Thoughts on the Professor Howell Controversy

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The issues raised by the U of I Professor Kenneth Howell’s initial hiring at the University of Illinois, his e-mail to his students who were preparing to take a final examination in his course on Catholicism, and his subsequent termination and rehiring are at once complex and fundamental to the nature of this university and the
pedagogy that it offers its students. My remarks and my judgments on the situation are based upon the publicly available information as I write. Thus, there may be some
considerations pertinent to the initial decision not to retain him of which I am unaware.

Professor Howell was hired nine years ago as a nontenured and non-tenurable adjunct professor. However, the difference between most adjunct professors and Professor Howell is that he was not selected by members of his department, but rather by the Newman Foundation. He also was paid not by the university, but by the diocese in Peoria, the St. John’s Institute of Catholic Thought, or the Newman Foundation, or a combination of them. While there is little doubt about Professor Howell’s accomplishments, he has two PhDs and four books to his name, there is a problem when the university turns over to a private entity the ability to appoint advocates of their
position within the classroom. This is a problem whether it comes to advocacy of a religious point of view or a secular point of view. The university encountered the same
problem with the initial proposition that was made by those who proposed an Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government. They wanted the power to design courses and hire professorial advocates of their ideology in the areas of the social sciences, humanities, and journalism.

A committee of University Senators found this completely unacceptable. The same issue arises in the case of the courses on religion. If the highly qualified Professor Howell had applied for a position in the Department of Religion, been accepted by the department, and received a university salary, this would have accorded with the procedures of the university and there would not have been a feeling that he had been imposed upon the department by an agreement between the higher administration and an outside private entity. Thus, if there is blame here, it lies not on the shoulders of Professor Howell, but on those of the higher campus administration.

The termination was faulty on procedural grounds. A complaint by a student is never a justifiable grounds for not retaining a faculty member unless it is followed up by
a further investigation, an interview with the faculty member so that he or she can respond to the charges, and some sort of due process whereby the situation is systematically assessed to determine if there are really grounds for termination. This kind of cautious approach is particularly necessary when there is an issue of academic freedom. There is no more fundamental academic freedom than that of speech. That freedom is possessed by both professors, including
adjuncts, and students. The expression of ideas on controversial issues is going to offend some people. But learning to deal with people who have ideas different from yours, even on issues on which one feels strongly, is an important part of both intellectual and civic development. What is important is that the discourse remain civil, even if the parties become angry with each other. “Hate speech” is not civil.

Whatever the nature of discourse in the professor’s classroom, the charge was made by a friend of a student who received the offending e-mail that the e-mail indeed
crossed the line and constituted “hate speech.” (The e-mail can be read at the News Gazette). One must be very careful in what one calls hate speech. Not everything that offends us is hate speech. Professor Howell justifies the Church’s and his position on homosexuality by reference to “Moral Natural Law.” He claims:

“Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.”

In letters to the editor in the News-Gazette, some have responded to him by pointing to so much homosexual activity among priests. He might respond by saying that
these priests are fallen angels who have indeed sinned against moral law, but that this does not invalidate the law itself. But his use of anatomy, physiology, and psychology are faith-based interpretations rather than logical proofs that could convince a nonbeliever. Moreover, such argumentation could backfire against Catholic doctrine. For example, it could be argued that the celibacy of the clergy violates Natural Law (and is thus immoral) because it so alienates many clergymen from the REALITY of their anatomy, physiology, and psychology that they misdirect their natural/factual sexual drives toward children. Is this interpretation any more or less a moral “proof” based on Natural Law than his use of the same criteria to morally criticize homosexuality?

But this does get to the central issue of whether his is hate speech. I do not think that it is. In the third paragraph of his e-mail, the professor writes:
“to judge an action wrong is not to condemn a person. A person and his/her acts can be distinguished for the purposes of morality.”

Hate speech does not make such a distinction. It is not a criticism of a specific act. Hate speech dehumanizes. It declares the essence of a person, as well as the group to which the person belongs, as being unworthy, hateful, and dangerous to society. A physical attack on someone who is gay because he or she is gay is really a public demonstration intended for emulation. Others should follow the genocidal example of the Nazis and wipe these people off the face of the earth for they are inherently evil and destroy the moral fiber of the society, nation or world. That’s why there are often additional criminal penalties attached to hate crimes, which are most easily identified by the speech that precedes and accompanies them.

Where I think that the professor did go very wrong pedagogically is when he writes to his students who are preparing for a final examination:
“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.”
What student facing a final examination, the evaluation of which will affect his or her grade point average, would dare to challenge this professor on his moral evaluation of
homosexuality? This statement to students might be acceptable in a theological seminary, but it is out of place in a university where we are presumably encouraging students to be critical thinkers however limited their knowledge and experience might be. This confusion of the pedagogical mission, and the likely intimidation of dissenting students, needs to be brought to the attention of Professor Howell.

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