Frank Beckwith takes a troubling case from the University of Illinois and draws a sharp, correct conclusion:
The aggrieved student in the Howell case is the product of a generation of institutional coddling that rewards intellectual immaturity if it can feign personal offense.
Again, we await the university’s side of the story. But if the facts are substantially the same, then we have a case in which a professor cannot even teach his subject in a straightforward, accurate manner, without putting his job at risk. Is this really the kind of scholarly atmosphere we want? Is it conducive to a free exchange of ideas, and actual learning? As Beckwith writes in his blog commentary, imagine the reverse, and that a Catholic student complained to the university that he felt “excluded” by a gay professor’s arguments in favor of the licitness of homosexuality in a class on LGBT Studies. In what conceivable world would the university fire the professor? What kind of university lets a whinypants student dictate the content of a professor’s course?
Read the professor’s own account of his dismissal. I hope we hear the university’s side. Before people take their usual culture-war positions, understand that if the facts are as the professor relates them, this is not essentially a question of whether or not one approves of homosexuality. This is about academic and religious freedom. The professor was teaching a course on Catholicism and Catholic morality. The Catholic Church unambiguously teaches that homosexual expression is immoral. You are perfectly free to disagree with that in a university, but that’s what the Church teaches, and the professor is obligated to present that teaching in a course on Catholicism. According to the professor, students in the past have argued against that position in class, always respectfully. This was the first time an aggrieved student went to pieces over it, and demanded that the university take action against the professor — which it did.
I well remember sitting in a history course at LSU in which the professor, an avowed secularist, was making fun of the medieval church. One student stood up, yelled at him for “anti-Christian bigotry,” and stomped out. I felt that the professor really had been laying it on thick re: the Church, but he was an excellent professor, and I could put up with his prejudices because I learned so much from him. Besides, we could dispute him in the classroom with no problem. This isn’t exactly the same thing as the University of Illinois case here, because this history prof could have taught his subject matter that day without snarky editorial commentary about medieval Christianity; it’s hard to see how a professor teaches a class on Catholicism while ignoring the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. Still, that people are so willing to be grievously offended by thoughts that conflict with their own beliefs, and universities and other institutions are willing to kowtow to the most delicate student sensibilities — provided they are expressed by members of politically approved demographic groups — is dreadful for robust, honest discourse, to say nothing of actual scholarship.
Stories like this make one see the university as an increasingly Orwellian place where “tolerance” means putting up with people who already agree with you. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, their tolerance for religious and academic freedom runs the gamut from A to B.
UPDATE: Here’s how the local newspaper reported it. Note that the complaint against this professor was made by a student in an e-mail allegedly sent on behalf of an anonymous gay student in the class. Unbelievable! A professor lost his job because he was denounced anonymously. Read:
The student complaint came in a May 13 e-mail to Robert McKim, head of the religion department. The author of the e-mail said he was writing on behalf of a friend – a student in Howell’s class, who wanted to remain anonymous. The e-mail complained about Howell’s statements about homosexuality, which the student called “hate speech.”
“Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” the student wrote in the e-mail. “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another. The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one’s worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation.”
The paper quoted a subsequent e-mail by a university official saying that the professor had violated the university’s standard of “inclusivity.” Again, an utterly Orwellian term unworthy
of a university.
There’s more information in that newspaper report:
Howell said he was presenting the idea that the Catholic moral teachings are based on natural moral law, and the Catholic understanding of what that means.
“My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches,” Howell said. “I have always made it very, very clear to my students they are never required to believe what I’m teaching and they’ll never be judged on that.”
He also said he’s open with students about his own beliefs.
“I tell my students I am a practicing Catholic, so I believe the things I’m teaching,” he said. “It’s not a violation of academic freedom to advocate a position, if one does it as an appeal on rational grounds and it’s pertinent to the subject.”
Cary Nelson, a UI emeritus professor of English and president of the American Association of University Professors, agreed. He said while many professors choose not to share their beliefs with students, they are free to do so and to advocate for a particular position.
“We think there is great value in faculty members arguing in a well-articulated way,” Nelson said. “What you absolutely cannot do is require students to share your opinions. You have to offer students the opportunity to freely disagree, and there can be no penalty for disagreeing.”
Nelson is the co-author of a 2007 AAUP statement on “Freedom in the Classroom,” as well as the author of a recent book that deals with academic freedom.
“It’s part of intellectual life to advocate for points of view,” he said, adding he has often used it to start a lively discussion in his classroom.
You get that? The president of the AAUP says that it is perfectly ethical, even wise, for professors to share their personal views, as long as they don’t grade students based on whether or not they agree.
Unless more information comes to light to put the university’s action in a more credible context, I devoutly hope Prof. Howell sues the pants off of them.
UPDATE.2 I want you all to consider this in light of what happened to Octavia Nasr and the tweet that got her fired. I said the other day on this blog that though I strongly disagree with her that any respect at all should be accorded to the dead Hezbollah cleric, I think it’s an outrage that a woman whose journalism CNN had found worthwhile for 20 years of her tenure with them could be fired over a single unwise statement.
Similarly, this Catholic professor had been teaching this course in Catholicism for years. He had even been praised by his own department for his teaching. And yet, he was dismissed virtually instantly because a single student forwarded a second-hand complaint that someone in the class was offended by his presentation.
It doesn’t appear that the man was even given a warning, or a hearing. Gone, just like that, because like CNN’s gutless management, the invertebrates running this university didn’t want to defend their own, and his right to be wrong.