University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign officials have argued that they were justified in refusing to hire Steven Salaita because his bigoted comments indicated a bias that would deprive students of their right to be “comfortable” (a right that does not and should not exist at any college committed to the discussion of ideas that may lead to uncomfortable truths).
But what’s been missing from the Salaita debate so far is the fact that, only four years ago, the University of Illinois dealt with a remarkably similar case of academic freedom involving allegations of bigotry against a professor. In that case, the University of Illinois came to a radically different conclusion. Kenneth Howell was teaching a class on Roman Catholicism when he wrote an email to his students on May 4, 2010, that offended the friend of one of Howell’s students, who complained about it. Howell wrote to his students, “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.”
The chair of religion department at the university decided not to reappoint Howell, an adjunct, to teach the class again in the fall of 2010. Howell’s defenders, including the Alliance Defense Fund, argued that he “was fired for explaining the position of the Roman Catholic Church on human sexual behavior.” Considering that Howell was rambling in his email about what an unnamed doctor told him about gay sex, it can hardly be regarded as an explanation of Catholic doctrine.
By the standards announced in the Salaita case, it is difficult to see how anyone could endorse the employment of Howell. Chancellor Phyllis Wise argued about Salaita, “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” Certainly, Howell was demeaning gay people in a personal and disrespectful manner.
The University of Illinois Board of Trustees wrote about Salaita, “Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views.”
Can gay students feel valued and respected in a class where the professor publicly advocates that the government should discriminate against them, as Howell did in opposing gay marriage? If Salaita (who has never called for government discrimination against Jews) deserved to be fired, then every professor in the country who opposes gay marriage should also be fired.
One article praising Howell during the 2010 controversy over his class quoted him as saying, “Everyone who has a good conscience can see that killing an innocent human being is wrong. In the same way, certain sexual acts are wrong, because they go against the natural course of things." So, Howell believed that gay sex is like murder, because it’s unnatural. And Howell was saying that if you think gay sex is permissible, then you don’t have a good conscience.
Cary Nelson argued about the Salaita case, “Will Jewish students in his classes feel comfortable after they read ‘Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being’...?” But would gay students in Howell’s classes feel comfortable with a professor who claims that they’re unnatural, comparable to murderers, lack a good conscience, are physically damaged, and should be discriminated against?
Back in 2010, Nelson defended Howell: "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." Nelson in 2010 was right, but today he has abandoned that belief that passionate professors, even those accused of bigoted ideas, are a valuable thing.
The similarities between Howell and Salaita are extensive, except that Salaita’s case for academic freedom is stronger in almost every way. Both Howell and Salaita never had a contract approved by the Board of Trustees, and were not regarded by officials as employees of the university (in a bizarre practice now abandoned after his case publicized it, Howell’s salary was paid by the Peoria Diocese of the Catholic Church, which also had selected him to teach the University of Illinois class). Neither Howell nor Salaita received a hearing about their academic competence. Both Howell and Salaita were accused of bigotry for their offensive remarks (although Howell’s came in a classroom environment, where professional standards do apply).
And one factor in Howell’s dismissal was a strange discussion in his email of utilitarianism, which he claimed would justify bestiality and pedophilia on grounds of consent, an analysis that some faculty in his department felt was evidence of professional incompetence. By contrast, no one on the Board of Trustees ever questioned (or even examined) Salaita’s professional record.
Both Howell and Salaita were very popular teachers with their students. While there is no evidence of any student even making a complaint about Salaita, the complaint in Howell’s case raised an (unproven) allegation that Howell silenced dissenting views in his class: “my friend also told me that the teacher allowed little room for any opposition to Catholic dogma. Once again, he is guilty of limiting the marketplace of ideas and acting out of accord with this institution’s mission and principles.” And Howell’s own letter to his students declared (without any sense of irony): “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.” When a professor declares that only experts on a subject are allowed to judge moral truth, it does seem like an attempt to silence students.
But the reactions of the University of Illinois to the Howell and Salaita cases were radically different. Out of concern about academic freedom (even though issues other than his offensive comments had been raised), the University of Illinois administration (with the cooperation of the Board of Trustees) decided to overrule an academic department and hired Howell to teach in fall 2010 while awaiting a report by the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT). By contrast, Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the Board of Trustees immediately decided to fire Salaita on July 24, 2014, without consulting any academics.
The CAFT report in the Howell case was critical of Howell as “unlearned” but declared that “students have no right not to be offended” and added, “We could not do our job, which is to instill the habits of a critical mind, if we had to be chary of giving offense.“
Howell was hired again to teach in spring 2011, but he then decided not to apply for a one-year visiting position (believing that it was a plot “engineered” to get rid of him). Howell is now director of pastoral care for the Coming Home Network International, but he remains free to express his homophobic views, such as this: “the imposition of a gay philosophy on American society is one of the biggest threats to American welfare that I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
As I noted during the Howell case, I think the University of Illinois deserves praise for that decision. Compared to the Howell decision, the Salaita case is a much easier call to make: Howell’s words were more clearly bigoted, they came in a classroom discussion instead of extramural utterances (which, under American Association of University Professors guidelines and University of Illinois statutes, cannot be punished). Howell’s professional competence as a teacher was also questioned, as was his openness to dissenting views in the classroom, while Salaita’s teaching record has never been attacked.
In the Howell case, the University of Illinois administration, in order to protect academic freedom, overruled a department’s judgment because of the fear that non-academic criteria might have influenced the decision. In the Salaita case, the University of Illinois administration took precisely the opposite position by firing a professor purely for his non-academic comments online.
Rarely has any university taken such radically different approaches to academic freedom within the span of a few years, which is especially strange considering that Board of Trustees chair, Christopher Kennedy, and a majority of the current voting trustees served during both the Howell and Salaita controversies. (Chancellor Wise had yet to arrive at Illinois at the time of the Howell debate.)
The Howell case established an important precedent for the University of Illinois: that dismissing a professor scheduled to teach requires a fair hearing by an academic committee, that allegations of bigotry do not trump academic freedom, and that students have no right to feel comfortable in a class even if their professors made offensive comments. But the Howell precedent was completely abandoned in the Salaita case.
Unless you think that the alleged bigotry of an anti-gay professor is more palatable than the alleged bigotry of a critic of the Israeli government, it’s hard to conceive of any principle that would justify the University of Illinois’ aggressive protection of academic freedom during the Howell case and its complete abandonment of academic freedom during the Salaita case.