Professor Fired For Offending Friend Of Student (Then Rehired)

Whatever you do, don’t diss John Stuart Mill or Jeremy Bentham at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. You might just “offend” the friend of a student, and will thus be out on your keister.

Here’s what happened: according to the Alliance Defense Fund, Kenneth Howell, an adjunct, sent an email to his class explaining the dismal philosophy of utilitarianism.

It is crucial to understand that Howell’s class was in the Religious Studies Department, and the course was “RLST 447 Modern Catholic Thought”. The blurb for that course reads:

Traces the history of Catholicism in its interaction with the modern world from the sixteenth century to the present, concentrating on the uneasy relationships that Catholicism has sustained with the modern world. 3 undergraduate hours. 4 graduate hours. Prerequisite: RLST 127 or consent of instructor.

Now, anybody but a UI administrator or a modern student—defined as a student who already knows everything that she will be taught—would read that blurb and expect that the nature of the “uneasy relationships” the Catholic Church has with the modern world would be explained.

But, no. See, before the final exam, Howell sent an email to his class defining utilitarianism and its relationship to morality and the Catholic Church. He sent this because the material was to be part of the exam.

A friend of student—not the student—was frightened by Howell’s explanation. She was—I’m guessing it’s a “she”; the accused nowadays is not allowed to learn the name of his accuser; the “seriousness of the charges” trumps four-hundred years of English common law–she was offended!

I can think of no crime short of racism that is as horrific, as brutal, as soul-searing—scratch that: no soul here; make it awareness-searing—as being offended! The mental abilities of UI administrators allowed them to agree with this assessment of the egregiousness of Howell’s crime, and mere moments after the receipt of the email, Howell was shown the door.

Due to the ADF, the agitations of some students, and, amazingly, some other faculty members, the UI administrators did what they do best: cower. Howell was reinstated, in a weak way. The administrators were quick to acknowledge only one thing: they had done no wrong.

How about Howell’s class email? He said:

[B]y what criterion should we judge whether sexual acts are right or wrong? …Utilitarianism in the popular sense is fundamentally a moral theory that judges right or wrong by its practical outcomes…[A] man who is trying to decide whether he should cheat on his wife, if he is a utilitarian, will weigh the various consequences. If the cheating side of the ledger is better, he will conclude that it’s okay to cheat. If the faithful side is better, he will refrain from cheating…Utilitarianism counsels that moral decisions should NOT be based on the inherent meaning of acts. Acts are only good or bad relative to outcomes.

Thus far, an excellent summary. Howell then makes the sound logical deduction—this argument really does follow from utilitarianism—

If two men consent to engage in sexual acts, according to utilitarianism, such an act would be morally okay. But notice too that if a ten year old agrees to a sexual act with a 40 year old, such an act would also be moral if even it is illegal under the current law. Notice too that our concern is with morality, not law. So by the consent criterion, we would have to admit certain cases as moral which we presently would not approve of.

Howell then contrasts one of those uneasy relationships the Catholic Church has had with the world and explains “Natural Moral Law (NML)” and its relationship to certain activities between men. In a non-graphic manner, he suggests that these acts are sometimes injurious to the health of the practitioners, an empirically true statement.

To round out the Catholic viewpoint, he says,

Natural Moral Theory says that if we are to have healthy sexual lives, we must return to a connection between procreation and sex. Why? Because that is what is REAL. It is based on human sexual anatomy and physiology.

Since Howell’s gray matter is more densely packed than a UI college administrator’s, he had the sense to anticipate squeamishness, and so ended his missive:

All I ask as your teacher is that you approach these questions as a thinking adult….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. [emphasis mine]

That last line, my dear readers, is what sunk him. How dare he imply that unless one actually study the history of moral thought, one cannot make judgments about moral truth! The darlings at UI don’t need to study. They already know!

Update Let’s not forget that the University of Illinois happily employs—with tenure!—terrorist Bill Ayers.


  1. Bill Ayers is at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Not at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Different group of administrators.

  2. Howell should have contacted Ayers regardless of Ayers location. Unlike Dylan, he obviously is in need of a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Or, at the very least, to determine the intensity and don appropriately before venturing into the storm.

    PZ has convinced me that Pepsi tastes better than Coke.

  3. Speaking of PZ/Pepsi: I dropped into on a whim. While I was there Firefox suddenly put up the home page for It only happened once. Might have been Firefox which annoyingly runs off by itself at times. Odd that it picked of all places. OTOH it could be Pepsi tweaking PZ.

    Pepsi has a Facebook account. I wonder if it has PZ as one of its friends.

  4. I don’t understand why this problem couldn’t be resolved within the department and without the unnecessary trauma. There must be some misunderstanding and miscommunication. Anyway, things can be easily blown out of proportion, but I am not sure by whom? The student? The professor? The media?

  5. Are we conflating different issues? Howell’s assertion is on its face disputable or, at a minimum, can be discussed and, given the topic of the course, should be discussed. That it should be grounds for dismissal is too absurd for words and has the smell of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. That a well reasoned counter to Howell’s proposition results in a poor grade, might well be grounds for a challenge.

  6. But we are all missing the point. Oh, the shame. Oh, the trauma. For any normal person to be reading someone elses e-mail and suddenly – without warning – come across such, such, bare-knuckled and bald-faced philosophical anti-political correctness is to be offended so deeply as to likely cause irreparable harm to one’s gray matter.

    Why else would any normally sensitive person enter the ivied walls of academia except to be protected from base and worthless thoughts like professor Howell’s?. Obviously something drastic had to be done. Firing him was the least-intrusive way of dealing with his audacious irresponsibility. Religious Studies indeed. Why wasn’t his email about looking at old church buildings in Europe or somewhere? The nerve of that guy.

  7. If all it takes to get a professor fired is an email, then I’m in hog heaven. I plan to shoot out dozens of emails every day claiming to be offended by academics, which is a valid and honest claim.

    I could use a form letter, but I like the handy complaint generator here:

    Sit back and watch the puffy heads roll!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. I think Bernie has the core insight there: here is a guy hired to teach specifically about Catholic thought, expressing what Catholicism thinks — accept it or don’t, it is Catholic doctrine. He didn’t even present it as “truth” but as something worthy of discussion.

    For which he is harassed, fired, re-hired, and it’ll be real interesting to see if his contract is renewed next term.

    The point is that he was dismissed over the absurdity that he could be hired as an expert in Catholic doctrine, to teach Catholic doctrine, the teaching of which is then a fireable offense.

  9. Matt,

    What is becoming of us? I remember taking Philosophy from a Prof who had a Doctor of Divinity degree. He exposed us to Descarte’s proof of the existance of God. I guess he’d be out on his ear today. He was the chairman of the dept, but I don’t suppose that would help much today. This was a state university too, one of the largest.

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