Professor rehired after controversy over beliefs
August 17, 2010
Most professors spend their summer breaks doing research, writing publications or simply relaxing and spending time with their families. Instead, adjunct professor Kenneth Howell found himself spending the past summer fighting for his job.
Since 2001, Howell had been regularly teaching two courses, Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought, for the Department of Religion through an arrangement with the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, that paid for his teaching salary.
Things changed in early May, when Howell sent an e-mail to his students with the intent of further clarifying utilitarianism and moral theory as they prepared for final exams, using the Catholic Church’s views on homosexuality as an example.
“(Natural Moral Law) says that Morality must be a response to REALITY,” Howell wrote in the e-mail. “In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”
The e-mail prompted a May 13 complaint to department head Robert McKim from a student who wrote anonymously on the behalf of a friend who was in Howell’s class. The student complained that Howell was disseminating hate speech and allowing “little room for any opposition to Catholic dogma.”
“Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another,” the student wrote in the e-mail.
After the end of the semester, Howell was then told by McKim he would no longer be able to teach for the Department of Religion in the fall.
In an e-mail to students on June 23 informing them of the loss of his teaching post, Howell said he had always told students about his beliefs as a practicing Catholic. “I have gone out of my way to emphasize that the same belief is not required of them,” he wrote. “However, this was not good enough for the Department of Religion.”
When news broke out about Howell’s dismissal in June, support poured in from many different sides. The Facebook group, “Save Dr. Ken,” quickly reached more than 2,000 members, many of whom insisted Howell’s academic freedom had been violated.
“As an atheist, I really agree with almost nothing in such a class as Dr. Howell taught,” said Ed Clint, junior in Psychology and president of the registered student organization Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers. “But I didn’t feel that anything that he did solicited termination as a result.”
Others disagreed and many questioned the unique teaching arrangement between the University and the Newman Center.
Eventually it fell to the Faculty Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure to review McKim’s decision not to allow Howell to continue teaching in the fall.
“We want to be able to reassure ourselves there was no infringement on academic freedom here,” University President Michael Hogan told members of the Faculty Senate in July.
On July 29, while the committee continued to review the case, the University offered Howell a chance to teach religious studies classes again in the fall, but with one difference: the University would be paying his salary instead of the Newman Center.
As the academic arrangement between the University and the Newman Center dissolved, supporters also continued to raise questions about individual aspects of the controversy.
“We’re extremely pleased that Dr. Howell is back in the classroom and will be teaching this fall,” said David Hacker, litigation staff counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which has been providing support for Howell since his dismissal.
Hacker added that the ADF “will be watching carefully to make sure that Professor Howell’s academic freedom is protected throughout the ongoing process.”