Sunday, July 11, 2010

University of Illinois religion professor fired for doing his job

I encourage all of you to read the article at Catholic Online, but let me summarize.

Professor Kenneth Howell has, since the late 1990s, been teaching courses on Catholicism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Being associated with the vibrant Newman Center on campus, it seemed logical to Professor Howell and then-head chaplain of the Newman Center, Msgr. Swetland, to offer the courses both to edify the Catholic students and to provide an opportunity to the student body as a whole to clear up misconceptions on basic Catholic principles (in Howell's Introduction to Catholicism course) and on the application of these principles to more timely matters (the upper-division Modern Catholic Thought).

Professor Howell is--I can assure you personally--an honorable and faithful man. He made no secret about being a member of the faith he was teaching about, that he believed it was objectively true, and that any differences in belief or opinion between him and his students would be respected--his job was to instruct, not to proselytize.

Until the spring semester of 2010, this was good enough. Then, during a discussion on natural law, one or more students made a disproportionate display of outrage at his example of the Church's position on homosexuality. Hoping to clarify and settle things, Dr. Howell e-mailed the class explaining the differences between a philosophy of natural law and a philosophy of utilitarianism. Somehow this was also inflammatory, and was brought to the campus gay/lesbian/etc. student group, who took it to the head of the Department of Religion.

As an aside, I'm trying to imagine a modern lit/media professor saying something critical about the portrayal of Klingons on the small screen, and having it even occur to the campus Star Trek fan club to formally protest that professor's actions to the department, let alone having the department chair do anything but write a curt yet polite dismissal.

To bring a long story to a short end, the outrage of the student or students in class, the pressure from the homosexual group, and what I can only assume is the e-mail being treated as a confession to causing confusion and discomfort in class; summed up, led to the decision that Dr. Howell's services would no longer be required at the university.

Apparently UIUC did a good job covering its butt legally, that there's little room for a breach of contract suit from the Diocese of Peoria or Dr. Howell personally, but I can't wrap my head around the idea that an instructor can legally be penalized for providing accurate information about what some people believe that other people happen not to like.

It's not like it was a secret. Dr. Howell taught openly for years, and it is a joke so cliched that it's virtually taken as fact that Rome is doctrinally hard on gays because it's so conflicted about its plethora of pedophile priests. Now someone expresses outrage, and that--not the years of sober and fair instruction--is grounds for dismissal.

Sorry, Illinois. The customer is not always right. The vast majority of his students obviously did not feel offended or oppressed or unsafe (or whatever other "hostile classroom environment" words you want to use)--fearing either beratement in class or low grades after the fact--or Dr. Howell's reputation, not to mention his published teacher evaluation scores, would have reflected it. The outlier here is the aggrieved student or group of students, not the behavior of Dr. Howell.

Can you see this happening in other circumstances? Imagine he were teaching an anthro class instead, and brought up some tribe of cannibals back in some equatorial jungle somewhere. Now imagine him talking about their belief that green-eyed people taste better than anyone else. Having green eyes, what grounds would I have for being upset? He's just stating facts. Should I be afraid that one of these cannibals might find me and eat me? Only if I visited their part of the world. Should I be upset that the professor told me they exist? If I were, maybe I shouldn't have taken the class in the first place, because that hypothetical tribe would exist whether I knew about it, wanted to know about it, or not.

Perhaps that's an absurd example. Imagine me, a practicing Catholic, living as a student in the suburbs of Moscow during the Cold War. I go about my business but I keep my head down where it's expedient, and so far I haven't come to any trouble. In a social studies class I'm taking, the teacher spends some time discussing the relationship between religion and the state and society at large. He happens to mention that the Church has been persecuted for being the Church, with burnings at the stake and confiscation of property during the early days of the Reformation, and nowadays with more subtle oppression, to the point where in some parts of the southern US, such as eastern Texas, it's safer to be black than to be Catholic.

What possible rational, lucid motivation would I have for flipping out in class and trying to get my instructor fired? He's not persecuting me. Even if he's a good Party member with some residual Protestant attitudes from his parents from before the Revolution, he's only stating facts. That's his job.

He doesn't have to like what the truth is. I don't have to like what the truth is. I can even think that persecuting the Church is wrong and that my teacher is in error for thinking that religion is a national poison. But he's only saying what happens to be documentedly true and already widely known. I can't honestly be mad at him for that.

I have some angrier words for the people who cost Dr Howell his job in their pursuit of justice or comfort, but it may be best that I don't share them at this time.


Gary said...

Great Post.

I have also written about this on my blog (Goodwrites).

Further, in my blog, readers can find email addresses to leaders at U of I in order to send emails with their thoughts and request reinstatement of Dr. Howell.

Ed Pie said...

Oh, excellent. Thanks for the lead.