Illinois Public Media News
The professor at the heart of a controversy over religious studies at the University of Illinois doesn't believe there's a permanent resolution to the dispute.
Kenneth Howell has accepted the U of I's offer to return to teach an introductory course on Catholic teaching, more than two months after he was let go. A student who was not in the class had complained of an email Howell had sent to one of his students defending the church's views on homosexuality and natural moral law.
Howell says the incident will not affect his teaching, except perhaps for a broader scope of issues covered at the end of the course.
"I'm going to give a general lecture on natural moral law because that's the essential part of Catholicism," said Howell. "Then I'll ask them (his students) if they want me to deal with the question of capital punishment or just war or homosexuality, and they will choose."
The U of I is now paying Howell for his work as an adjunct professor - until his removal in May, Howell had been paid by the St. John Catholic Newman Center, where he has now been reinstated as the head of the center's Institute for Catholic Thought.
A faculty-student committee on the Urbana campus is looking into the general issue of outside involvement in academics - Howell says he has not been asked to appear before that committee.
Teachers in the Mahomet-Seymour School District could vote to go on strike on Wednesday, the day before classes are to begin.
The two sides are at an impasse after meeting twice over the weekend with a federal mediator, in meetings that latest about 12 hours total. The teacher's union currently has a strike vote scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
The President of the Mahomet-Seymour Education Association, Joan Jordan, said while the two sides have seen agreement in more areas, teachers' primary concern is insurance. She said the school board's proposed increase is 90-percent less than what was paid in previous contracts, meaning higher premiums for its members. Jordan said that means union members making as little as $16,500 would see a loss in pay.
"They've got money. They don't want to spend it." said Jordan. "But there are real people with lives attached to this though. I just hope that they'll come back and offer us what they should have started with."
The teacher's union has rejected the district's offer for a 2-year contract with salary increases of more than 2-percent for the first year... and just over 3-percent for the second. School Board President Terry Greene called the offer 'extremely generous' considering the economic times. The union proposed a 5-percent raise in the current year and 6-percent the next. Greene said combining that with the insurance teachers are seeking, that means Mahomet Seymour would be cutting programs, laying off employees, and class sizes would 'explode' a year from now.
"The days of 5 and 6-percent salary increases, at least for the short term, are over." said Greene. "And Cadillac insurance plans for families, while it would be nice to provide that, we don't have enough money in our school district to solve that problem."
Jordan said the union hopes to meet again with the board prior to Thursday.
A federal mediator will sit down with administrators and teachers in the Mahomet Seymour district in hopes of bringing progress to contract talks.
Thursday night, Mahomet Seymour Education Association members rallied before a negotiation session - union president Joan Jordan and Unit 3 superintendent Keith Oates says those talks made some headway. The next step is a 6:00 session tonight with a mediator who was called in on short notice - if there's no deal tonight another session is set for Sunday afternoon.
Jordan says salary, insurance and contract language issues are still unresolved. She says teachers don't want to start the new school year next Thursday without a contract agreement - last week they filed an intent to strike notice.
The Champaign School Board has unanimously approved a new three-year contract for nearly 500 support staff. This comes six months after negotiations began between the Champaign Educational Support Professionals union and the school district, and more than a month after the old contract expired.
The contract includes a 65 cent pay raise for teaching assistants after one year, and a 50 cent increase each year for the following two years. Board President Dave Tomlinson says teacher assistants in Champaign have traditionally made less money compared to aides in nearby school districts.
"We tried to bring them up to a comparable area over the three year period," he said, adding that teacher's aides are with students as much as teachers are during a seven hour day.
The contract also covers other positions, including custodians, maintenance personnel, and food service workers. They will see their annual salaries go up by around two-point-two percent.
Union President Mary Logsdon was congratulated by members of the school board, including Tomlinson and Superintendent Arthur Culver. Logsdon described the new contract as a victory for the union given the state's financial crisis, but she added that many of its members were not completely satisfied with the final outcome.
"You know, there are still people out there who are going to have to work two or three jobs in order to pay their bills," she said. "We're only going to get so much."
Tomlinson said he anticipates the school board cutting about two million dollars from the budget next year. Students are scheduled to return to class on August 19th.
Union members have ratified a new three-year contract for nearly 500 support staff in the Champaign School District --- and the school board will take its vote Monday night.
The three-year contract was ratified by members of the Champaign Educational Support Professionals union Thursday night. Union President Mary Logsdon says many members weren't happy with the agreement. But she says it's the best that could be done, considering the economy and the state's fiscal crisis.
"I mean it's a hard time to negotiate right now", says Logdson. "I feel like what we were able to do, I'm pleased with. You always want more, but like I say, with the times the way they are, I felt like we did pretty well by our membership."
Logsdon declined to give firm details prior to the school board's vote. But she said there was at least one bright spot --- pay for teaching assistants.
"We were concerned about our teaching assistants, with their pay parity with other districts, and we were able to improve upon that", says Logdson.
The contract also covers custodians, food service worker, bus drivers and other non-teaching jobs in the Champaign Unit Four District. The old contract expired June 30th.
Radical Vietnam War protester William Ayers is retiring after more than 20 years as an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Education Dean Vicki Chou says Ayers' retirement will become official later this month.
Ayers co-founded the Weather Underground, an anti-war group held responsible for a series of bombings, including nonfatal explosions at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol.
Ayers' past became a political issue during the 2008 presidential campaign because President Barack Obama served with Ayers on the board of a Chicago charity. There's no evidence they were ever close friends.
Chou said Ayers' retirement had nothing to do the controversy surrounding him, adding he was a "good colleague'' and hundreds of students cherish they were taught by him.
A spokesman for the university said Thursday that Ayers would not be available for comment.
The University of Illinois plans to revamp its communication services for faculty and staff members.
Services like e-mail, phone, and instant messaging are offered through different providers, but in about two years, the U of I plans to consolidate those services through the computer company, Microsoft. This is expected to save about $3 million each year. Charley Kline is the Information Technology Architect for Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services (CITES), which offers technical services at the U of I. While the plan is being sold as a cost-saving measure, Kline said that it is also a sign that times are changing.
"When you think about the phone system that we use, it's basically 1960s, 1970s technology," he said. "It hasn't changed much in about 50 years."
The new telephone service will made available through Microsoft and carried on a computer program. People who are not ready to make the switch from a telephone to a computer will be able to use a special receiver that is compatible with this new service.
The U of I also has plans to fully automate its campus directory line by November, rather than having a live operator available during the day. It has already started to scale back on campus operators. CITES' associate director, Janet Jones, said the actual number of campus operators has been declining over the years.
"More and more customers are using online technology," said Jones.
In the last month, the number of operators has been cut from five to one, and the final operator is expected to retire in November. Jones said other colleges and universities have already made similar changes to their directory systems.
Gov. Pat Quinn has provided new details on his plans to slash state spending, including the decision to cut far more from social services.
The agency that handles Medicaid will lose $216 million, or about 2.7 percent. Last month, Quinn said the agency would be one of the few to actually get more money. The Department of Human Services is being cut by $576 million, or 14 percent. Originally, the department was going to lose just $312 million. Funding for higher education is listed at more than 2.1 billion dollars in 2011, a $105 million dollar decrease. The governor's office says much of that decrease is in the form of federal stimulus money that won't be received next year.
Illinois faces the worst budget deficit in state history, roughly $12 billion. Quinn plans at least $1.4 billion in spending cuts to help reduce the shortfall.
The July reading of the University of Illinois Flash Economic Index was 91.6. That's three tenths of a percent better than the measurement for June, but economist Fred Giertz says it's still well below the 100 level that separates economic growth from contraction.
Giertz says Illinois and the nation are mired in the longest and deepest recession since the end of World War II, and it will take time to recover. He says the state's unemployment rate is falling but still above the national rate.
The Flash Index measures state collections each month from personal income, corporate and sales taxes - it found that while income and sales tax revenue were down in July, corporate tax receipts were up.
An attorney with the conservative Alliance Defense Fund says the University of Illinois' decision to bring back a dismissed adjunct professor raises greater issues about speaking freely in a classroom setting.
David French says his group commends the U of I for offering Kenneth Howell his job back. But he says the ADF will continue to follow an academic committee's review of the complaint that got Howell fired in the first place. His comments about homosexuals in a lesson on Catholicism led to the e-mailed complaint from a student. Howell was re-hired Thursday. The issue still before a committee with the U of I's Faculty Senate is whether academic freedoms were violated. French says he's confident the panel will rule in Howell's favor - a decision he says should bring about further class debate across campus. "It's not supposed to be a place where there is a particular party line that is taught and professors are inflexibly living within the mandate of that particular party line at a public university," said French. "A public university is a marketplace of ideas where students should be free to engage their professors, and professors should be free to teach their subject."
French notes the protest over Howell's dismissal was generated not only by Catholics, but people of many faiths... and should do a lot to protect the comments of professors in class. He says the U of I's knee-jerk reaction to the Howell complaint affirms that students are just as concerned about academic freedoms. "I think that's one of the most encouraging aspects about this - it's the students themselves reacted so strongly to support academic freedom," said French. "Hopefully one of the good outcomes of this ordeal is that it's going to remind the university and other universities the importance of protecting professors' in-class speech."
Howell has until August 6th to accept his re-appointment to the U of I. He's traveling Friday and couldn't be reached for comment.
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