Moments after he sat down in McKim’s office, the chairman handed Howell a piece of paper he recognized: an email he had sent to his Introduction to Catholicism students. Howell took the email in his hands as McKim leaned back in his chair.
“This could really hurt the department,” McKim said, gesturing at the email and shaking his head. “This could really, really hurt the university.”
The three-page email was dated May 4, nearly a month earlier. The subject line was “Utilitarianism and Sexuality.” Howell had sent it late that evening to help his students prepare for the essay question on the final exam in his Introduction to Catholicism class, and to clarify some points he made in his lecture the previous day on the question of homosexuality in Catholic thought. In that session Howell discussed how natural moral law can be applied to judge the morality of actions, but the discussion became heated, and the class ended with some students and Howell dissatisfied with the conclusion. Howell wrote the email as a way to clarify his point.
“I don’t want to hurt anybody,” Howell replied, fingering the email as he spoke. “How could this hurt the university?”
McKim explained to Howell that the email had offended some student or students. A student—not a member of Howell’s class, but a friend of one of Howell’s students—had forwarded the email to McKim and used the words hate speech to describe its contents: “Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” the student argued. “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.” The department chairman told Howell that his email had been circulated through various departments and offices and that a university administrator outside the department—one McKim didn’t identify—had decided Howell could no longer teach at the University of Illinois.
“The university,” McKim told Howell, “has an interest in not making students feel uncomfortable.”
Howell tried to argue; he told McKim that he believed his job wasn’t to make students comfortable. “Sometimes being a good teacher mean[s] that we must challenge our students,” Howell protested.
Howell and McKim discussed the email for close to an hour, with Howell pressing McKim to explain what was pedagogically wrong with it, and McKim expressing various problems that faculty and administrators had raised about it. Howell offered to meet with whomever he needed to work out a mutually agreeable solution; eventually, he pointed out that firing him would be an infringement of his First Amendment right to free speech. But the meeting ended soon afterward, and McKim couldn’t be swayed. In an email to Howell the following Wednesday, McKim repeated his decision to relieve Howell of his teaching duties.
Howell’s firing is just one of a growing number of cases in which students or faculty on college campuses have been punished for holding or expressing views about homosexuality. In February 2008 biology professor June Sheldon was terminated from her adjunct position at California’s San Jose City College for presenting, in answer to a student’s question about how heredity effects homosexual behavior, arguments that sexual orientation could have environmental causes. In 2005 Missouri State University filed a grievance against counseling student Emily Brooker for refusing to complete an assignment to write and sign a letter to the Missouri legislature advocating for homosexual adoption. In January 2009 Julea Ward was expelled from a counseling program at Eastern Michigan State University for refusing to affirm homosexual behavior. In a similar case this spring, a counseling student at Georgia’s Augusta State University was ordered to undergo diversity-sensitivity training or leave the university’s counselor-education program after sharing, in class discussions, her belief that homosexual conduct is immoral.Pray for our culture and work to change it.