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University of Illinois fires professor for teaching Catholic thought in a class about Catholic thought.

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Campus Outrage: Teacher Fired for Teaching

University of Illinois fires professor for teaching Catholic thought in a class about Catholic thought.

I’ve seen a lot of university outrages in my decade of free-speech work on university campuses. 

After all, we’re talking about a world where Christian students can be denied a grade and threatened with expulsion merely for stating in class that marriage is the union of a man and woman; where conservative students can be investigated for “desecrating the name of Allah” after stepping on the flags of terrorist organizations; where pro-life students can be censored because pro-life speech places them on a “pyramid of hate” and is just a few steps short of genocide; and (this is my personal favorite) where a student group can be told that showing the movie “Passion of the Christ” is too controversial even as the university hosts a play called “F***ing for Jesus.” 

Few outrages, however, compare to that suffered by Dr. Kenneth Howell at the University of Illinois.  Dr. Howell has been summarily fired—without even a chance to defend himself. 

What was his crime?  Did he assault a student?  Did he commit a felony?  Admit to plagiarism or some other serious form of academic misconduct?  Certainly not.  Professor Howell taught Catholic thought in a class about Catholic thought.

Specifically, Professor Howell taught about Catholic doctrine regarding sexual morality, contrasting it with utilitarianism.  He explained Catholic doctrine not just in class but in a separate e-mail to his students.  This e-mail was forwarded across campus until it landed in the inbox of a particularly sensitive student who then sent a complaint to—among others—the director of the “LGBT Resource Center” and “the founder of the queer studies major.”  

What did the university do?  Did it tell the student that the university is a “marketplace of ideas” and that sometimes students will be exposed to concepts that will challenge, provoke, and—yes—offend them?  Did it tell the student that a professor has the academic freedom to teach his subject?  Did it tell the student that it would be a greater cause for concern if the professor was not teaching his subject, not doing the job he was hired to do?

No, the University of Illinois fired Dr. Howell.

In reviewing this case, one is reminded of nothing more than the playground phenomenon of offended children holding their hands over their ears and yelling, “I can’t hear you.”  Except these children apparently have influence over state officials who have the power to make sure that no one on campus can hear Dr. Howell.

This is nothing more and nothing less than state-enforced ignorance.  It is indoctrination, pure and simple.  The University of Illinois—proud of its LGBT Resource Center—apparently doesn’t even want its students to know there are other ways to think about sexual morality.  A student can learn a lot about “queer” sexuality at the university, but apparently they can’t learn that “queer sexuality” has its critics. 

As the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has reported, the university is no stranger to in-class indoctrination.  (See Page 15 of the report.)  I suppose, however, that even teaching students about competing ideas interferes with the effort to ensure that students graduate with the appropriate views.  After all, if students know what others think, they might actually dissent from the party line.

I attended a Christian college, one whose very mission was to integrate the Christian faith with academic excellence, yet we had no fear of learning about opposing ideas.  In fact, one can’t possibly receive an actual education without understanding the competing positions in the great moral issues of our time.  At Lipscomb University, I read “LGBT theorists,” read atheists, read Muslims … indeed, it would have appalled my professors had I graduated without knowing a reasonably full range of arguments surrounding culturally important issues.

But then again, we weren’t weak.  We could handle a debate.  At Illinois?  To borrow the words of Alan Charles Kors, some of the university’s students must be too weak to live with freedom.  Illinois students have to be protected from the ideas they don’t like or they’ll… what?  Whine?  Complain?  Need therapy? 

The student who filed the complaint against Dr. Howell signed off with a dramatic flourish, saying, “I didn’t go to Notre Dame for a reason.”  How true.  He couldn’t handle Notre Dame.

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Written By

Mr. French is a senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund and director of its Center for Academic Freedom. ADF was co-counsel for the Christian Legal Society in CLS v. Martinez.

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