My Alma Mater

The University of Illinois is has been in at least the Champaign papers recently for declining to renew an adjunct professor’s contract over an email sent to students regarding homosexuality and natural law. For some context, the adjunct taught a class on Catholicism in the Religious Studies class, so talking about natural law was not really beyond the pale, and since he had apparently assigned them to talk about a social issue, this wasn’t at all out of hand.

That said, I’m pretty sure that the University declined to renew Dr. Howard’s contract with a clean conscience. First, Dr. Howard did not give a particularly clear explanation of either of the philosophies he was attempting to explain in the email. It’s muddled, caroms from explanation to advocacy, and appears to completely lack any sense of “teaching” as opposed to “expounding.” Second, he did veer into some uncomfortable territory in the email. Not “uncomfortable in a way that helps the intellect grow” uncomfortable. We’re talking uncomfortable in a way that the Blood Libel is uncomfortable. Comparing homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality is a time-honored way of distancing and dehumanizing gay people. It’s wrong to do so, especially from a a position of authority.

Neither of those, if you’re really into academic freedom, are necessarily reasons to fire someone (although #2 is damn close). AAUP has some pretty absolutist views about how, why, and to what extent a university can punish a professor for things said under the auspices of the university. This is, frankly, one of the awesome things about our culture. But before getting all up in a righteous outrage and crying persecution over the end of Dr. Howard’s relationship with the University of Illinois, let’s consider a few things.

  1. The crappy position of adjuncts in the academic world. They are the little fish on the food chain. It’s a byproduct of the corporatization of the university, and it truly sucks. There are moves to better ensure the academic freedom of adjuncts, but they’re not tenured, and since they’re often employed semester to semester, easier to get rid of. This was the case here; Dr. Howard was an adjunct, and his contract was not renewed.
  2. Why is the University accepting money from the Diocese of Peoria to fund a class in Catholic thought? There’s no reason, aside from proselytization/maintaining the cultural status of the Catholic church to have the class paid for by a Diocese and taught by one of their personnel rather than by one of the many experts in Catholic thought at the University of Illinois. (I can think of two just off the top of my head). It was inappropriate for the University to hire Howard in the first place, regardless of whether or not they were on the financial hook for it.
  3. Really, #2 is basically it. Admittedly, a single email from a semester is not an in-depth examination of Howard’s teaching, but let’s take a look at the last few sentences: “I know this doesn’t answer all the questions in many of your minds. All I ask as your teacher is that you approach these questions as a thinking adult. That implies questioning what you have heard around you. Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter. All I encourage is to make informed decisions. 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.” (emphasis added). Really, look at this. You can’t make the argument a conclusion drawn from Catholic teaching does not depend on religion. It’s either fecklessly incoherent, or arguing in extremely bad faith. If this is how the class went, there’s no reason in the world it should have been kept as long as it was.

In short, the very existence of the class was at odds with the mission of the University, and it was shameful that it continued as long as it did.

It ought to be mentioned, in passing, that Dr. Howard is suing, backed by one of the plethora of organizations that help people who cannot, in any rational way, be described as persecuted, cry persecution.

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