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The Good, Bad, and Ugly of the Howell Report

October 17, 2017

Yesterday, Inside Higher Edreported that the University of Illinois has delivered its "academic freedom verdict" on the Professor Kenneth Howell matter.  As readers no doubt recall, the University summarily fired Professor Howell after he taught about Catholic doctrine on sexual morality in his Introduction to Catholicism class.  In other words, he was fired for teaching Catholic thought in a class about Catholic thought.  According to the university, by teaching that Catholics believe homosexual sex is wrong, he violated "university standards of inclusivity."

Even before the university reinstated him, it initiated a review of his termination by an academic freedom committee, and the committee has delivered its verdict.  The report isn't perfect, but there's a lot to like.  Without further ado, here is the "good, bad, and ugly" of the Howell report:

The good: You have to wade through a fairly classic example of obtuse academic prose to get there, but once you find the bottom line of the report, you'll note that the committee agreed with Professor Howell in virtually every material respect.  They note that he did not receive due process, they agree with him that adjunct professors should receive due process before they're terminated, they agree with him that religion classes can be taught like other academic subjects (in other words, the professor can have a perspective), and -- critically -- they agree that students do not have a right not to be offended, even when teachers address sensitive subjects.  Since Dr. Howell was terminated without due process simply for offending a student (not even in his class), the report offers near-complete vindication.

The bad: I say "near-complete," because it contains a section transparently dedicated to saving face for the university.  Despite the fact that the university stated in writing that Professor Howell was terminating for violating its alleged "standards of inclusivity," the committee suggested that the real reason for his termination was his department chair's dissatisfaction with Professor Howell's description of utilitarianism.  The committee rightfully noted, however, that firing a professor for an inaccurate description of a political theory would require actual "collegial review" of his statements, "and no review was ever undertaken."

The underlying defense by the university here -- that an allegedly inaccurate description of utilitarianism in a single email could constitute a firing offense -- is almost laughable.  No, there's no "almost" about it.  It is laughable.  During my time at Harvard Law School, I heard Christian theology described to me by multiple professors, and perhaps one or two got the major elements right.  I've heard Vietnam War strategy outlined by English professors, climate science discussed by political scientists, and the true nature of Islam debated by -- well -- just about everyone.  Is it really the university's position that it can comb through professors' emails to find the one or two paragraphs that a couple scholars disagree with, and then start firing people?  Really?  Well, if that's the case, then the ground will soon be littered with the academic careers of secular leftists after their decades of grotesquely inaccurate descriptions of Christian orthodoxy.

The ugly: This whole affair has been ugly.  I've seen quite a few academic abuses in my time, but firing a professor for teaching his subject then claiming he had to be excluded from is job in the name of "inclusivity?"  Well, that fits in the academic freedom hall of shame.  It's understandable that the university -- including the professors who initiated his termination -- would be scrambling to cover themselves.

Ultimately, however, more than a little good has come out of Professor Howell's ordeal.  For the first time in my career,  students mobilized to help save the career of a Christian professor, and his case has awakened many in the Catholic community to the reality of ideological and religious oppression on campus.  Unlike many stories, this one has a happy ending (at least so far).  Dr. Howell is back in the classroom, and academic freedom has been vindicated.