U. of Illinois Retains Controversial Catholicism Instructor but Ends Church Role in Hiring

July 29, 2010

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has decided to retain—at least temporarily—an adjunct professor of Roman Catholicism who had faced losing his job over comments he made about homosexuality.

The university has also decided, however, to end a widely criticized financial arrangement under which it had paid the professor with funds from the church.

The professor, Kenneth Howell, will be allowed to continue teaching religion during the fall semester, but his long-term status depends on the outcome of a faculty committee's investigation of whether the university's earlier decision to end his contract violated his academic freedom, Robin Kaler, a university spokeswoman, said Thursday.

Mr. Howell could not be reached Thursday for comment, and the church official designated as a spokesperson on the issue, Patricia M. Gibson, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, did not return calls.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a coalition of Christian lawyers that has represented Mr. Howell, issued a statement in which its senior counsel, David French, said, "We greatly appreciate the university's move to put Professor Howell back in the classroom, but we will be watching carefully to make sure that his academic freedom is protected throughout the university's ongoing process."

Mr. Howell, who has taught classes on Catholicism in the university's religion department since 2001, had been told in May that he would not be kept on this fall, and had blamed the loss of his job on a student's complaint about an e-mail he had sent to students describing how homosexual acts would be viewed under utilitarianism and natural-law theory. The complaining student had argued in an e-mail to the head of the religion department that Mr. Howell's assertions that homosexuality violated natural law amounted to hate speech.

Officials of the campus and the University of Illinois system were barraged with e-mails protesting the decision not to retain Mr. Howell, and subsequently asked the campus Faculty Senate's committee on academic freedom and tenure to conduct an investigation to ensure Mr. Howell's academic freedom had not been infringed.

Pay Came From Church Center

The controversy over Mr. Howell drew attention to an arrangement by which the university was paying him and other instructors of credit-bearing courses on Catholic studies with church funds transferred to the university by its church-supported St. John's Catholic Newman Center, which also selected the instructors.

In a letter on Wednesday to the Alliance Defense Fund, Steven A. Veazie, a university lawyer, said Mr. Howell is being asked to continue teaching there this fall, pending completion of the review by the faculty committee.

"Like any instructor for the university, Dr. Howell will be expected to provide instruction in a manner that adheres to and does not violate constitutional principles precluding the 'establishment of religion' in a university context," Mr. Veazie's letter said. He wrote that the university "is committed to upholding principles of academic freedom and the requirements of the First Amendment," and added, "Nothing in this letter is intended to express or imply that such principles have been violated by previous events."

Under the university's employment offer to Mr. Howell for the fall semester, he would be paid $10,000 to teach Catholic thought. Like other adjuncts, he would continue to work on a semester-to-semester basis, university officials said.

A statement issued by the university said the decision to dissolve the financial arrangement through which he was paid with church-derived Newman Center funds was made at the recommendation of the Faculty Senate's committee on university policies.

"The university values its relationship with the Newman Center and plans to continue offering courses in Catholic studies," the statement said.