Alex Blaze

Homophobic, transphobic professor loses job because he just knows too much

Filed By Alex Blaze | July 12, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: academic freedom, kenneth howell, university of illinois

A Catholic professor, Kenneth Howell, at the University of Illinois was fired for an anti-gay and anti-trans email diatriberainbow-catholic.jpg to students. He's saying that it violates his "academic freedom." He's an adjunct professor, and the university is claiming that he wasn't fired, just that his contract wasn't renewed.

Part of the problem with so many universities facing budget cuts is that they're hiring fewer full-timers and more adjuncts who make substantially less than a full-timer would, even if they're teaching the same number of credit-hours. And as anyone who's worked on a contract basis knows (and more Americans will learn about this as the economy continues to deteriorate), you really have no protection against employment discrimination as you're not really employed in the first place. It's just one of the many ways American employers have found to work around anti-discrimination legislation and fairly compensating their employees.

Howell himself, though, didn't limit his email to academic work or to his own informed opinion; instead, he went into a long, pseudo-scientific diatribe on how disgusting sodomy is. Consider:

But the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.

One example applicable to homosexual acts illustrates the problem. 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. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.

One physician? One's a man and one's a woman? "Injurious"? Maybe he should have familiarized himself with the concept of "academe" before he started crying "academic freedom," because he clearly has done no research into the topic he's discussing nor does he really seem to want to have an actual understanding of the topic.

And trans people are a product of a culture that wants to "manipulate" the body:

Now recall that I mentioned in class the importance of gaining wisdom from the past. One part of wisdom we gain from such knowledge is how people today came to think of their bodies. I won't go into details here but a survey of the last few centuries reveals that we have gradually been separating our sexual natures (reality) from our moral decisions. Thus, people tend to think that we can use our bodies sexually in whatever ways we choose without regard to their actual structure and meaning. This is also what lies behind the idea of sex change operations. We can manipulate our bodies to be whatever we want them to be.

Did he do any research to find out if that is, in fact, "what lies behind the idea of sex change operations"? I doubt it, but that doesn't stop him from pulling a classic arrogant wingnut move: saying that his opinion is grounded in tons of research that he obviously never did (reading is hard!), while anyone who disagrees with him is just emotional:

Before looking at the issue of criteria, however, we have to remind ourselves of the ever-present tendency in all of us to judge morality by emotion. The most frequent reason I hear people supporting same-sex marriage is that they know some gay couples or individuals. Empathy is a noble human quality but right or wrong does not depend on who is doing the action or on how I feel about those people, just as judging an action wrong should not depend on disliking someone. This might seem obvious to a right thinking person but I have encountered many well-educated people who do not (or cannot?) make the distinction between persons and acts when engaging moral reasoning. I encourage you to read the final essay editorial I sent earlier to reflect on this. In short, to judge an action wrong is not to condemn a person. A person and his/her acts can be distinguished for the purposes of morality.[...]

As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends upon religion. Catholics don't arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality.

Yes, his understanding of reality is definitely "thorough": one unnamed, unquoted physician once said something to him!

You can read the entire email. Personally, I don't know much about exactly what a professor can and cannot express to students. Most of my professors had opinions that they did discuss, but I don't remember a single one of them go into some sort of "The Jews control all the money and eat babies" rant, and I doubt they would have lasted long if they had.

The student complaint against him says that it's not just this email, but the fact that he used his class to "preach (not teach) his ideology" throughout the entire semester. I'm hoping there was some sort of investigation to find out if that's true, since that's not the purpose of the academic environment.

Anyway, he wasn't tenured and he wasn't even full-time, so when he's accused of using his position of power to indoctrinate students into stupidity and alienating others, the schools is well within its rights to not give him another contract.


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Hell, even if he *were* tenured, I'd be looking for a dismissal. This is so far afield from scientific theory and evaluaion that it's surprising he was allowed to teach in the first place.

Science? He taught Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought, not anything related to science.

He was speaking *as thought it were scientific fact*, based on minimal observation. He might be calling it "Catholic thought", but when he starts pounding that it's "fact", he needs to base his specious ideas on proper scientific investigation and not hide behind the veil of "thoughtful opinion". AFAIC, he crossed the line from dogma into science and now expects to be given an allowance for it.

I do have to say that he did put his knowledge of science on the table. He specifically says that Catholic morality is based on "reality" - aka science - not religion. And since he includes his scientifesque views on the final, as that email was supposed to help with exam preparation, it's become a part of the course material.

As I said above, if we're *only* talking about this email, then letting him go was over the top. But it sounds more like this is a pattern of behavior than just one email, and I would imagine this isn't the first complaint the school has received about him.

Sticky wicket here.

First, I'm glad you began by detailing the realities of adjunct life. I would clarify one point, though: universities aren't necessarily choosing to hire larger numbers of part-timers because of budget cuts - if budget cuts were the issue, we'd be seeing more sensible measures like, oh, cutting the exorbitant salaries and ridiculous benefits (like mansions and cars) of top-level administrators. Rather, they're making budget cuts the *excuse* for not replacing tenure-track positions with tenure-track faculty. The reality is that the university system in the US (sadly, being replicated in places like the UK) is, on the whole, making drastic cuts in order to increase profitability. The surge in adjuncts is a symptom of the university system's turning away from a primarily educational mission to one that's about making profits.

Which is to say - the numbers indicate that there *is* enough money to staff departments with tenure-track faculty. Universities just don't want to. This is why an average undergraduate at relatively well-endowed places like Harvard can get a degree without encountering too many, or any, of the "names" for which the institution is famous. Marc Bousquet's website is a great source for more on adjuncts and the university. The fact that Howell is an adjunct seems germane to this case - and if this develops into a full-blown court matter, any decision will probably have a profound effect on how universities are required to treat adjuncts and what rights, if any, adjuncts might have.

As to the situation with Howell: I see that he has the support of the Institute of Catholic Thought and will be helped by the Alliance Defense Fund. He won't be going quietly. I'm curious about the fact that he taught there for nine years - how did this not become a problem earlier? And if he was hired specifically to *be* the Catholic voice (as far as I can tell), who decides that his views are unwanted? As Vene points out, he wasn't hired to teach science but doctrine.

I think his views make it easy for us to make fun of him and agree with his non-renewal. But I wonder if we'd be singing the same tune if a conservative Catholic university did the same thing with a gay professor who had the opposite views of what Howell professes. Or what of adjuncts and even professors who've held unpopular views on political matters? I'm thinking here of the group Campus Watch's surveillance and Alan Dershowitz's attacks on Norman Finkelstein, and many, many other examples.

All of this, of course, also raises the issue of private vs. state institutions. All of which is complicated by the continuing debate on matters of free speech and academic freedom.

All of which is to say: this isn't over yet, and I wonder what we'd have to say if Howell were being let go for being too affirming of gay politics.

And I meant: "I wonder what we'd have to say if Howell were being let go for being too affirming of gay politics, or what counts as "progressive" gay politics (which is really anything but, but that's another discussion)."

I don't know any school that fired anyone for being too pro-gay, but there is one school this year that withdrew a job offer to a lesbian for being gay:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/07/marquette-jodi-obrien_n_567399.html

I think it'd be easier to take his side if he were let go because of his views on gay politics, i.e. if he was against hate crimes legislation, antidiscrimination legislation, marriage, etc. But that's really not what he was saying, he was saying that he was against homosexuality itself for some easily debunked reasons. If this issue comes down to the fact that he wasn't hired to teach science, then why was he teaching science in the first place? He's not saying "Catholics believe X" in that email, he's saying "Catholics believe X because of Y scientific reality, and accepting Y scientific reality is necessary for completion of this course" (or at least it's implied in that email).

It is possible to teach religious doctrine without advocating a specific doctrine. That's the distinction made in the complaint against him, and I'm assuming that the religion department (which made the decision not to get him back) at a large university would understand that.

It's never been confirmed that the Marquette offer was rescinded because she was gay. "We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family" is not the same thing as not hiring her because she was gay. The bit "which include a sociological study of vignettes on lesbian sex" is an observation by the reporter, not the university spokesperson. In fact, Marquette has also hired openly queer/lesbian Dawne Moon.

http://www.marquette.edu/socs/moon.shtml

And she has published a book and more on religion and homosexuality.

That doesn't exonerate Marquette because they had actually made the offer and then rescinded it - in my book, a big no-no. Their conservatism on the structure of the family - and they should have known beforehand of her work! - may well have resulted in rescinding the offer, but it's not unlikely that an institution of that sort would be supportive of work that looks at homosexuality and the church - as long as it buttresses the essential notions of what constitute proper families and social units. Which only proves that doing gay research in matters of religion need not be inimical to religion - and, in fact, most work about homosexuality and religion does little to challenge the politics surrounding either.

I see your point about his using scientific science. But I'm still wondering how and why someone could hold that position for *nine* years, and suddenly not be renewed because of his views. Overall, I think this case will turn out to be a lot murkier in the long run. I'm guessing, and I'm only guessing, that there's more going on here in terms of departmental politics and about the funding of the position.

And I'm also curious - and I'm throwing this out to everyone, not just you - about how the complainant writes "Once again, this is a public university and should thus have no religious affiliation" when Howell's position was funded by the Institute of Catholic Thought? Or, it's possible that they are operating on a very different and perhaps more specific notion of "religious affiliation."

Maybe the University can give him the "Douchebag of the Year Award." Surely, that'll make him feel better about the whole situation!

I do not support firing this man from his teaching post over the email.

As Yasmin mentions, it seems absurd that for several years this subject, department, and individual, were going on at this university and then suddenly they decide this teacher crossed some line with the material where he deserved to be fired.

If the email content was found inappropriate by the university, then he should have been told to offer his apologies to students in both email and classroom. If the class content needs to be changed than the department needs to offer new guidelines.

And yes I read the entire email

Dan Massey | July 12, 2010 5:29 PM

I'm surprised nobody jumped on his claim of "natural moral law" and "reality".

The concept of NML has no basis in reality at all. There is no natural morality, only the deluded fears one group tries to impose on another.

We need to recognize that religions can be right or wrong in what they teach about spiritual reality; however, they have no right at all to any moral teaching on any subject. Morality is both personal and situational and springs directly from a deep spiritual understanding and commitment to personal ethical responsibility. NML is just one person's fantasy of this for himself projected onto others who have an inalienable right to live their own lives.

Pay no attention to those who rely on NML arguments. They aren't even wrong, they are hopelessly irrelevant.

A. J. Lopp | July 12, 2010 6:19 PM

Yes ... and I'd also like to tear to shreads his argument (and the physician's) that all homosexual activity is "injurious to health" ... of course injury is possible just as it is with heterosexual sex ... but all gay sex is "injurious"? ...

Woody14619 | July 12, 2010 8:32 PM

Uhmm... It sounds to me like a teacher steeped over the bounds a little, and got hit by a wave of upset students. In particular, the school noted that several students complained. Given how the younger generation's viewpoint on sexuality is shifting, I can't imagine this is the first time they've gotten such reviews on this teacher.

Clearly, if an adjunct teacher gets negative reviews year over year, at some point the school is going to let them go. That's the nature of being adjunct. If he was teaching this in the class verbally, it may have generated several negative reviews, but not enough to prod the lazy administration into dropping the existing teacher and finding a new one. Having it in writing (along with several more complaints) may have been the final straw.

I don't see anything out of the ordinary here. I've seen teachers who teach poorly get average to poor reviews for years before the office gets off their butt and finds a new person to replace the poor performer. Looks like that's what happened here. And legally, I don't think he has a leg to stand on, since there's no obligation to renew a contracted employee. Plus all they have to do is say "we got negative reviews by students over X years, so we let him go". I don't see an issue here.

Uhmm... It sounds to me like a teacher steeped over the bounds a little, and got hit by a wave of upset students. In particular, the school noted that several students complained. Given how the younger generation's viewpoint on sexuality is shifting, I can't imagine this is the first time they've gotten such reviews on this teacher.

Clearly, if an adjunct teacher gets negative reviews year over year, at some point the school is going to let them go. That's the nature of being adjunct. If he was teaching this in the class verbally, it may have generated several negative reviews, but not enough to prod the lazy administration into dropping the existing teacher and finding a new one. Having it in writing (along with several more complaints) may have been the final straw.

I don't see anything out of the ordinary here. I've seen teachers who teach poorly get average to poor reviews for years before the office gets off their butt and finds a new person to replace the poor performer. Looks like that's what happened here. And legally, I don't think he has a leg to stand on, since there's no obligation to renew a contracted employee. Plus all they have to do is say "we got negative reviews by students over X years, so we let him go". I don't see an issue here.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | July 12, 2010 10:42 PM

The fight for academic and other forms of freedom of speech have their roots in the centuries old battle between christers, especially the roman cult. Until the American and French revolutions and the Enlightenment their weapons of choice were fire and the sword. (The last official victim of the Inquisition died in Mexico in the 1850's.)

The fight for freedom of speech is key because cults and the right wing Democrats and Republicans who rule our happy little banana republic constantly impose limits on free speech by criminalizing protests and ignoring the right to privacy.

Internally they use the Paytriot Act, FISA, snooping, witch-hunting and state terrorism against African Americans and others via Jim Crow drug laws. In the process they've created the world's largest and fastest growing prison system all with without any active protest from liberal or conservative parties or politicians.

Externally, in the case of nationalists from Palestine to Pakistan they utilize kidnapping, concentration camps, torture and murder on a massive scale. Again, liberals and conservatives keep their mouths shut. In the 1960's and 70's, again without active protest from 'liberals' they used a campaign of wholesale murder to eliminate MalcolmX, the Panthers and others. There are no guarantees they won't use those tactics again.

But you can bet that if they do the liberals and conservatives will be quiet as mice. As Mark Twain said "It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them."

Free speech is a right worth fighting for, but not when it's used by preachers, clerics and rightwing politicians to whip up anti-LGBT frenzy and endanger our lives. In a decent society that kind of dangerous hatemongering would be treated with obligatory re-education or medical care and it would never, never be permitted in schools and colleges.

When we get that kind of decent society it'll be called socialist and revolutionary.

spigliatezza | July 13, 2010 12:14 AM

I read the e-mail, and it seemed like he was mostly clarifying some concepts that had arisen in class discussion - utilitarianism and Natural Moral Law. I know nothing about Catholic teachings, so I'm going to assume these concepts are part of the academic thought surrounding Catholicism. However, he lost me with his last few sentences: "As a final note, a perceptive reader will have noticed that none of what I have said here or in class depends upon religion. Catholics don't arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality."
Yeah. If you're teaching Catholic thought, do so. Don't suddenly say "but oh wait, none of this actually depends on religion at all!" Undermines the argument AND your credibility.

Ron Avila | July 13, 2010 1:11 AM

Are Catholics allowed to get enemas or use suppositories or is this not what the body was made for?

So Catholics can't take enemas or use suppositories?

Alex, it just so happens I attend UofI and write for the Student newspaper's blog site. Here's my take from late last week:

http://blogs.the217.com/reesespieces/2010/07/11/the-firing-of-dr-howell-its-not-what-he-said-its-how-he-said-it/

Great job, Alex!

Alex, it just so happens I attend UofI and write for the Student newspaper's blog site. Here's my take from late last week:

http://blogs.the217.com/reesespieces/2010/07/11/the-firing-of-dr-howell-its-not-what-he-said-its-how-he-said-it/

Great job, Alex!