In 2002 I was suspended for an e-mail to an Air Force Academy cadet condemning the military, war and the killing of innocents as described clinically as collateral damage. It was a nationally publicised academic freedom case and I was perhaps the first professor suspended due to an e-mail response to an off-campus student who to this day, aside from a few e-mail at the time, I have never spoken to or personally met. I mention this because Ken Howell of the University of Illinois has been fired as an adjunct because of an anonymous student complaint of an e-mail that he sent to his class, Introduction to Catholicism. No student of mine complained because my e-mail was sent to an Air Force Academy cadet who wanted me and fifty other faculty to recruit an audience for a conference at the academy. He did not complain either but as is well known, the e-mail was sent by cadets to others and it went viral all over the world and I got caught up in the culture wars and the need to silence antiwar, progressive faculty. I guess I am an expert on e-mail and sanctions and as the ranking Illinois AAUP official on Academic Freedom and Tenure cases, have a professional interest in this case as well.
Let’s get the facts out here:
Robert McKim, the chair of the religion dept at the University of Illinois fired Mr Howell. Universities should have a process where ALL faculty have access to a pre-sanction review hearing. No chair should be allowed to fire an adjunct professor unilaterally. There needs to be institutional machinery to provide appropriate due process. Even non-tenure track faculty should have some academic freedom protections. They usually don’t and this case highlights that. The University of Illinois must protect all faculty, even at-will contingent faculty, from such arbitrary and capricious chairperson actions. Professor McKim needs to have his knuckles rapped for such severe treatment of an academician and the evisceration of basic standards of academic freedom.
I am troubled that the student who filed the complaint did so through a friend. This is cowardly. A student who charges a professor with an act of inappropriate conduct or speech should openly and directly initiate the proceeding against a professor, unless there is fear of harm or other penalty. Academic fear of grade discrimination is no excuse in the absence of an instructor engaging in such behaviour. Mr Howell’s e-mail apparently was sent to the entire class, not just an individual or small cohort within the class. When it comes to grade grievance, by the way, it is common and AAUP best practices for the instructor to receive the first complaint. That should have applied here. If the complaint is not resolved, then the student may go to a chair or to a dean. In this case, apparently a student filed a hate-speech complaint through a third party to the chair. At the very minimum, a departmental inquiry should have followed. At the very minimum, the university should have afforded this adjunct some due process protection. At the very minimum, the adjunct professor should have had a hearing and the right to file a grievance. Adjuncts are not proletarians to be treated in this manner.
I have not seen the entire e-mail but only parts of it. However, to fire a professor over an e-mail sent to an entire class which was NOT student specific and apparently did not threaten a student, or attempt to discriminate directly against a student or a group of students but was merely an expression of ideas-however homophobic, ignorant and stupid-does not measure up to cause. Chair McKim should only have initiated a process of termination if he felt the e-mail revealed an incapacity in performing one’s teaching duties. Did it raise issues of competence or capacity to teach? Rarely does a statement to a class suggest such a grave lack of teaching ability as to merit dismissal. One also has to take into an account a person’s entire career before reaching a conclusion that one’s teaching abilities are so compromised by a single statement. Being homophobic as Mr Howell appears to be is despicable but should not be a career-ending event. Mr Howell has the right to also oppose the military’s discriminatory policy of don’t ask, don’t tell and should be able to articulate that. It is only required that other ideas are tolerated and that a professor not engage in indoctrination. I must admit I am curious whether Mr Howell’s e-mail included a suggestion for dialogue and comment or whether it was just an instructor’s statement ex cathedra. The parts I have seen did ask them to reflect on his statement and I think agree with it but not in a manner that even remotely approaches indoctrination or a tyrannical approach to pedagogy. Yet it is not a requirement but just good teaching to educe disparate views.
I am pleased that the U of I has a Faculty Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure which according to the Daily Illini and WBBM in Chicago will review this case. More institutions of higher learning should. Yet they should have been called into this situation PRIOR to not after dismissal. It is apparent that Mr Howell may get his job back; I suspect he will. I would like to believe that such a turnaround does not end the matter. That the university review its process of dealing with sanctions, both major and minor, of all faculty.
I also think Mr Howell needs to do a gut check of what kind of a person he is and why he would take a position so aggressively as opposed to providing a more comforatble learning experience. However, his job must not be sacrificed due to his ignorance or bias. He must be defended and his job restored. He knows AAUP is on his campus and has an Ilinois office as well. If not he can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and the president of AAUP, Dr Cary Nelson, is on the faculty at the Urbana campus. If anyone cares, I am straight and would be aggressively out if I were not. I would not want Mr Howell as my professor but I would march, sit-in, and strike for his rights under AAUP guidelines and policies.