The strange case of UIUC adjunct Kenneth Howell

Fox News has an article on the controversy involved in the “not firing firing” of UIUC (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) adjunct professor Kenneth Howell for private Emails expressing what some read as approval of Catholic doctrine on same-sex relationships. The case is less black and white than either side lets on, but disturbing nevertheless. A few impromptu remarks on this drama playing out at what is, interestingly, the birthplace of the first widely available web browser (Mosaic, which later became Netscape).

Dr. Howell is an interesting character. An ordained Presbyterian minister by background, he converted to Catholicism and moved to UIUC to become involved with the Catholic student center, of which he eventually became the director. He simultaneous started teaching as  an adjunct associate professor on Catholic doctrine at UIUC, and by all accounts was popular with the students and well-liked by them. He was given an award for teaching excellence.

In an Email responding to a query about this, he expounded the reasoning behind Catholic doctrine on same-sex relationships, specifically the “Natural law” argument. He, however, did not state this in a manner disassociating himself personally from this doctrine (“Catholic moralists defending this doctrine put forward the following arrgument:”[…] or something of the sort). As he himself is by all accounts a devout Catholic, it was understood by some as personally agreeing with them, which led to complaints against him and his annual contract not being renewed. (Technically he was not fired, but I am familiar enough with academia to know how appearances are kept there.)

Leaving aside Jewish (or my own) views on homosexuality, I am personally of two minds about the affair. On the one hand, every college lecturer would do well to remember the admonishment of Avtalyon in Pirkei Avot 1:11: “Scholars, heed your words. For you may be exiled to a place of evil waters [i.e., malicious elements who will distort your words to suit their purposes]. The disciples who come after you will then drink of these evil waters and be destroyed, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.” On the other hand, for every Dr. Howell there are dozens of lecturers and professors who vigorously advocate Marxism (a doctrine in whose name even more people have been killed than in the name of National Socialism), spout antisemitic and/or anti-American drivel from their bully pulpits,… with impunity. (OK, most of these enjoy the protection of tenure, unlike Dr. Howell.)

Meanwhile, as the Fox article explains, students have rallied to his defense, including from some rather… unexpected groups.

Thousands of supporters are rallying behind Dr. Kenneth Howell, the University of Illinois professor fired for expressing his Catholic beliefs, via a \”Save Dr. Ken\” Facebook group.”
“It’s turning into a whole movement for freedom of speech in the classroom,” said senior Tim Fox, a member of the group and former resident at the university’s Catholic student Newman Center.The “Save Dr. Ken” Facebook group includes alumni, current students and outside supporters who are familiar with Howell through his books or his appearances on EWTN, a Catholic television network. Howell is actively involved in the group and has written personal responses to some of his Facebook supporters.

“Save Dr. Ken” is actively working to take its protest beyond Facebook. Its home page offers detailed instructions on how to protest Howell’s dismissal, separately tailored to students, alumni and outside supporters. […]

Students are also organizing a mass boycott of all university religion courses unless Howell is reinstated by the fall, Melissa Silverberg, editor-in-chief of the university’s student newspaper, the Daily Illini, confirmed.

Howell is a popular professor; his students voted for him to receive an “Excellence in Teaching” award last fall, and now they are rallying for him.

[…] Students at the center are not the only ones protesting. The campus secularist group, Atheists, Agnostics & Freethinkers, has taken up Howell’s cause. Howell had worked with the group in the past, helping organize a public debate between an atheist and a Catholic on “Does the Christian God Exist?” last February. Its president wrote a letter to the university chancellor, Robert Easter, saying, “[Howell] has shown a commitment to the questioning of all ideas. His loss is a profound blow to the University of Illinois and its purpose… Who will next be silenced?”“Even people who disagree with what [Howell] taught think that his firing was wrong,” said Silverberg.

But not everyone is in Howell’s corner. Some students say they are not so sure he should be coming back.

“I wouldn’t necessarily get behind this protest,” said David Bettinardi, a senior. “Teachers can abuse their authority, and if a teacher talks about his personal beliefs in class, it becomes less education and more indoctrination. That’s true for a professor with any set of beliefs – atheist, Catholic, whatever.”

Other students said Howell’s dismissal was not just an issue of freedom of speech, but revealed a double standard at the university.

“Professor Howell didn’t mean to insult homosexuals; he was just stating the Catholic position,” said Mike Hamoy, a senior chemistry major who took Howell’s class in fall 2009. “I’ve had multiple professors who have mocked how much Catholic families reproduce or who have implied to the class that God is a joke. Why aren’t these professors fired for their open insults?”

The logic behind the double standards is very simple, Mike. If you agree with the Anointed and thus are a loyal member of the New Class, you can get away with nearly anything. But woe unto those who dare stray off the reservation, or who simply are “not one of us”…

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s