Illinois Public Media News
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.
The Mahomet-Seymour school district's teacher union is a step closer to going on strike after filing an intent-to-strike notice on Thursday. The teacher's union is working with the school board to re-negotiate teacher contracts. Joan Jordan is co-president of the teacher's union.
"I've taught all these years, and I do not want my last year to go out with a strike," said Jordan, who plans on retiring after nearly 35 years as a teacher in the school district. "There has to be a point of respect of what you do."
Jordan said she hopes a revamped contract for teachers includes a pay increase. A strike could take place by the time students return to class next month if the two sides fail to reach an agreement.
Terry Greene, president of the Mahomet-Seymour School Board, said he has met with the teacher's union a couple of times, and he hopes to negotiate a fair contract. Greene said given the state's financial crisis, the board is going to "take a very dim view of spending" to avoid future cuts to programs and staff. The union's contract expires August 17th.
Bobby Seale co-founded the controversial Black Panther Party in 1966. The Panthers preached a doctrine of militant black empowerment to end to all forms of oppression against black people. The Black Panther Party was dismantled after 20 years, and Seale and others have taken on non-violent activism. Seale stopped in Champaign to talk to local teachers. He spoke to Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers about the Party's legacy and how changes in the world have shaped his activism.
The University of Illinois says an instructor who recently lost his job over a complaint about his religious beliefs can continue teaching. However, the university says it will pay those teaching Catholic-related courses rather than have them paid by a church group.
The university said Thursday afternoon that the St. John's Catholic Newman Center will no longer pay adjunct instructors, like Kenneth Howell, who teach Catholicism courses.
Howell taught Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought. He says he was fired at the end of the spring semester after sending an e-mail explaining Catholic beliefs on homosexual sex to his students. The offer asks Howell to teach an introductory course to Catholicism. But U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler would not say whether his re-appointment was related to public uproar over the dismissal. But she says the instructor is expected to stick to some standards. "As with all instructors at the university, we expect that he'll teach in manner that adheres to the constitutional principles that preclude the establishment of religion in a public university context," said Kaler.
He says he was preparing the students for an exam. A student complained the e-mail amounted to hate speech.
Howell could not be reached immediately for comment on the university's decision.
Illinois, along with 18 other states, is still in the running for a competitive federal grant program that promises more than three billion dollars for educational improvements.
The Illinois State Board of Education said the funds will help raise student success and train qualified teachers. The state failed to win enough support from school districts to compete for the first round of "Race to the Top" funding earlier this year - instead, that money went to schools in Tennessee and Maryland. Beth Sheppard is an assistant superintendent in Champaign Unit 4, which is backing Illinois' bid for the money.
"We felt that there was no good reason not to seek the additional funding in these economic times," said Sheppard. "If the focus is on closing the achievement gap, that is a high priority in this school district."
Teachers' unions have also lined up behind the application. State schools Superintendent Christopher Koch said the state has worked harder to get cooperation from local school districts and teachers' unions during this phase of the competition. Koch said Illinois will emphasize its plans to better prepare school leaders for reform when officials visit Washington in August to make their pitch for a grant.
State lawmakers have ordered a commission to look into Illinois' unsteady system of higher education funding -- that commission meets for the first time Tuesday.
One of the members of the panel is an economics professor emeritus at the University of Illinois. Walter McMahon says the commission will compare Illinois' higher ed funding procedure against other states and discuss the right balance between state appropriations, tuition and money for students financial aid.
McMahon says that leg of the funding system - financial aid -- is crucial because many students drop out for lack of money, which leads to lower graduation rates. He believes the Monetary Awards Program, or MAP, favors needy students who go to private colleges instead of public universities or community colleges...and McMahon says the maximum MAP award each year should not go up. "That would then funnel the money a little bit more to students who are most in need and going to places like Parkland (College in Champaign), where tuition is not as high," said McMahon.
The commission will give its recommendations for higher-ed budgeting in December to the Governor, the General Assembly and the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
The first black scholar admitted to the National Academy of Sciences is being remembered as a mathematician who had a unique way of getting to the heart of the problem.
David Blackwell died of natural causes July 8th at the age of 91. The Centralia native attended the University of Illinois at age 16, earning his doctorate in mathematics in 1941. Blackwell's time at the U of I was followed by an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, alongside Albert Einstein, as well as time teaching at Howard University, and the University of California at Berkley, where he taught math for over 30 years. UCLA statistics professor Thomas Ferguson says he first met Blackwell as a student at Berkley in the early 50's. "He had this way of finding the right questions to ask that were the right problems to look at," said Ferguson. "Then he would go after those problems, and actually come out with something really interesting to say about them. In each of these areas that I'm thinking, he writes some sort of fundamental paper that everybody else jumps on, and then keeps going."
David Blackwell was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1965. His career had its share of obstacles. In 1942, he was blocked from becoming an honorary Princeton faculty member because of his race. Blackwell's initial efforts to teach at U-C Berkeley were also blocked for the same reason. But he also wrote two books, published more than 80 papers and eventually held 12 honorary degrees from schools like Harvard and Yale.
Funeral services are tentatively set for July 31st.
The Champaign School District reached a tentative contract agreement with its support staff union Monday night.
Negotiators for Unit Four and the Champaign Educational Services Personnel union had been meeting since March - including a session with a federal mediator in June. But when scheduling problems prevented any meetings with the mediator in July, the two sides resumed contract talks on their own. Tomlinson says both Unit Four and the union were committed to reaching a settlement.
"Well I think everybody realized the importance of getting a good contract before school started", say Tomlinson. "And our balanced calendar schools start (their classes) next week. And the union and district came together and worked very hard to get the best contract for everybody involved."
Tomlinson would not release details of the tentative agreement, pending ratification votes by both sides. He expects members of the support staff union to ratify the contract in the next couple of weeks, with a school board vote on Monday, August 9th. The old contract for about 500 teachers' aides, bus drivers and other workers at Unit Four ran out June 30th.
The support staff union with Champaign schools resumes negotiations with the district on Monday, and both sides indicate the meeting could produce an agreement.
The two parties started meeting in early March, and brought in a federal mediator by June. He wasn't able to meet with them again until August, so the two sides started meeting on their own. Union president Mary Logsdon says they made progress on many issues in two meetings held last week. The sticking points that remain are salary, health insurance, and bringing the salary for teacher aides on par with other districts. "We both have our own priorities that we want to see accomplished," said Logsdon. "Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don't. That's where sometimes we have to compromise, or give and take. So at this time, I think we're both right there, and I think in the next week, I think we can come to some consenus."
Unit 4 School Board President Dave Tomlinson says the district is doing what it can to reward hard work in tough financial times. "I think both sides have come realizing what the needs are, and you know, the district wants to give to employees who work hard. And we're trying to do the best we can by them, understanding there's serious budget issues, but we need to make sure that we're doing everything we can for our employees."
Tomlinson says talks have never been contentious. The previous contract expired June 30th. The Champaign Unit 4 support staff union represents about 500 teacher aides, clerical workers, custodians, bus drivers, and food-service workers.
The new University of Illinois president says he has experience dealing with state governments that are struggling with meager budgets, and more struggling will take place in the next year.
Michael Hogan says he wants to correlate the yearly increases in tuition with state funding reductions that are forcing universities to pass the cost on to students and parents. Hogan sat down for an interview with Illinois Public Media's David Inge, telling him that the U of I has to concentrate just as much on controlling costs, and future staff reductions are possible. He wouldn't specify where layoffs could happen, but he says a committee report has focused on certain services that could be restructured.
"We're going to begin right away when it comes to IT, human resources, strategic purchasing and a variety of other back-office operations, administrative operations. We can begin implementing the recommendations coming out of that committee and begin realizing the savings quickly."
Hogan expects a steering committee to help implement the first of the cost-cutting measures soon. In the meantime, he foresees opening a line of credit to keep up with bills, admitting that doing so makes him uneasy.
Meanwhile, Hogan says some steps to help ease the budget crunch can also be of academic benefit. He admits that students from outside Illinois pay much higher tuition rates - but he also says they're needed to bring a diverse perspective.
"We're trying to create a learning environment on campus that's more cosmopolitan and prepares people for life in the world they're going to face when they get their degrees," Hogan said. "So the best argument for more nonresidents, or more diversity or more international students, is not really a financial argument. It's an intellectual and academic argument, an educational argument." But when asked, Hogan would not give a target number of out-of-state students the U of I wants. The report recommended keeping in-state enrollment level.
Hogan says he won't get defensive about the $620,000 salary that trustees approved for him before he took over as president earlier this month. But he says he plans to forgo pay raises or deal with furlough days if the university calls on other employees to do so.
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