Faculty and students are rallying behind a University of Illinois professor whom they say was fired simply because of his religious beliefs.
Dr. Kenneth Howell, an adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism, was told recently that he could no longer teach in the university's Department of Religion. A student at the university accused Howell of engaging in hate speech when he stated in a class review session that he agreed with the Church's teaching that homosexual sex is immoral.
But Howell refused to leave without a fight, and now he has over 3,100 supporters fighting with him -- via a Facebook group called “Save Dr. Ken.”
“It’s turning into a whole movement for freedom of speech in the classroom,” said senior Tim Fox, a member of the group and former resident at the university’s Catholic student Newman Center.
The “Save Dr. Ken” Facebook group includes alumni, current students and outside supporters who are familiar with Howell through his books or his appearances on EWTN, a Catholic television network. Howell is actively involved in the group and has written personal responses to some of his Facebook supporters.
“Save Dr. Ken” is actively working to take its protest beyond Facebook. Its home page offers detailed instructions on how to protest Howell’s dismissal, separately tailored to students, alumni and outside supporters. For example, the group asks alumni to cease donating to the university until Howell is reinstated. It also encourages members to donate to the Alliance Defense Fund, the legal alliance defending Howell’s case.
Members of the Facebook group are planning a prayer vigil on the university’s quad. Students are also organizing a mass boycott of all university religion courses unless Howell is reinstated by the fall, Melissa Silverberg, editor-in-chief of the university’s student newspaper, the Daily Illini, confirmed.
Howell is a popular professor; his students voted for him to receive an “Excellence in Teaching” award last fall, and now they are rallying for him.
Because Howell helped direct programs at the Newman Center, it has become a major player in the conflict. Monsignor Gregory Ketcham, the center's director, wrote in an e-mail to Newman residents that “We will seek to lobby for [Howell] to continue to teach Catholic courses on campus for University credit and for the Catholic cause on campus.”
Students at the center are not the only ones protesting. The campus secularist group, Atheists, Agnostics & Freethinkers, has taken up Howell’s cause. Howell had worked with the group in the past, helping organize a public debate between an atheist and a Catholic on “Does the Christian God Exist?” last February. Its president wrote a letter to the university chancellor, Robert Easter, saying, “[Howell] has shown a commitment to the questioning of all ideas. His loss is a profound blow to the University of Illinois and its purpose… Who will next be silenced?”
“Even people who disagree with what [Howell] taught think that his firing was wrong,” said Silverberg.
But not everyone is in Howell's corner. Some students say they are not so sure he should be coming back.
“I wouldn’t necessarily get behind this protest,” said David Bettinardi, a senior. “Teachers can abuse their authority, and if a teacher talks about his personal beliefs in class, it becomes less education and more indoctrination. That’s true for a professor with any set of beliefs – atheist, Catholic, whatever.”
Other students said Howell’s dismissal was not just an issue of freedom of speech, but revealed a double standard at the university.
“Professor Howell didn’t mean to insult homosexuals; he was just stating the Catholic position,” said Mike Hamoy, a senior chemistry major who took Howell’s class in fall 2009. “I’ve had multiple professors who have mocked how much Catholic families reproduce or who have implied to the class that God is a joke. Why aren’t these professors fired for their open insults?”