship with everyone who has ever been an adjunct faculty member, even after they have been given no further expectation of any courses to teach, and keep them in the official UIUC directory as adjunct faculty members? I doubt it. But it is tempting to take Hogan at his word, because it seems to me that UIUC has opened the door to say that this was all a big misunderstanding and Howell has not been denied reemployment.

At any rate, a delay in deciding Howell’s fate is unacceptable for the reasons outlined in FIRE’s letter. The First Amendment violation involved in this case creates a serious chilling effect across the campus. Which professor will be the next one to stick out his or her neck and wait for UIUC to lop it off, simply for expressing interpretations of different moral traditions and thus offending students? As University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton wrote in another case involving investigation of a professor:

[R]esponses to complaints or demands for action regarding constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech CANNOT BE QUALIFIED. Attempts to assuage anger or to demonstrate concern by qualifying our support for free speech serve to cloud what must be a clear message. Noting that, for example, "The University supports the right to free speech, but we intend to check into this matter," or "The University supports the right of free speech, but I have asked Dean X or Provost Y to investigate the circumstances," is unacceptable. There is nothing to "check into," nothing "to investigate."

Because of the chilling effect on faculty speech that increases every day without a resolution of this issue, an immediate resolution is required. UIUC should not wait for the results of its Faculty Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure in order to resolve this injustice.

Reviewing the Whole Arrangement and Questions of Institutional Academic Freedom 

Not only has UIUC declined to rehire Professor Howell for an impermissible reason, but it has started down a second path that could keep Howell out of a job for different reasons. The Chicago Tribune reported yesterday that a second university committee, the Faculty Senate’s General University Policy Committee, has been brought into the conflict in order to resolve the broader issue of the relationship between the university and the Newman Center. This issue involves the question of how UIUC hires faculty members in conjunction with community partners.

As I understand the current arrangement, the Newman Center chooses the faculty member who will teach certain courses about Catholicism, and the university has the final say in whether to hire the person selected. The Tribune reports that the university has exercised its right to have the final say over its own faculty in this matter: "Previous instructors have been let go or not approved by the university."

This arrangement seems acceptable. Unless the contract between the university and the Newman Center proves otherwise, regardless of the professor’s other commitments and allegiances, UIUC’s rights and responsibilities toward the professor are exactly the same as for other faculty members. The fact that an outside community partner, even a religious one, engages in the initial consideration of the professor does not change the fact that UIUC still has the last word, and UIUC apparently exercises its authority to make sure that its faculty members are qualified to teach under UIUC’s banner. 

Whether this arrangement is smart or not is a different question, but that question is (almost) entirely up to the university. The university enjoys the institutional academic freedom to decide for itself how it wants to hire, assess, and fire its own faculty members. If that means having outsiders weigh in on a candidate, weakly or strongly, that’s fineso long as the university has the last word and ensures that the final decision is made lawfully.

Community partnerships are valuable in many ways, and it is nothing new to note that students and faculty members have multiple allegiances and many masters. Social work and teaching students, for instance, are bound by the rules at their field placements as well as the rules of their academic programs, and faculty members who are on government grants also have to follow the government’s rules while fulfilling their grants. As a member of the General University Policy Committee, Nicholas Burbules, suggested, such arrangements blur the lines of authority. But such is academic life for all but the most isolated faculty members and students.

If the university decides that community partnerships are not so good an idea because of their influence on "academic integrity" (to quote the Tribune article), it is vital to keep equal treatment in mind. Is there something fundamentally different between partnering with a highly activist social work placement and partnering with the Newman Center? It not only is unwise to treat partnerships by different standards, but doing so also may indicate that the university is not contending with the relevant issues in an academically neutral way. This would be an abuse of the discretion granted the university in the name of academic freedom. If the General University Policy Committee members find themselves contorting their arguments in order to keep the Newman Centerbut not other organizationsaway from the university’s academic programs, I hope they will take a step back and make sure that they are treating all community partners by the same standards.

A worse development would be an indication that this second review committee was convened simply to provide an additional way to get rid of Professor Howell. That seems possible under the circumstances, but less likely given the broader context of debate about the institutional arrangements over many years (as reported by the Tribune and others). 

Yet, I see no indication that the review would have occurred at this time but for the controversy over Professor Howell’s e-mail. This is troubling in itself as a matter of Professor Howell’s rights.

Schools: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Cases: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Professor Punished for Teaching about Catholic Thought in Course about Catholic Thought