July 26, 2010
— Martin E. Marty
Anyone who spends over a half century at the center and the margins of higher academe, as I have, knows better than to get involved with tenure disputes or hirings and firings of faculty. The further away from the scene of conflict one is, the dimmer the vision; the closer one is, the more the dust of battle obscures vision. So while using a particular issue and university to examine some points, I won’t suggest proper outcomes. The case does help us understand why and how certain kinds of disputes are complex and sticky.
So, to a scene and event: The University of Illinois at Champaign fired adjunct professor Kenneth Howell after the friend of an “offended student” e-mailed Robert McKim, the religion department head, charging that Howell had engaged in “hate speech,” if not in class, then in an e-mail in which he contributed further to a classroom controversy. The issue was his teaching of the Roman Catholic teaching that homosexual activity is sinful, a position with which he agreed and which he propounded with his endorsement.
Step back now, during the reviewing, and let’s see. First, not to include religion studies in higher education curricula is a problem for education and for the citizenry. Religion, in the narrowest and broadest senses, informs most complex human activities, including war-making and peace-making. So include it. Second, teaching religion in tax-supported institutions often occurs at the edge of controversy and conflict, since different individuals and groups in any public will criticize almost any presentation, including the least controversial. (Teaching it in private higher education settings also can be controversial, but we can pass that by for now.)
Next, phenomena related to human sexuality inevitably come up in discussions of religion, since faith communities and their leaders care so much about it, and the general public has interests and fights about it. But it is almost impossible to discuss religion “neutrally,” meaning “fair-mindedly” in the eyes of all, including interest groups. Giving an accounting of what a particular religious community or tradition teaches about something central to a faith is necessary, even urgent, if one is to understand its many features. Had Professor Howell tried to teach about Catholicism, which was his assignment, without getting into Catholic teaching and practice dealing with sexuality, it would represent a failure to educate well.
Having a professor identify herself or himself with such a teaching becomes a matter of “how” it is done. The vast majority of religion professors know how to protect the integrity of their students, their subjects, their school. Awareness of this in a conflicted, pluralistic society should lead professors to be careful about propagandizing (which is not educating) for or against a tradition. The Illinois case is complicated by the fact the position held by Howell is, shall we say, irregular, since the Catholic diocese of Peoria funds the chair and has interests that may not match that of regularly appointed and funded members of the religion department. Step back from that fact, and you still have a good illustration of how precarious is the perch of those who teach religion in state schools.
When all is done and said, however, there is no way to assure that at all schools, in all classes, all professors will do all this well. If a student over-reacted and Howell over-acted in the case of a controversial teaching, it is important to back off and, yes, review and re-review fateful decisions about legality, propriety, fairness, and effectiveness of teaching. Don’t envy the Illinois administrators who have to review their own actions and arbitrate among conflicting interests. But also we can pause and note once again how religion, long considered marginal and irrelevant, stirs people on all sides of societal issues in the arena that is the public university. This will not be the last re-reviewing that we are likely to observe, as religious communities and their foes heat up.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.