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Update on the University of Illinois and Professor Kenneth Howell

October 17, 2017

As David French noted a few days ago, Professor Kenneth Howell, a well-respected academic with 2 master’s degrees, 2 Ph.D.s and many years of ranking as one of the best professors on campus, was recently fired from his job as an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois for daring to teach students the Catholic Church’s position on homosexual behavior—in a class called “Introduction to Catholicism”.

We sent the University a letter last Monday warning them that this action violated Professor Howell’s First Amendment rights.  Initially, it confirmed that Professor Howell was fired due to his e-mail to students explaining the difference between utilitarianism and natural moral theory (which the Catholic Church adheres to) in examining the issue of homosexual behavior, which ran afoul of university policy on “inclusivity.”  Later this week, University representatives claimed that Professor Howell had not in fact been fired, that “no decisions” were made as to the class he is scheduled to teach this fall (even though Professor Howell was told specifically by the department chair that someone else would be teaching his class), and that it was convening a committee of the Faculty Senate to examine whether the principles of academic freedom were violated—in late August.    This was, as President Michael Hogan stated, because the University “want[s] to be able to reassure ourselves there was no infringement on academic freedom here."  Talk about starting the “review” from a predetermined conclusion!

Late Thursday, we received a letter from the University stating that they are “suspending” the decision of his department chair pending review by the committee.  While this is a nice step, this does not resolve the issue.  It is meaningless for Professor Howell to retain his status as an adjunct professor without being able to teach any classes, and the committee's review of the situation does not change the fact that Professor Howell was relieved of his previously scheduled teaching responsibilities because his instruction to students was deemed not to meet standards of "inclusivity."  Save for that email, Professor Howell would still be teaching Introduction to Catholicism in the approaching semester.  That is a violation of his constitutional rights, and we have indicated as much to the University in our response letter, sent today.

We have also seen  media reports indicating that the University intends to examine the longstanding agreement between the University and the Newman Foundation to provide an instructor to teach students about Catholicism and Catholic thought in their Religious Studies department.  (Certainly a relevant topic, with over one billion Catholics in the world).   Some reports indicate that the Newman Foundation has total control over who the instructor will be, but this is false according to the agreement between the University and the Foundation.  The agreement specifically states that the University retains control over the selection of the instructor, who is required to meet all University standards and requirements for any adjunct:

Individuals will be proposed for adjunct faculty status by the Newman Foundation, and shall hold appropriate scholarly credentials and shall be reviewed and approved for adjunct status according to the standard procedures for such positions.  The faculty members and courses shall be subject to the same review and supervision by the Program for the Study of Religion as apply to all courses and members of the Program’s faculty.  In turn, the adjunct faculty affiliated with the Newman Foundation shall have the rights and privileges accorded all faculty holding the same positions.

Regardless, this is nothing but a huge distraction.  This agreement is in no way part of the reason why Professor Howell was fired, and moreover, there is nothing wrong with it, as the University retains control over the selection of who is teaching their students. 

In the meantime, UI students are organizing an effort to “Save Dr. Ken."  They've started a Facebook group, are posting flyers around campus and are organizing a boycott of Religious Studies courses.  But as a sad indicator of exactly what happens when universities like the University of Illinois teach students by example that censorship is acceptable and that true discourse on campus must come second to anyone taking “offense,” we have also received reports that some flyers are  being torn down.    We’re hoping that the University takes quick action to restore Professor Howell’s rights, and in so doing, teaches their students what the First Amendment really means.