University of Illinois students express support for fired professor

07 16 2010 Trisha Tan Eli Lazar Trisha Tan / Eli Lazar

Since the news of Dr. Kenneth Howell’s dismissal from the University of Illinois became public, students have been voicing their support for the professor and making efforts to bring him back to the university in the fall.

Howell was terminated this spring from his teaching position at the university for explaining in his Introduction to Catholicism class that the Catholic Church opposed homosexual behavior because it violates natural law.

An anonymous student complained that Howell’s statements were “hate speech.” Howell was subsequently fired, however, he maintains that he was simply presenting Catholic teaching in a class on Catholic thought.

The decision has received substantial media coverage, and the university has announced that it will have a faculty committee review the dismissal. The Diocese of Peoria has also announced that it will meet with officials from the university on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, students from the university and around the country have rallied around Howell in support and defense, trying to raise awareness of his situation. 

University of Illinois student Kristin DeSutter said that Howell “doesn’t deserve” to be fired for his teaching.

DeSutter was a student in the Introduction to Catholicism class this spring where Howell made the statements that resulted in his dismissal. She said that she was shocked when she heard that Howell was fired.

“He was a wonderful professor,” she told CNA. “He was very fair.”

Howell always stressed that while the students were in a class on Catholic thought, they would never be graded on their personal beliefs, DeSutter explained. “He made that very clear.”

Furthermore, the class was always open to debate and disagreement, DeSutter continued. “He wanted us to ask questions,” she said, explaining that Howell was always respectful of different opinions.

As an example, DeSutter described the final exam essay, in which students were asked to write a for-and-against analysis of homosexual behavior. Howell specifically told students that they would receive a poor grade if they only argued against it, she said. In the final exam, as in the class as a whole, he wanted his students to understand how to conduct a thorough moral analysis of a given topic, she explained.

Trisha Tan took classes with Howell at the Institute of Catholic Thought in 2008-2009. Now, Tan is helping organize a “Save Dr. Ken” group on Facebook. The group, which has almost 5,000 members, provides regular updates on Howell’s situation, as well as ways for interested individuals to help.

Tan told CNA that she considered the professor's case to be one worth fighting for.

“It’s an issue of academic freedom,” she said. “This is a professor who was terminated for doing what he was hired to do.”

“He’s an astounding teacher,” she added, noting that Howell was always “very clear” about making distinctions between class material and personal opinions.

In addition to assisting with the administration of the Facebook page, Tan told CNA that she is helping with an alumni campaign to cease donations to the school unless Howell is allowed to return to his teaching position.

Tan said that she knew many alumni from the university who were interested in helping Howell. She and others have encouraged them to call the university’s fundraising offices and explain that they will not make any more donations to the university until the professor is reinstated.

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So far, the campaign has been met with positive responses from alumni, she said.

Eli Lazar, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, is also working to raise awareness about Howell’s dismissal.

“A lot of students were upset about it,” he told CNA. Students wanted a tangible way to respond to the situation and help Howell, he said.

Lazar and a group of university students have been distributing fliers both on campus and in downtown Chicago. Keeping people informed is especially important in summertime, when many students have left campus, he said.

In addition to the fliers, he and his peers have written chalk messages on the university's “Quad” to direct people to the Facebook page.

Furthermore, Lazar told CNA there has been a call to boycott Department of Religion classes this fall if Dr. Howell is not reinstated. The classes offered by the department are often elective, so students are not required to take them.

“It’s our way of showing the university that we as students don’t want a censored version of life,” he explained. “We want to study real life.”

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So far, efforts have met with positive responses, Lazar continued.

“The support has been overwhelming,” he said, explaining that he has received the support of a wide variety of students, including Muslims and atheists, but has not yet seen any opposition to Howell’s reinstatement.

Response from the university administration has also been encouraging, he said. The administration has responded to emails, and the chancellor has called for a faculty committee to review the case.

Lazar said that he is hopeful that university officials will listen to the voices of the students and reinstate Howell. “I’m very confident,” he said.

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