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.A student became upset and wrote to complain.
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.
"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.While I obviously disagree with Howell's views, based on this article I agree with his conclusion.
"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."
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.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:
"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."
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.