Phi Beta Cons

A Further Update on Professor Howell: The University Spins

I’ve seen this play before.  

Act One: Violate the constitution. In this case, when Prof. Ken Howell taught his subject (an introduction to Catholicism), his accurate description of natural-law theory caused a particularly sensitive student or two (including a student not even in his class) to feel offended. A single student complained, so the university summarily fired him, even going so far as to publicly state via e-mail that Dr. Howell’s description of Catholic beliefs “violates university standards of inclusivity.”  

Act Two: Realize the mistake. The resulting media firestorm quickly reminded university officials that not everyone dwells in their radical echo chamber. One or two students may have been offended, but thousands more appreciate the marketplace of ideas. At the same time, however, they’re still captured by their intolerant ideology, so they’re not quite ready to correct their mistake. So what do they do? They un-fire Dr. Howell but also note that they have not decided to re-hire him. Oh, and they punt the entire matter to a committee for review — a review that won’t be completed until the very eve of the next semester.  

Act Three: Try a new spin. With the media glare still white-hot, the university tries to rewrite history. The case isn’t really about Dr. Howell teaching Catholic thought; it’s about the university’s unique relationship with the Saint John’s Catholic Newman Center. After all, isn’t this the “Real Scandal“? To articulate this view, the university’s defenders run to Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed. And Scott runs a story that begins:

If you want to study Buddhist or Methodist or Jewish thought at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, there are relevant courses in religious studies — courses where the instructors have been selected by a department of scholars, through standard academic procedures.

But if you want to study Roman Catholicism, your instructors have been through different vetting — they will have been nominated by (and their salaries paid by) the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, a church organization independent of the university, set up to serve Catholic students at the university.

This arrangement has existed for decades, and been opposed by faculty members — also for decades. Not only is it highly unusual for a college to give an outside group the right to screen and nominate candidates to teach, but the situation raises church-state issues at a public institution, presents issues of fairness when it is permitted for only one religious group at a secular college, and may undercut the values of the field of religious studies, faculty critics say.

Scary stuff, that. It sounds like the Catholic Church is controlling Catholic religion classes at the university. According to the new spin, teaching Catholic thought isn’t the problem; it’s the “church-state issues” caused by an arrangement where a Catholic entity pays the salary of an adjunct professor on campus. That’s what the university really meant when it said, “The e-mails sent by Dr. Howell violate university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us.” They weren’t concerned with Dr. Howell’s teaching at all! They’re just protecting their academic independence.

Hmmm . . . .

The Inside Higher Ed story received more than one compliment from its readers as an example of excellent reporting. Yet it doesn’t appear that anyone from Inside Higher Ed read the actual agreement (dated Sept. 18, 2000) between the university and the Newman Center. In addition to stating that courses taught under the agreement will be created through “standing procedures as regular courses within the curriculum of the Program for the Study of Religion” and that any proposed new courses will have to be approved through the “standard procedures of the university,” the agreement contains the following key paragraph:

Individuals will be proposed for adjunct faculty status by the Newman Foundation, and shall hold appropriate scholarly credentials and shall be reviewed and approved for adjunct status according to the standard procedures for such positions. The faculty members and courses shall be subject to the same review and supervision by the Program for the Study of Religion as apply to all courses and members of the Program’s faculty. In turn, the adjunct faculty affiliated with the Newman Foundation shall have the rights and privileges accorded all faculty holding the same positions.

 Wait, you mean that Dr. Howell was subject to the “same review and supervision” as other religion professors? And that he couldn’t even become an adjunct without being approved “according to the standard procedures for such positions”? (Strange that Inside Higher Ed implies that “standard academic procedures” were not applied when “standard procedures” are mandated by the agreement.) Under the agreement, the university got an adjunct professor that the university hired and the university controlled . . . without having to pay his salary.  

That’s a scandal? Hardly. It’s an effort to change the subject. Professor Howell’s case was and remains remarkably simple: A long-time and popular adjunct professor was fired for teaching Catholic beliefs in a class about Catholic beliefs. Until it became accountable in the court of public opinion, the university was proud enough of what it had done to admit it via widely disseminated e-mail.  

If the university does not rehire Dr. Howell, we may shortly move to Act Four, the courtroom drama.

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