Teaching or Preaching?

The headline on the press release sure sounds like this is a case to be outraged over: "Ill. prof. fired for teaching about Catholic beliefs in class on Catholicism," says the announcement from the Alliance Defense Fund. Many newspapers articles ran variations of that headline -- "University of Illinois Instructor Fired Over Catholic Beliefs," read one.

July 15, 2010

The headline on the press release sure sounds like this is a case to be outraged over: "Ill. prof. fired for teaching about Catholic beliefs in class on Catholicism," says the announcement from the Alliance Defense Fund. Many newspapers articles ran variations of that headline -- "University of Illinois Instructor Fired Over Catholic Beliefs," read one. Framed that way -- and plenty of people think that's exactly how it should be framed -- it's not surprising that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has taken a lot of heat for telling Kenneth Howell, an adjunct, that he is no longer wanted to teach a course on Roman Catholicism, his faith.

Others, however, say Howell's conduct was problematic, and raises issues either of church-state separation or of intolerance of gay people. While public universities have long taught about religion, some say that a professor at a state institution should not be advocating for a particular faith's views, even in the context of a course on religion. And some say that, regardless of whether the university was right to stop offering him courses, it was appropriate for the department to be alarmed by Howell's characterizations of gay people. A faculty committee at Illinois is now studying whether Howell's academic freedom was violated.

The dispute involves different kinds of tolerance: for religious views that may not be popular at secular institutions, for gay people, and for faculty members who don't want their every word dissected by potential critics.

And the situation is but the latest to involve an adjunct's academic freedom. Most observers of what's going on in Illinois believe that the debate would be very different if a tenured professor had sent the e-mail message that got Howell in trouble.

But the case is hardly unique in involving adjuncts and controversy. In California, June Sheldon lost her job teaching science courses at San Jose City College after a student complained about Sheldon's discussion, in a class on heredity, of the causes of homosexuality. Sheldon was talking about the "nature vs. nurture" debate with regard to why some people are gay, and students complained that her comments suggested that she did not believe anyone could be born a lesbian, and that the way she endorsed the "nurture" side of the debate was offensive. Sheldon disputes the statements that were attributed to her, and she is being backed in a lawsuit against the college by the Alliance Defense Fund, which is now backing Howell at Illinois. San Jose officials have said she was not assigned further courses because of questions about the appropriateness of what she was telling her students.

What the E-mail Said

In the Howell case at Illinois, the dispute centers on an e-mail message he sent students, so there is less of a debate over what was said (although plenty of debate over its meaning). In the e-mail, published by a local newspaper, The News-Gazette, Howell wrote that since the final exam would have a question on utilitarianism, he wanted to help with an example, and he then used issues related to homosexuality to illustrate. The e-mail is key to the case because Howell was told he would no longer be teaching after a friend of a student in the course sent a copy of the e-mail, along with a complaint, to faculty members.

The complaint stated that the e-mail is part of a pattern. "It sickens me to know that hard-working Illinoisans are funding the salary of a man who does nothing but try to indoctrinate students and perpetuate stereotypes. Once again, this is a public university and should thus have no religious affiliation. Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another. The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one's worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation," the complaint states.

In the e-mail in question, Howell explored how simplistic analysis could lead to poor decisions about sex. For instance, he said that to say that sex is not a problem as long as it is consensual could result in acts that aren't in fact "morally okay." He wrote: "If two men consent to engage in sexual acts, according to utilitarianism, such an act would be morally okay. But notice too that if a 10 year old agrees to a sexual act with a 40 year old, such an act would also be moral if even it is illegal under the current law. Notice too that our concern is with morality, not law. So by the consent criterion, we would have to admit certain cases as moral which we presently would not approve of.

"The case of the 10 and 40 year olds might be excluded by adding a modification like 'informed consent.' Then as long as both parties agree with sufficient knowledge, the act would be morally okay. A little reflection would show, I think, that 'informed consent' might be more difficult to apply in practice than in theory. But another problem would be where to draw the line between moral and immoral acts using only informed consent. For example, if a dog consents to engage in a sexual act with its human master, such an act would also be moral according to the consent criterion. If this impresses you as far-fetched, the point is not whether it might occur but by what criterion we could say that it is wrong. I don't think that it would be wrong according to the consent criterion."

Then, citing Natural Moral Law, he focused on his view of gay sexuality. "To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the 'woman' while the other acts as the 'man.' In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don't want to be too graphic so I won't go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body."

He closed the e-mail by saying: "Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter. All I encourage is to make informed decisions. As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends upon religion. Catholics don't arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality."

The Academic Freedom Issue

Based on the e-mail, he was told that he would not be asked to teach again -- even though he has a record of positive teaching evaluations. As soon as the issue went public, Howell received strong support from a variety of groups.

Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, which frequently defends the rights of religious students or professors and has written to the university on Howell's behalf, said that the case raises key issues of academic freedom. He said that academics who question Howell's rights to send students such an e-mail "are creating a precedent that will come back to haunt them if anonymous students are allowed to complain about professors."

"The bigger picture problem is that this is teaching students -- the next generation of American leaders -- that you don't respond to opinions you disagree with with more debate, but by feeling offended and then complaining to some school authority so that the person is disciplined in some manner and censored," Lorence said. "We are teaching students they can have an environment cleansed of opinions that they disapprove. That's shocking."

While the Alliance Defense Fund is sympathetic to Howell's views, some of those backing the now-out-of-work adjunct are decidedly not. Claire Potter, a historian at Wesleyan University, writes frequently on her blog Tenured Radical as a scholar and a lesbian about issues of bias. She has questioned the criticism of Howell. In a blog post about the controversy, she noted that she teaches material dealing with religion and sexuality -- material that has the potential to offend some students -- and said that some have complained about her using a similar phrase ("hate speech") to one used by critics of Howell at Illinois.

"Don't get me wrong: the point of this post is not some narcissistic desire to demonstrate how super-tolerant I am of homophobic, right-wing theology," Potter wrote. "My question is: do we think it is OK to do unto others as they would do unto us? Do we guarantee academic freedom for some people and not others? Most important, to avoid public controversy of all kinds, is higher ed simply going to give students permission to shut out things they find offensive as if they live in an entirely different country from the people they disagree with? Worse, should we not begin to talk about how students -- in their teaching evaluations and in complaints to the administration -- are now routinely urging that teachers be fired who do not provide suitable validation for their students' view?"

Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, agreed. He called Howell's views "kooky and despicable, but I'm still inclined to protect his rights."

Church and State

The Alliance Defense Fund cited in its letter to Illinois numerous legal cases that grant faculty members at public universities broad First Amendment protection to teach their courses without fear that unpopular views will get them fired. Nelson cited AAUP policies as well.

But one issue at play is whether -- in teaching about religion at a public college or university -- a professor has a specific obligation to, as several in the debate have said, "teach, not preach." In other words, to be concerned about Howell you need not believe that professors have no right to express their views in class, but you might think that while it's fine to espouse neoconservative foreign policy or postmodern literary theory, it's not fine to push much of anything on religion.

Ayesha N. Khan, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that those backing Howell "are wrong about the law" and said of the Illinois officials who told Howell he couldn't teach again that they made "the only reasonable choice because the teacher has no First Amendment right to engage in that kind of speech." When Howell and his backers say that he should be protected because he was just espousing his Catholic beliefs, they show that he crossed a line, she said. "Certainly professors can teach about religion, they can tell you what the Catholic Church has to say about certain matters, including about homosexuality, but what they can't do is advocate. You can teach but you can't preach," she said.

Khan noted that even as court after court has granted wide freedom of speech rights to public college and university faculty members, limits have been set about promoting religion. She cited three U.S. appeals court decisions: Edwards v. California University of Pennsylvania, which in 1998 upheld a public university's right to tell a professor that he could not inject religious materials into his courses on educational media (a decision written, before he was elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court, by Judge Samuel Alito); Bishop v. Aronov, which in 1991 upheld the right of a public university to bar an exercise physiology professor from sharing views on religion in class; and Piggee v. Carl Sandburg College, in which in 2006 upheld the right of a community college not to rehire an adjunct in cosmetology who gave anti-gay pamphlets based on her religious beliefs to a gay student.

A key difference between all three of those cases and the one at Illinois is that the courses involved were not about religion -- and so the issue of relevance came into play. But Khan said that the real commonality of those decisions with the Illinois situation is that courts believe that religious issues are different from other expression when it comes to public institutions.

The anonymous blogger Lesboprof also raised church-state issues in a post this week in which she noted that she normally finds herself in agreement with people like Cary Nelson and Tenured Radical on academic freedom issues. But she found herself, upon reading Howell's e-mail and its closing charge to students, with questions. "Aren't there valid arguments to say that Howell was not just expressing his opinion ('This is what I believe') but proselytizing? Can we hold the instructor to a different standard in the classroom than he holds in his role at the Newman Center?," referring to the Catholic center at the campus. She also asked whether Howell should "get a pass on saying anti-gay things repeatedly because he [is] articulating his personal Catholic faith?"

Further, Lesboprof questioned the idea that a university exists to have someone simply offer up the views of a religion. She recounted her frustration with a presentation on Islam by a Muslim woman at an academic conference who did not engage in discussion, but simply suggested that "real" Muslims would respond to issues in certain ways. Similarly, Lesboprof asked, why is it good for a university to have someone simply outline views of some Catholic leaders? "While one might teach 'what the Church says' in church or bible study, aren't we asking for something more critical, more thoughtful, and more historically and intellectually grounded in our college classrooms?"

Still other scholars are suggesting that -- whatever the academic freedom issues involved -- Howell's e-mail offers grounds for not wanting him to teach. Brian Leiter, the John P. Wilson Professor of Law and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago, blogged: "I imagine any philosopher reading the e-mail can see a legitimate reason for terminating Howell's contract, namely, that his characterization of utilitarianism and the quality of reasoning and argument are incompetent."

Adjunct Rights (or Lack Thereof)

Comparing those appeals court cases also points to another issue raised by Howell's situation. As the court records detail, when tenured professors are accused of conduct that may raise church-state issues, they get visits or memos from administrators, chances to talk about the situation and perhaps disciplinary hearings. Adjuncts tend to simply not get rehired.

Matt Williams, vice president of the New Faculty Majority, a national group promoting adjunct interests, said that he didn't know the details of the complaints against Howell, but that he was concerned about the lack of due process. "The contingent faculty member has to be afforded due process, a chance to offer facts," he said. When that doesn't happen, and a faculty member is simply not rehired, "it really invites abuses" in that adjuncts can be unfairly denied employment.

Nelson of the AAUP said that he also viewed non-renewals of this sort as dubious. While administrators make the point that these adjuncts aren't being fired, Nelson said that "to the employee, the impact is the same." They lose the courses and the income.

The AAUP believes, he said, that any time an instructor is being judged based on teaching or other professional duties, a faculty committee should be doing the judging, with the instructor having the chance to present evidence under clear procedures. That should be the same, he said, for an adjunct or a tenured faculty member.

Nelson said that an open process might also yield solutions other than ending Howell's teaching career at Illinois. The campus has no shortage, he said, "of people disputing Howell's views" and that a department concerned abut those views might look to provide challenges in various ways -- lectures, other courses and so forth. "What's better for a student? To in a variety of learning environments hear these positions and the consequences of these positions advocated with passion and commitment or to hear them all presented with a style of even-handedness? I would rather hear them advocated strenuously."

Ann H. Franke, a lawyer who consults with many colleges on legal and other issues, said that the Howell case raises many issues related to the way colleges treat adjuncts. "A public institution effectively can fire an adjunct for no reason, but you can't fire an adjunct for a wrong reason," she said, referring to decisions on whether to renew a contract.

"A right reason to fire an adjunct would be that she refused to use the textbook required in a multi-section course. Another right reason would be that he was supposed to be teaching French, but he mostly talked about his Thursday night poker games," she said.

Whether disagreeing with an approach to a course was a valid reason could depend legally on a number of factors, she said. For instance, if the norm at a college is that people are hired year after year, there can be "an expectation" of renewal, barring a significant reason. At a college where renewals aren't the norm, they can't be said to be expected, she said.

Franke stressed that even if adjuncts don't have the same legal rights as tenured professors, they deserve real protection. "Adjunct faculty are teachers and they need academic freedom in the classroom -- so they are not just looking over their shoulders and mouthing the script somebody gives them to teach," she said. "That's not what a college classroom is about."

There is also, she noted, a middle ground between ignoring a complaint like the one filed about Howell and simply not renewing his contract. "When a department chair hears news of plausible concerns about any professor's classroom conduct, it's appropriate for the department chair to go to the individual and say 'Here's what I'm hearing. I'd like to talk to you about it.' I think it does a service to the institution and the individual and it doesn't need to be contentious," she said.

She said she would suggest in such discussions "reframing the objectionable statement" and substituting race or religion or gender or age for whatever group is being discussed. She said that it is possible to discuss these issues in ways that may allow a faculty member to continue to teach with freedom, but to be aware of student reactions.

Franke also said that she would urge those assessing such situation to look not only at the e-mail. "Could the e-mail have been better written? Probably so. But perfection is not, and should not be, the standard," she said. What would she like to know? Her questions point at a key part of the dispute, since the person who filed the complaint about Howell answered them in one way and his defenders do so in another way. Franke would ask: "Did Professor Howell respect different points of view that his students might take? They would be obliged to learn the course material. Beyond that, did he allow them, even encourage them, to argue with his views?"


Back to Top