A Separation and a Return

July 30, 2010

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced Thursday that it is ending an unusual relationship under which an independent Roman Catholic center has for decades nominated instructors to teach Catholic thought at the university and paid their salaries. Further, the university announced that a controversial adjunct who has taught under the relationship would be back for the fall semester.

The decision by the religion department at Illinois to tell that adjunct, Kenneth Howell, that he could no longer teach set off a huge public debate over academic freedom and also led to renewed scrutiny of the highly unusual way Howell has been hired and paid. He has been the only instructor at Illinois who has been nominated and had his salary paid by an outside group.

Thursday's announcements gave some good news to multiple players in the disputes. Faculty leaders, who have been critical of an outside group playing a role in instructor selection, were pleased that, from now on, Catholic thought instructors will be selected and paid by the religion department -- as has been the case for those who teach courses in all other faiths. But defenders of Howell said they were thrilled he would be back in the classroom in the fall.

But more conflict may be just ahead. The university's decision to sever the Catholic center's role in instructor selection is permanent. But the decision to let Howell teach is only for the fall semester. After that, he would have to go through the normal process of being hired by a department that recently decided it would be better off without his services. And the same defenders who are cheering his return say that they will be closely watching the situation, and expect him to have a "long career" at Illinois.

The E-Mail and the Fallout

Howell has taught Catholic thought at Illinois since 2001. He was told by the religion department after the spring semester that he would not be welcomed back, following complaints over an e-mail message he sent to students in his course that drew a complaint from a friend of one of the students. That friend and others viewed the e-mail as anti-gay, while Howell and his defenders have said that he was simply expressing his views and those of Catholic teachings.

With Howell's fans (and some who disagreed with him as well) charging that the university had violated his academic freedom by denying him teaching assignments based on an e-mail in which he expressed opinions, the university announced that a faculty committee would investigate the academic freedom issues involved. Then as faculty members reminded university leaders that the faculty has opposed for decades the arrangement to let an outside group pay for and nominate adjuncts to teach Catholic thought, administrators asked another faculty committee to look at that issue again.

That second faculty group reported its findings this week, noting all the previous faculty committees that had studied the issue and found the arrangement between Illinois and the St. John's Catholic Newman Center to be inappropriate. The committee "reaffirms the judgments of these previous faculty groups and administrators, who recommended termination of the teaching relationship between the university and Newman Center," the faculty committee's report said. "An adjunct faculty member paid by the Newman Center teaching a university credit course has a clear conflict by having, in effect, two employers whose missions and practices may not always agree. Recent events have illustrated what types of conflicts can arise."

The university announced Thursday that it would accept the recommendation -- and that while Catholic studies courses would continue in the religion department, hiring would be made by the department and salaries would be provided by the university.

Nicholas C. Burbules, a professor of education at Illinois who was on the faculty committee that reviewed the ties to the Newman Center, said that the administration's action Thursday was "long overdue" in that instructors can't "have two masters," but need to report to the university. He stressed that the "structural problems" associated with having instructors selected to teach one set of topics go through a different process than instructors for any other topic predated the Howell controversy. "This was the last straw in an ongoing series of difficulties," he said.

The Newman Center referred requests for its reaction to Thursday's announcement to the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, which did not return calls.

A lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, a group that defends religious students and faculty members, and that is representing Howell, said that the organization was much more concerned about his continued teaching than about the link between the university and the Newman Center.

Back, But for How Long?

On the question of Howell's future, what became clear Thursday was only the next semester. A university spokeswoman said that since the fall semester is approaching and the committee studying the academic freedom issues in the case isn't about to wrap up its work, the administration decided it was appropriate to assign Howell his regular course in Catholic studies for the fall. The spokeswoman said that the decision does not assure him of any continued teaching assignments after the fall, and that future instructors for Catholic studies will be hired by the department alone.

The Alliance Defense Fund had threatened to sue Illinois if it did not assign courses to Howell, but the spokeswoman said that the university's decision did not involve any agreement with that organization.

Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, said Thursday that he was "extremely pleased" that Howell would be "back in the classroom" in the fall. He said, however, that it was important to continue to watch what happens at Illinois to make sure Howell's "academic freedom is protected" and that the committee reviewing the academic freedom issues in his case provides "a full exoneration."

Howell should have "a long career" ahead at Illinois, Lorence said. He acknowledged that adjuncts like Howell don't have job security beyond each semester's assignments. But Lorence said he would be looking for any "pretextual reasons" for not renewing Howell in the future. "They will have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there's not an effort to get rid of him because he believes in his Catholicism."

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