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Victory for Academic Freedom at UIUC

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has reversed its unconstitutional decision not to rehire adjunct professor Kenneth Howell following a student complaint about the content of Howell's teaching. Howell had compared different criteria for judging the morality of sexual conduct in an e-mail to his Introduction to Catholicism students, and the complaining student (who was not in Howell's class) had objected to Howell's elaboration of Catholic "Natural Moral Theory" criteria as it applied to homosexual sexual conduct.

FIRE intervened on July 16, 2010, in a letter pointing out that it is constitutionally impermissible for a public college to refuse to rehire a professor in Howell's situation because of the professor's protected classroom expression. Howell had been teaching at UIUC for nine years, had never been warned or disciplined for his teaching, and had every expectation of being rehired for 2010-2011.

Late yesterday, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which also had intervened in Howell's case, reported that UIUC had just reversed its decision and had offered Howell a job teaching Introduction to Catholicism this fall. Meanwhile, a faculty investigation into the initial non-rehire decision will proceed.

UIUC also is putting a bit of money behind its decision. Under previous arrangements, Howell's salary was paid for by the St. John's Catholic Newman Center. Under the new expected arrangements, UIUC will be paying Howell's salary. As I wrote last week, UIUC has the institutional academic freedom to decide for itself how it wants to establish community partnerships so long as, for instance, its rules for such partnerships are not designed to exclude certain groups for unlawful reasons. The old arrangements were fine, and so are the new ones. From the beginning, as ADF reported last week, UIUC has had the final say in UIUC academic matters regarding Howell's courses, and this aspect of the situation has not changed.

Meanwhile, FIRE has received no response to our letter yet, but we asked UIUC to meet a deadline of today. We will let you know what happens next; stay tuned to The Torch for updates.

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