By KC Johnson
As part of its more general—and oft-expressed—commitment to academic freedom, CUNY’s Board of Trustees has a student complaint policy that appropriately balances the faculty’s academic freedom with a recognition that students, too, have the right not to be punished for disagreeing with their professor’s political or ideological agenda.
To ensure that student “activists” don’t abuse the policy, the Board recently noted that the process existed only to hear complaints from students actually enrolled in a professor’s class—since a professor’s in-class behavior can, by its very nature, only affect the academic freedom of students in the class.
It seems that they do things differently in Urbana. At the end of the spring semester, a student’s “friend” brought a rather unusual e-mail to the attention of the Religion Department chairman. Adjunct professor Kenneth Howell had sent the e-mail, much of which passed along a natural-law critique of homosexuality, to his spring 2010 class, Introduction to Catholicism. (The e-mail sought to help students prepare for their final exam; the natural law section was clearly relevant to the course content.) If this episode had occurred at CUNY, the Religion chair would have thanked the student for his concerns, but noted that only students in the class, nor their friends or associates, could file complaints.
But the University of Illinois hasn’t imitated CUNY’s policy, costing the school its first opportunity to refuse the controversy. A second chance was lost through the behavior of Religion Dept. chairman Robert McKim. Having decided to entertain the complaint against Howell, the Religion Department could have handled the issue quickly and quietly, by McKim suggesting that, in the future, Howell not pepper exam-prep e-mails with his unrelated and ill-informed insights about public health (see below). Instead, the chair involved diversity-obsessed bureaucrats, who made clear the ‘desire not to retain Howell, given that “the e-mails sent by Dr. Howell violate university standards of inclusivity.”
As so often has occurred in this type of controversy, the voices of reason in the affair have come from students, not the faculty. Eli Lazar, leader of the group of U of I students championing Howell’s retention, framed the case broadly, remarking, “What upset me about this, and what’s upset other people, is we kind of feel students’ sensitivity is starting to dictate what is taught at the university.” (The students have also set up a Facebook page.) That students have spoken up on behalf of Howell, whose teaching had received praise from both his department and from students before 2010, raises further concerns about the wisdom of the quick non-reappointment decision.
In one important way, however, the public reaction to Howell’s non-retention has fallen wide of the mark. The Alliance Defense Fund has characterized his e-mail as protected by academic freedom; Howell’s defenders have suggested that the adjunct professor “lost his position simply for teaching an unpopular Catholic doctrine.” At First Things, Meghan Duke asked, was Howell “fired for being Catholic?”
Yet Howell’s email—a document sent as preparation for the final examination, it’s worth recalling—went well beyond Catholic doctrine by including the following passage:
To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the “woman” while the other acts as the “man.” In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don’t want to be too graphic so I won’t go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to
This item sounds like something from a 1960s phys-ed instructor teaching a junior high school health class. (Or from a Jon Stewart skit asking, “What about lesbians?”) That these sentences came from an adjunct associate professor at a Tier I research institution, providing written instruction on what his students needed to know for the final examination, at the very least raises questions about Dr. Howell’s judgment.
Howell’s exam-prep e-mail contained another unusual comment. “Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality,” Howell wrote, “and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter.”
Howell’s CV contains no evidence he himself has done “extensive research into homosexuality.” Indeed, it provides scant evidence that he has done any research into it at all. (He does have an impressive list of publications on the relationship between Christianity and science.) By the standards that he himself articulated to his students, then, it would seem that Howell was “not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter.” And yet, in an e-mail sent as preparation for his course’s final exam, Howell made pretty clear his judgment “about moral truth in this matter.”
Howell’s off-the-wall comments doubtless explain why his cause has been championed by Illinois professor and AAUP head Cary Nelson, a figure not heretofore known for his defense of intellectual pluralism on campus. “It’s part of intellectual life to advocate for points of view,” Nelson mused. The “Tenured Radical” rejoiced that professors using class time to advance their personal political agendas, rather than to teach the subject at hand, can start lively classroom discussions. Naturally.
Nelson is no fool. The percentage of anti-gay voices (in the faculty or in the student body) on most college campuses is pretty small; the percentage of professors who would offer an exam-prep e-mail like Howell’s is even smaller. On the other hand, the Nelson/Howell standard of appropriate instructional conduct would provide carte blanche to figures like Columbia’s Joseph Massad, who peppered his lectures with fact-free anti-Israel screeds; or those in Duke’s Group of 88 who used their class time to advocate for their ill-informed opinions on campus events.
Given his impressive list of publications—and, perhaps more important, given the strong student support that suggests his e-mail did not reflect his normal professional standards—Howell deserves to be reappointed, and the diversity-obsessed U of I administration deserves a public relations black mark.
But those eager to see a return to intellectual quality on the nation’s college campuses should think long and hard about defending Howell’s conduct in this case. The contemporary academy already has more than enough of its share of professors who use the instructional process to advance their personal, ill-informed, ideological agendas.