The Real Scandal at Illinois?

July 19, 2010

If you want to study Buddhist or Methodist or Jewish thought at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, there are relevant courses in religious studies — courses where the instructors have been selected by a department of scholars, through standard academic procedures.

But if you want to study Roman Catholicism, your instructors have been through different vetting — they will have been nominated by (and their salaries paid by) the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, a church organization independent of the university, set up to serve Catholic students at the university.

This arrangement has existed for decades, and been opposed by faculty members — also for decades. Not only is it highly unusual for a college to give an outside group the right to screen and nominate candidates to teach, but the situation raises church-state issues at a public institution, presents issues of fairness when it is permitted for only one religious group at a secular college, and may undercut the values of the field of religious studies, faculty critics say.

The way the University of Illinois teaches Catholic thought has attracted widespread attention in the last week with the news that a long-term instructor, Kenneth Howell, was told that he would not be rehired, following complaints about an e-mail message he sent to students, which many viewed as misinformed about homosexuality, and as hostile to gay people.

The case has become a cause célèbre. "Save Dr. Ken," a Facebook group, has more than 5,000 members. The Alliance Defense Fund, which defends the rights of religious students and faculty members, is taking up his cause. So is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which issued its analysis of the case on Friday.

Those defending Howell describe the case as being about academic freedom. An instructor should be free to express views on his or her subject matter, even views that offend many, without fear of losing a job. (Howell was an adjunct and so had none of the due process that would have been accorded a tenured professor.) While some of those who are backing Howell support his views on homosexuality, many don’t — and say that the case is important for preserving academic values of free and open discourse. Concerns about academic freedom have already led the university to appoint a special faculty committee to investigate the situation.

But according to some professors at Illinois and elsewhere, what Howell’s case illustrates is the long-term violation of other academic principles — a violation that has not spurred Facebook groups or punditry. "This has never really been about just one e-mail," said Nicholas C. Burbules, a professor of education and former Senate president at the university. "This has been an arrangement that has been rife with potential for things to go wrong, and this seems to be an instance in which things did go wrong. This was foreseen and argued over for decades at the university, with faculty members and some administrators trying for years to change this arrangement."

Burbules said that he did not reject the idea that there are academic freedom issues related to any question over whether an instructor is punished for expressing controversial views. But he said that he believed the religious studies department that told Howell it didn’t want him to teach anymore was "absolutely getting an unfair" portrayal in public discussion of the case. "This was a final straw" over an arrangement that violates academic standards, Burbules said.

A Senate committee at Illinois is now again reviewing the link between the university and the St. John’s center — which has survived many such previous reviews.

A 1990 article in The Catholic Historical Review, "The Catholic Presence at the University of Illinois," outlines how, from the university’s founding, students were assumed to be Protestants, but that over the course of the last century, services for Catholic students grew. Clergy ministered to students, social clubs were organized and so forth. The first part of the 20th century was also a time when many public universities were hesitant about teaching religion (or hostile to it) and the St. John’s Center reached an agreement with the university under which it would offer courses — awarded for credit — in Catholic thought. Over time, the arrangement shifted so that the courses were taught at the university, with the instructors having adjunct faculty status. But instructors had to be nominated by the center, and were paid by the center.

As the article recounts, faculty opposition to the arrangement grew, especially as the university started offering traditional academic courses in religious studies. During the late 1960s, a series of faculty committees reviewed the arrangement, found it faulty, and eventually won the support of administrators to phase it out. But following an intense lobbying campaign by Catholic leaders, the university’s board took the unusual action of rejecting a joint administrator-faculty proposal about an academic matter.

Since then, there have been periodic attempts by the religion department to teach about Catholicism the same way it teaches about other faiths, with the most recent major attempt coming about a decade ago, but faculty leaders say that they have been rebuffed every time.

Robert McKim said that when he became chair of the religion department at Illinois five years ago, he learned of the "underlying sense of unease" about the arrangement. But he also said that he was told that, given the way all efforts to change the situation have failed, "there was no basis for thinking that an effort to do something about it would be successful."

McKim stressed that his concerns have nothing to do with teaching about Catholicism, which he said should be part of any religion curriculum. "This university is committed to teaching about Catholic thought," he said.

The source of the "unease" about the way Catholicism has been taught is about academic independence, he said. "We have been asking how it can be that somebody can be teaching a course about religion, funded by an external agency with a religious agenda," he said. "We should teach about Catholicism in the same way as every other religion, the same as for Buddhism and Hinduism, and it works extremely well. We would like to have as many courses in Catholic thought as possible, but they should be taught by people who come in the normal way." (A university spokeswoman said via e-mail that there is no other case in any department where an outside group pays for and nominates candidates for teaching positions.)

Howell, the instructor whose e-mail set off the current debate, did not respond to requests to comment for this article. He told the Chicago Tribune that he believed he was answerable both to the university and to the church for his work. He also told the Tribune that he had sought a mandatum, a certification provided by bishops that theologians teaching at Catholic universities are doing so in accordance with Church teachings. The requirement that theologians seek a mandatum has been controversial with some theologians, who have feared that their academic freedom would be limited. What may be notable about Howell’s request is that his courses are not at a Catholic college or seen by the University of Illinois as theology courses.

The St. John’s Center has been quiet amid the media furor of the last week over Howell. But on Friday, the center released a statement, along with another from the Diocese of Peoria, indicating that both groups were looking forward to talking about the issues involved with university officials. The statements indicated that the Catholic groups want Howell to continue to teach the courses on Catholic thought, under existing arrangements in which the center pays him.

The Religious Studies Mission

Experts in religious studies at other public universities said that they do not have and would not support arrangements similar to the one at Illinois. Further, they said that the argument being put forth by many of Howell’s defenders — namely that Catholic thought should be taught by someone who advocates Catholic beliefs — suggested a misunderstanding of the role of religious studies (as opposed to theology at a religious institution).

David Brakke, chair of religious studies at Indiana University at Bloomington, said, "The point of religious studies is to study religion from the perspective of the humanities, not in an oppositional or contrary way to religion, but in a way that doesn’t just look from the insider’s perspective, but the outsider as well," he said.

"When you have instructors paid for and selected by a religious group, that undermines that distinction."

Brakke said that "there’s nothing wrong with a good Catholic teaching classes in Catholic studies, but the academic study of religion has its own norms and values and anyone teaching in that discipline needs to adhere to those norms and values," which would include subjecting every religious belief to scrutiny and analysis. Only part of a religious studies course is explaining what a given faith believes, he said. "We have to explain why" a religion acts as it does, he said, and why some would disagree.

And religious studies "is quite different from advocating a faith as the true way and telling students they should conform their lives to that tradition," he said. It is also a tradition of religious studies professors that they explain faiths in ways that their students — regardless of whether they are members of a given faith or not — "will not feel that they will be shut down."

Ann Taves, president of the American Academy of Religion and professor of religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said that defining religious studies as an academic field about religion, not one that seeks to promote a given religion, is a distinction that most often comes up in fund raising. But she said it was crucial to the field to maintain its independence.

So, for example, when raising money for endowed chairs, colleges and universities must make clear to donors who want to endow a chair for study of a particular faith that the donors will have no control over the selection of the person who will hold the chair or of that person’s teaching or scholarship.

Taves said that she does not make this distinction to denigrate the way various religions teach their faiths to fellow believers, but to note the differing roles of religions and of religious studies faculty members. "Religions have their own obligation to teach people what it means to be a practicing Catholic or Hindu or Jew, but that’s not the purpose of a [nonsectarian] university," she said. "Our goal is to teach people about religious traditions, as we do in the humanities and the liberal arts." There is nothing wrong with what religions do, "but that’s a different task," she said.

"The formation of people’s religious beliefs with a religion needs to go to campus ministry or faith-based bodies," she said.

As to the academic freedom issues related to Howell, Taves said she did not know the details of the case. She said that she would "totally support any professors explaining the teachings of a religion," even if those teachings may offend people. That means that just because a university may have a policy of not engaging in anti-gay bias "doesn’t make it illegitimate to teach what the Catholic church teaches about homosexuality."

At the same time, however, she said that the role of religious studies doesn’t stop there. "Teaching about Catholic teachings must also include the objections to them and must include ideas that may not be approved of or even acknowledged by the church," she said.

With an endowed chair or an instructor for a single course, she said that it is crucial that the balance be made with full academic independence. "For exactly the reasons being discussed [at Illinois], you need to have distance between the teachings of the faith tradition and the kinds of approaches that are taken within a religious studies department."

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