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.
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 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.
A University of Illinois graduate student staging a protest against the firing of a professor says controversial material in religion courses is nothing new.
Mechanical Engineering student Eli Lazar has been distributing fliers on campus and in the Chicago area, drumming up support for former adjunct professor Kenneth Howell. Howell was dismissed after a student complained about lessons in which the professor stated that homosexual acts are morally wrong. Lazar says he took a class on world religions... in which different professors covered major religions. For example - Lazar says a discussion on Hinduism contended that disabled persons were born that way due to karma, and something they'd done in a previous life. "The idea was we were there to learn about Hinduism - agree with it or not." said Lazar. "I've actually also sat in on Professor Howell's course, and think he's an excellent instructor. I think myself as well as a lot of other students are really upset about this because we feel that student sensitivity is starting to dictate how courses are taught."
Lazar, who is Catholic, says it's not a matter of whether he agrees with Howell, saying that's the language the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, and should encourage debate in class. "If students (in Howell's class) were to be getting bad grades for diagreeing with the professor, that's definitely a call for action," said Lazar. "I think if for some reason your professor was promoting a viewpoint with saying that you should go out and tell other people what they're doing wrong, that's fine. But I mean, this is a discussion on a controversial topic that was relevant, and it definitely should be allowed."
The U of I Faculty Senate's committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure is reviewing the decision. Lazar says he's confident the panel will choose to reinstate Howell. The student also says he's been impressed with new U of I President Michael Hogan's prompt response to his e-mails, asking that committee to take up the issue.
A faculty committee will investigate whether a former University of Illinois religion professor's academic freedoms were violated.
Interim Chancellor and Provost Robert Easter says the Academic Senate's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure should complete its review of Kenneth Howell by time the fall semester starts. The adjunct professor was let go after a student complained about Howell's lessons on Catholicism, when he stated that homosexual sex was morally wrong. Easter says it's the U of I's obligation to present all sides of an issue, and that's valued by the academic community. But he says there are areas that require a review.
"An individual can be viewed as going beyond, if you will, the bounds of educational discussion discourse to advocating a particular viewpoint." said Easter. "And that's the question that seems to be important to addressing this particular case. I think that's why we'd be well advised to have a group of faculty have a look at this." Easter says administrators need to see what the committee says before determining whether Howell is reinstated.
The outgoing chair of the Senate committee, professor Jeff Dawson, says it needs a charge letter from Easter before proceeding with the review. "It will specify the scope of our investigation with respect to academic freedom and tenure." said Dawson. "And there are other issues about long-term relationships between the university and more than one religion group on campus, and the nature of that relationship." Easter says the professor's dismissal has also raised questions about the relationship between the U of I's Department of Religion and St. John's Catholic Newman Center. He says Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Ruth Watkins is looking into whether it warrants further study.
A faculty group at the University of Illinois' flagship campus will review the decision to fire an adjunct religion professor for saying he agreed with Catholic doctrine on homosexuality.
Urbana-Champaign campus Chancellor Robert Easter said Monday he hopes to have a decision on the firing of Kenneth Howell from the Faculty Senate's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure by the time fall classes start. The review is to determine whether Howell's academic freedom was violated.
Howell taught classes on Catholicism. He was fired at the end of the spring semester after a class discussion of the Catholic prohibition of homosexual sex. Howell says as a Catholic he agrees with it. A friend of an unidentified student complained, leading to Howell's firing.
The head of a national academic group says a terminated University of Illinois professor was well within his rights to express opinions on Catholicism, and should lobby to get his job back.
After adjunct Professor Kenneth Howell stated that homosexual acts are immoral, a student complained to the head of the U of I's Department of Religion that the professor was engaging in hate speech. Howell claims the dismissal violates his academic freedom. U of I English Professor Cary Nelson is President of the American Association of University Professors. He says while many faculty members choose to remain neutral on various issues, they can also state their positions, and invite their students to argue on those points.
"I always tell students where I stand, and then I say 'please disagree with me - give me a hard time." says Nelson. "Let's get a debate going. You do a good job on the debate, you get extra credit. I want you to dispute me, not just settle for my beliefs." Nelson also says Howell has earned the right to request a hearing before faculty in the Department of Religion. Nelson says if it's proven before an elected committee that Howell was let go because of his opinion, he should be allowed to get his job back.
But Nelson says the professor can also appeal before the AAUP. He says the organization sees more cases like Howell's each day, in which a non-tenured faculty member is dismissed because of a complaint from a student or parent. "He's apparently taught nine years.on contracts like this," (a year-by-year hire.) "They're often let go without any kind of full, professional, evaluation. Basically some administrator decides 'well, it's not worth the trouble, he or she is controversial, we'll just cut them loose. But that damages everyone's academic freedom."
Howell doesn't have a local phone listing. His comments in e-mails were obtained by the News-Gazette. The head of the U of I's Religion Department, Robert McKim, also couldn't be reached for comment. University spokeswoman Robin Kaler declined comment since Howell's firing is a personnel issue.
Terre Haute's mayor will travel to Poland next month with a Holocaust survivor to mark the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
Mayor Duke Bennett will join about 50 other people on the trip to the former Nazi death camp where more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, died during World War II.
Eva Kor, a Terre Haute resident who founded the city's CANDLES Holocaust Museum, will be part of the group.
Kor's family was taken to the death camp near the end of World War II. She and a twin sister, Miriam, survived being subjected to Nazi experiments, but their parents and two older sisters died in the camp's gas chambers.
Auschwitz was in the headlines Friday, when Polish police reported that the camp's infamous iron entrance sign, which declares in German "Work Sets You Free,'' has been stolen.
Two central Illinois men had to choose between their country's call and their church's teachings. These men (Merlin Taber, far left, and Delbert Augsburger, near left) were members of historic peace denominations that preach against military service. As AM 580's Jim Meadows reports, these two men made two different decisions.
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