Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Does academic freedom mean you can criticize homosexuality?

An adjunct professor at the University of Illinois, who teaches two classes in the religion department about Catholicism, has been fired for criticizing homosexuality.
Howell has been an adjunct lecturer in the department for nine years, during which he taught two courses, Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought. He was also director of the Institute of Catholic Thought, part of St. John's Catholic Newman Center on campus and the Catholic Diocese of Peoria. Funding for his salary came from the Institute of Catholic Thought.

One of his lectures in the introductory class on Catholicism focuses on the application of natural law theory to a social issue. In early May, Howell wrote a lengthy e-mail to his students, in preparation for an exam, in which he discusses how the theory of utilitarianism and natural law theory would judge the morality of homosexual acts.

"Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY," he wrote in the e-mail, obtained by The News-Gazette. "In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same."

He went on to write there has been a disassociation of sexual activity from morality and procreation, in contradiction of Natural Moral Theory.
A student became upset and wrote to complain.
"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."
Howell, an adjunct, will not be renewed.
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."
While I obviously disagree with Howell's views, based on this article I agree with his conclusion.

It's a course in Catholic thought. He's teaching "by the book" Catholicism. Where he might have failed, in my opinion, is to state clearly that "The Catholic Church teaches", or "I believe that". He needed to make the context clear to the students and respect that opinions differ. For example, on exams, one would write questions like "The Catholic Church teaches that sexual activity should limited to opposite couples because...." that include the italicized bit. That way the student can answer correctly without offending his own views.

But overall I believe this is generally covered by academic freedom and the non-renewal or firing was wrong.
Cary Nelson, ....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."
Now I don't think Howell should get a bye completely. It's clear that he was explaining Catholic thinking as The Truth, rather than the Catholic view of Truth. For example, writing this to his students is rather arrogant:
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.

I think there's a legitmate concern if he attacked students in this way. But firing offense? I don't think so.

We all tend to be passionate and vocal advocates for free speech when it's our speech we want to be free. It's much harder to defend the rights of those who disagree. We see this on university campuses all the time when students protest conservative speakers. They shouldn't. If they don't want to hear the speaker, then don't go, or stand outside with a counter protest. But if my voice deserves to be heard, like it or not so does the opposition's.

Update PZ Myers takes it on (H/T Paul(A))

A letter that condemned students, that threatened students if they didn't agree with his views, that discriminated against a segment of society, or that denied people full participation in the culture for their views or background or private practices…that would be hate speech. This letter, though, is a pedantic and polite explanation of the views of the professor and of the Catholic church and of his interpretation of utilitarianism, and in fact is careful to say that he isn't condemning any individuals. We can't endorse using this kind of discussion as an excuse to expel people from academia — we want professors and students to be able to communicate freely with one another, without fear of retaliation. I see no sign that the professor was discussing the matter in a way that disrespects any of his students.

And the student complaining was doing so poorly. The professor's ideas made him uncomfortable. He disliked what he said. He thought the professor was insensitive.

Those are not good reasons. If a student is never made uncomfortable, that student is not getting an education.


Paul (A.) said...

I dunno: The email excerpt quoted by P.Z. Myers seems not be a statement of RC dogma as such but rather an extrapolation by Howell that betrays an ignorance unbecoming to a philosophy professor. Myers' response, by the way, is the best short answer to the whole "complementarity" nonsense I've read recently.

wv = monospor
(that's all it takes)

Anonymous said...

"It's clear that he was explaining Catholic thinking as The Truth, rather than the Catholic view of Truth."

So, in the gay studies class, the professor should not explain the Gay thinking as The Truth, rather the Gay view of Truth.

That seems fair. :-)

Seriously, if Catholics, like atheists and gay students, believe their view is The Truth, to deny them the right to publicly make that claim in the context of a university classroom is in fact to deny them academic freedom. Academic freedom cannot mean only the right to say something as long as you pretend you don't believe it's true. That would make academic freedom worse than a farce.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Paul--thanks for that link to the P.Z. Myers piece. It was a great assessment.

I'm already wearied by the drumbeat of "Christians are so PERSECUTED" that this is going to cause.

But I admit that I am heartened that someone complained about antigay rhetoric and was taken seriously. Even if the university overreacted, it REACTED--and that's pretty much a brand-new thing.


Anonymous said...

The Professor wrote: "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."

You reply: "I think there's a legitmate concern if he attacked students in this way. But firing offense? I don't think so."

What if in a course on gay studies a Catholic student objects and the professor replies: "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."

Would that be an "attack"? No, just as it wasn't in the Howell case. Why? The fact is that it's probably true, and the truth is what we're supposed to be after in the university. Most 18-22 year olds are deeply ignorant of the nature of moral arguments, as they are of astrophysics and the mating practices of reeces monkeys. Now, they have moral opinions. But they are probably untutored, superficial, and driven by fadishness and an uncritical acceptance of what they learned in church and home. So, ya, the Catholic prof and the Gay prof would be within their rights in making this criticism. If they didn't do it, they would be bad professors.

IT said...

Anon, it is important when teaching to make it clear that there are limits to professorial authority. I am allowed to have an opinion, and express it. I am allowed to disagree with the opinions of the students, and they with me. But to say as a blanket statement "you are not qualified to have an opinion" is too general and judgemental. It's also disrespectful of one's students and a great way to shut down discussion. better: "Here's why I think you may need to consider this further". As PZ Myers says, this guy is a bad teacher. THAT may be the fireable offense here.

A gay studies class is the same thing in reverse. The professor does not Own The Truth. He owns a way of assessing facts and history that he thinks is valid. He can argue his viewpont. but he must give students room to disagree--that doesn't absolve them of learning what the professor believes, or its justification, but it does mean that they are allowed to disagree with it.

As Doxy said, I'm also tired of the bad guys crying wolf. In this case, however, although I think they may be right to fire Howell, it's for the wrong reason.

I have no problem with universities teaching the history of religion, or the foundations of religious thought as an intellectual exercise. But there has to be a careful separation between an objective learning, and an opinion- or belief-based proselytizing.

David |Dah • veed| said...

I think that if someone is going to post as Anon, then the system should auto publish their IP address with the comment.

IT said...

Dahveed, you have a point. I think Anon is from baylor but I'm not sure.

More importantly, I hope you are doing well? THinking of you...

JCF said...

The term "Natural Law" is terribly problematic.

In point of fact, it merely refers to (a branch of) Roman Catholic dogma---which the professor is perfectly entitled to teach, as such.

But the term "Natural"---so closely associated w/ Nature (that which is studied by the Scientific Method. And that Science itself was once known as Natural Philosophy)---muddies the waters. It confuses undergrads and/or non-Religion majors, as to what they're really studying (much like the religious dogma term "Creation Science").

For professors to teach religion at the university-level (as I've done, FWIW) without clearly labelling ALL their religious dogma (e.g. in this case "Natural Law") is educational malpractice, IMHO.

Dogma---in which I believe a ton of! ;-) ---has nothing to do w/ the Scientific Method, and should NOT try to ride Science's coat-tails.

I have Faith (in God), and I reliably use the Scientific Method. It's possible to do both . . . but each has to stand on its own.

With the fact of the case as presented here, I agree w/ the decision to not renew Howell's contract (Hey, UofI: I'm available! :-D)

[My prayers for you, too, Dahveed. Well, "too" in addition to IT's thoughts, that is!]

IT said...

Good points, JCF, especially since you have "been there".

RE. the Natural Philosophy, we still see its legacy in giving scientists a Ph.D. The Doctor of Science (D.Sc.) is typically given only as an honorary degree.

Doxy, many universities have a reflexive political correctness on this issue, in my experience. In this case I think they may have done a disservice.

let's flip it on its head. Could a fundamentalist Christian student accuse a biology professor of hate speech for teaching evolution? That would clearly be ridiculous-- but just think of the Scopes trial.

The student is not absolved from learning the facts and concepts of evolution, even if he personally disagrees with those conclusions. The professor is not committing hate speech by explaining what's wrong in the "facts" espoused by creation science.

The professor would be unwise to say that creationists are "stupid", "foolish" or that their religion is "wrong". Even if he believes this to be the case, those opinions have no place in the teaching of the science. And it is the science on which he should be focused.

One thing I have learned in years in the academy is that even a flip or casual remark by a professor can be given enormous weight by students, far beyond its intent. I tend to have a glib tongue and I've been chagrined on more than one occasion to have a clever comment come back in ways I did not intend.

But I've also learned that even the most wrong-headed of students deserves some respect, if I am to have a hope of teaching them.

Andrewdb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrewdb said...

I liked BTB's take on this thing.

see here: http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com/2010/07/12/24262

Recall said...

"Doxy, many universities have a reflexive political correctness on this issue, in my experience. In this case I think they may have done a disservice."

Personally, I'd drop the 'political' in that.

I think a big issue here is a gap in generational attitudes towards homophobia. To me, it would be like it if he showed up for a lecture without pants on. Affirming the dignity and rights of gay people is a necessary precondition of being a respectable member of society, and universities have every right to treat it as such.

Paul (A.) said...

I see also that Howell's teaching position was wholly funded by the local RC Archdiocese (an article that explores further the principles involved in Howell's correspondence and the general issues of teaching religion in a secular school).

IT said...

The academy of all places must allow unpopular ideas and opinions to be expressed. They can and should be challenged robustly, in the spirit of inquiry and debate.

As PZ Myers said, this guy was not engaging in hate speech. He was (poorly) defending a Roman Catholic view in a class about Roman Catholicism.

He may have been (and probably was) a bad teacher. He may have inserted some of his own opinions inappropriately. But he's entitled to have them.

Again, the analogy to make is a fundamentalist student complaining that his professor is teaching evolution.

I think there are a lot of errors in judgment by the university here. A big one is having a course on Catholicism taught by a church-funded advocate for the faith, rather than by a scholar, as Paul(A) points out. In many respect this guy SHOULD have been non-renewed. But the reason to fire him is not because he has unpopular opinions about GLBT people.

JCF said...

What do y'all think of this one?

Federal Judge Upholds Dismissal of Counseling Student Who Balked at Treating Gay Clients

Myself? Wildly mixed feelings . . . but if pressed hard, I think the judge made the right choice. If you're going to counsel students, you can't impose your own value system on them. Ms Ward needs to choose another profession.