URBANA, Ill. — The University of Illinois has fired an adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism after a student accused the instructor of engaging in hate speech by saying he agrees with the church’s teaching that homosexual sex is immoral.
The professor, Ken Howell of Champaign, has taught at the university for nine years. He says his firing violates his academic freedom.
A professor at the university who is also president of the American Association of University Professors agrees. Cary Nelson says teachers are allowed to express their own beliefs.
University spokeswoman Robin Kaler declined comment because Howell’s firing is a personnel issue.
The student had a friend register his complaint and has remained anonymous.
Academic freedom protects the rights of instructors to express their views in class. Student complaints against a professor should rarely be used as a vehicle for dismissal. If a professor were chastising a student or engaging in abusive and demeaning treatment of a student due to their orientation, that would be unacceptable. The expression of an opinion on the topic of homosexuality is legitimate and proper for an instructor. Instructors cannot proselytize or introduce controversial material that is so frequently expressed and unrelated to the course that the purpose of the class is eviscerated. Yet instructors can express opinions and indeed controversial ones; they should express them when they believe it appropriate. I would not construe the instructor’s comments as hate speech in that Mr Howell was apparently agreeing with a religious denomination’s views. His views by email or in class were part of a religion class and obviously germane to the catalog description of the course. Those views might be intolerant, biased, and cruel, as indeed they are, but one has the right to articulate them.
One cannot fire a professor for homophobia in my opinion. It is within the bounds of academic freedom for one to express those views with the caveats indicated above. Students should be allowed to disagree with an instructor and engage in spirited dialogue; Kenneth Howell has stated he adheres to that requirement. I do not see any evidence that such was denied. I think a student who is upset with a professor’s in-class remarks, if he or she did not do so, should first discuss the issue with the instructor. Then if necessary with a department chair or other unit head. However, I stand by academic freedom because without it higher education in the US is doomed to conformity and the perpetuation, if not monopoly, of intolerant views as expressed by Mr Howell. It is usually the left, the progressive, the critical thinker who are sanctioned for speech and academic freedom must be defended across the ideological spectrum so those who defy convention are protected in their search for the truth.
I believe the University of Illinois has demonstrated once again that off the tenure-track instructors have few academic freedom protections. Contingent faculty are the new majority and have little academic freedom. The cancer of contingency is evident here: at-will employees who are sanctioned for apparently expressing their views. Mr Howell did not have the protection of tenure and therefore is much more vulnerable to ideological persecution. I am pleased that A.A.U.P. President Cary Nelson was critical of this dismissal action.
I teach at a Roman Catholic university and have frequently criticised the church’s position on the issue of homosexuality when the topic is covered in my history classes. I will continue to do so when I wish, how I wish and as I wish. Students may express and do their views on the issue and open dialogue is the order of the day. In fact my classes on the gay liberation movement of the 1950s and 1960s are very conducive to class discussion. I have had students in class declare their homosexuality, inform me in my office they are homosexual, refer to biblical text to oppose it in the hall and e-mail me generally enlightened views on the topic. I am not involved in that lifestyle and for me I only require three things about sexual intimacy: it emanate from adults, it derive from consensual commingling, and is conducted in a private manner. The rest is immaterial because privacy means privacy.
Mr Howell’s Complete E-mail to U of I class and comments