Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Other Academic Freedom Scandal at the University of Illinois

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.


Anonymous said...

I applaud your reasoning. In a letter to the editor of the News-Gazette this past Friday (yet to be published), I made a similar argument with a similar conclusion -- that Howell never should have been allowed by the university to teach this subject.

John K. Wilson said...

My argument was never that Howell should not be allowed to teach this subject; my concern is the lack of an academic process that led to him teaching the class.

Anonymous said...

Okay, my mistake. I must have assumed that you would have reached that conclusion based upon your statement, "The Catholic Church was paying a lot of money to influence the education of students." To my mind, this alone should have disqualified Howell who was director of the ICT. If you view the ICT's mission statement on their website's About page, you'll notice that their mission is to do just that: influence students. As director of that mission, Howell should never have been allowed to teach about the Catholic religion at the university.

John K. Wilson said...

Here is response I made on the Save Dr. Ken facebook page mentioned above:

Arabella Lazar says, “I don't see the scandal in the Catholic Church having a say who will teach a course about itself.” I do. Imagine if the government of Cuba sponsored a course on Cuba taught by a pro-Fidel professor hired by the Cuban government. Would anyone ... See Moredefend that? The curriculum at a college is not rented to the highest bidder, and groups are not entitled to any say in courses about themselves. To maintain academic freedom and academic integrity, organizations (religious or otherwise) should not have any control over courses about them.

In response to James McParlan's 10 comments:

1: My estimate of what Howell was paid appears to be off the mark. But he wouldn't answer my question, so I was left to guess. (I wasn't aware of a second professor until Arabella's comment.) It's still very high for an adjunct.

2: The money doesn't matter for the principle. But it does indicate just how odd this relationship was. And normally, the salary of a public college teacher is known to everyone. Here, we're not allowed to know it with any certainty.

3: I didn't mention this in the column, but I asked Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs, if the university had any other arrangements like this, and she did not know of any. Let me assure you that this is very unusual.

4: I noted that this arrangement dates back to 1971. A bad arrangement is wrong no matter how long it's been around.

5: I don't know the terms of the appointment. I'm not sure what that means.

6: Howell was paid by the Diocese of Peoria via the Newman Center at UIUC. I think it's appropriate to call that “the Catholic Church.” I don't think anyone could regard the Diocese of Peoria as independent from the Catholic Church.

7: I don't consider it an exaggeration when the Catholic organizations pick the lecturer and pay his salary. The fact that the University can veto the professor doesn't resolve the problem, and I'm disturbed by what the University did in Howell's case.

8: The compulsion to follow the party line comes from the fact that Howell's salary comes from the Diocese of Peoria. As I note in my book, Patriotic Correctness, there are reasons to worry about compulsion at Catholic colleges, and even there, all of the faculty are hired by the college itself, not a Diocese. A Catholic Diocese certainly has no tradition of academic freedom.

9: I don't see any benefits, aside from saving money, for the university from this arrangement. The U of I can hire a faculty member to teach a class on Catholicism, and having the Catholic Church hire the instructor is a detriment, not a benefit.

10: The allegation that I would fire all priests and nuns is absolutely false. This has nothing to do with professing allegiance (and I don't know, and don't care, if Howell has done that). A professor can have allegiance to anything they want. And adjunct professors are free to work at other jobs. But every professor at a public college (or a private one) should be hired by that college and paid by that college.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your excellent discussion . See this for another excellent discussion on this issue.