When I learned of Kenneth Howell's dismissal from the University of Illinois, I was immediately sympathetic. Violations of the academic freedom of adjunct faculty are far too common, and this appeared to be yet another case. (An internal investigation led by notable academic freedom scholar Matthew Finkin will uncover all the facts within a few weeks.) Although Howell's email to the students in his Catholicism class was both idiotic and offensive, academic freedom must include the right to express opinions that are stupid. Unlike many conservatives, who have argued that professors should not be allowed to express their political opinions in class, I strongly defend the right of anyone, including Howell, to speak out.
But then I read one odd sidenote to the story: because he lost his adjunct position, Howell was also fired from his position as director of the Institute of Catholic Thought at the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center. According to Howell, “I was told, because there was no more teaching, and that was my primary job, I would cease at the end of the month.” This seemed very strange. Why would the Catholic Church fire someone because a public university had infringed upon their academic freedom rights to express orthodox Catholic views?
There turned out be a very good, but shocking, reason: Howell was being paid by the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, rather than the University of Illinois, to teach the class. And there's an even more appalling detail: The Chicago Tribune reveals today (and I had confirmed it on my own yesterday) that the Catholic Church, not the University, had picked Howell to teach the class.
In my mind, this scandal is worse than the U of I admissions scandal that led to the resignation of the university president. In that case, wealthy and powerful individuals got their children admitted to the University of Illinois. But the corruption was purely on the administrative end; nothing about U of I academics were implicated at all. Once admitted, the students had to take classes and earn their grades like anybody else.
In this case, the University of Illinois was selling out a part of its academic mission to appease the powerful interests of the Catholic Church. Allowing influential outsiders to determine the hiring of faculty is a far greater threat to academic standards than giving outsiders influence over the admissions process.
This is also a violation of shared governance. It is a long-standing tradition that faculty are always hired by academics qualified to judge their intellectual standards. Whether it is a faculty committee or a faculty chair, such decisions are never handed over to an outside organization.
Perhaps Howell was and is the most qualified person to teach the class. But we can never know if the Catholic Church, rather than the University of Illinois, is the one who gets to pick him. Even if the University retained some kind of veto power, that is completely insufficient because the Catholic Church maintained the ultimate power to choose faculty members and obviously vetoed anyone who questioned Vatican doctrines.
Academic freedom is also at stake here. A professor cannot have freedom in teaching a class about Catholicism if his salary depends upon agreeing with the Catholic Church. And students are deprived of a critical view of the Catholic Church when the instructor is compelled to deliver the party line.
This arrangement has been in place since at least 1971, but this is a tradition that needs to end. It violates not only the separation of church and state for a public university to hand over its classrooms to a religious sect, but it also violates the standards of academic integrity when the instructor of any course is selected by an outside organization with a direct interest in the subject matter.
The Catholic Church was paying a lot of money to influence the education of students. On a radio show, Howell estimated that because the Catholic Church was paying his salary, “Somewhere between 750,000 and a million dollars in labor have been donated to the university by the Catholic Church.” That's an astonishing number for an adjunct teaching two classes per year. Howell had been teaching for 9 years, which would mean his annual salary and benefits were $80,000-$110,000 per year—or roughly $35,000-$45,000 per class, making Howell one of the highest-paid adjunct professors in the country. (Howell did not answer my questions about his exact salary.)
But it doesn't matter how much money was at stake. No university can ever accept the “gift” of a free class if the donor demands to decide who can be the professor.
So, no, Kenneth Howell should not have been fired for his email, if that is what happened. But he should never have been teaching the class in the first place according to this arrangement. If the class is a legitimate class to offer (and it seems to be, although no other class about one religious sect is taught in the department), and if Howell is the best qualified instructor (which he is probably is), then the University of Illinois should pick Howell as the instructor, restore him to his post, and pay him the standard adjunct's salary for his job.
I wrote a post on the Save Dr. Ken facebook page which prompted some interesting responses. I'll post my reply to them in the comments below. I was informed that Howell's estimate of the Catholic Church's donation of teachers probably included a second professor who was teaching there until recently. So my estimate of his salary should probably be cut in half if that's the case.