Free Speech for Adjuncts

An adjunct religion professor at the University of Illinois has been let go for sending his students an email preparing them for an exam and making the Catholic case against homosexuality.  One important issue is the way the Catholic church selects and pays the staff who teach courses on Catholicism (more here), but surely decisions about this individual shouldn't focus on that larger problem.

The more directly relevant issue is freedom of speech--why is the instructor being denied it?  Well, he's an adjunct, rehired (or not) every semester.  But how can that be decisive?  A recent survey showed that 50% of US faculty have part-time adjunct status, and another 19% are full-time adjuncts or lecturers.  Just 31% are tenured or tenure-track.  If freedom of speech among US faculty is going to continue to mean anything, it has to extend to adjuncts.

A complicating factor is that the email does raise questions about the instructor's knowledge and judgment.  Given that his stated goal is to help students prepare for an exam, he should be simply setting forth positions and their pros and cons.  Instead, he clearly tries to convince students that the utilitarian way of judging homosexuality is wrong and the natural law approach is right.  I would not object to him doing that in the classroom ("Now I'll tell you my view--but of course you're free to disagree."), but in an exam-prep email, it comes across as excessive proselytizing.  Just as problematic: the email misrepresents utilitarianism, and the explanation of natural law isn't very impressive either.

Because of the other problems with the email, it's tempting not to insist on freedom of speech for this particular adjunct professor, but the department apparently had no previous concerns about his teaching ability, and has no other concerns at this time.  He's really being let go because of his stance on homosexuality.  People who value free speech ought to hold their noses--his position is inane and easily refuted--and stand up for this guy.

Update:  Or at least that's what I think without first spending 3-4 hours reading everything out there on this subject.  What say you?


Wayne said...

I throw out my beliefs and positions in my classes all the time... And usually I throw in the feel free to disagree. But sometimes I think I shouldn't even throw out my opinion at all, unless its pressed on me (I usually present everything in the most favorable light, and defend whatever I'm presenting as best I can.... Inevitably, some students ask, you really don't believe that though, do you?).

Sometimes I think that presenting my own position, is rather subtle pressure to get them to agree with me. After all, I'm the one with the degree, teaching the course, etc. And as an authority figure, it becomes harder and harder (psychologically speaking) to reject what I say as true for students.

Oddly, the only time in my classes that I really don't pose serious objections to the issue that I present is homosexuality.... because I really can't fathom any reasonable argument in its opposition, that isn't a naturalistic fallacy, an appeal to tradition like said professor, or an appeal to god.

But anyways, back on topic, I'm fine with not firing this particular professor in order to protect his first amendment rights.... but as an adjunct, he doesn't have a right to rehire (unless there are adjunct rights spelled out in his contract at his university).

I think ethics courses, in particular, need a kind of exemption from "inclusivity" standards, since we truly can't be tolerant of all beliefs (we ought not be inclusive of Nazi justification of genocide). Teaching abortion issues, homosexuality issues, cloning issues, etc. force professors to present (at least accurately, at best fairly) opposing arguments to students.

Jean Kazez said...

I take the same approach you do to revealing my own positions...I don't want to do that too much, for all the reasons you say.

I think we really have a problem in academia if adjuncts aren't going to be granted freedom of speech. They're the majority of faculty members! The point of protecting free speech is not just to protect special tenured people, but to make sure academia is a rich marketplace of ideas (and all that). Where's the marketplace, if so many people are tiptoeing around, not saying what they want for fear of not having a job?

Yeah--some things are so far beyond the pale we really don't want people on a college campus saying them at all. I don't think "homosexuality is bad" is one of those super-crazy views. It's not true, but it's not super-crazy.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I don't see how you draw the conclusion that he's really being let go for his stance on homosexuality. Is just because there haven't been any complaints about his teaching abilities before? Considering that he wasn't hired through ordinary university channels, and that his previous students were not so critical about his methods, it's not so surprising that his incompetence has flown under the radar before now. (Though it is also possible that some members of the department have been concerned about his teaching abilities from the very start.)

The evidence tells me that he's being let go because of the way he teaches his stance, and not because of the stance itself. So the free-speech defense doesn't work for me.

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, It doesn't seem as if there were any concerns about teaching quality before. He had been teaching there for 9 years. This is from one of the articles I linked to--

"The religion department's website says Howell was recognized for excellent teaching in the spring and fall semesters of 2008 and 2009."

From what I can see, his email got him in trouble, and nothing else.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Howell's recognition for excellence is based solely on student evaluations. See here: ICES Fall 2008 and Fall 2009. The results give no indication of the views of other professors or administrators at UI.

There has been ongoing disapproval of the system through which Howell was hired. It stands to reason that faculty who disapprove of that system have also been concerned about Howell's qualifications and abilities.

Perhaps no formal complaints were filed about Howell before now. I don't think that means he's been doing a good job until now, or that his contract is not being renewed simply because he believes homosexuality is unnatural.

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, I read your posts about this at your blog. I agree with everything you say about his philosophical incompetence, and it looks like you're right--he was recognized for teaching excellence simply by his students. And yes, it's pretty appalling the way people are hired to teach about Catholicism. Still, all signs are that it really was JUST the attitude toward homosexuality in the email that got him fired. Until I see evidence to the contrary, that's what I have to believe.

I think this guy does need a "talking to." It's inappropriate the way he seems to push his position in an email that's supposed to be about an exam. But this would not be a firing offense for a tenured professor. My main point is that adjunct professors ought to have the same amount of academic freedom. They're not entitled to it contractually, but we can't have meaningful academic freedom in the US if adjuncts don't have it, given how many adjuncts there are.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Jean, thanks for taking the time to read those posts. And I'm glad we're on the same page for the most part. But I'm not seeing the signs that this was just about his attitude towards homosexuality in one email. You may have missed this article. It looks like the student complaint was about class discussion as much as it was about the email. As one of the professors on the Senate Council says, the email was just the last straw.

Jean Kazez said...

I did read that article, which doesn't really say anything about incompetence, but about crossing the line between teaching about religion and teaching religion. He'd been teaching there 9 years! I think we need to see some record of dissatisfaction before beliving this is about general issues, not his stance on homosexuality. The school itself seems be saying it's about the latter. Someone complained he was guilty of hate speech, the university agreed, so he was let go.

Faust said...

I think this post by Feser on Anscome relates to this discussion in an interesting way:


Jason Streitfeld said...


The complaint from the student was never simply that Howell held offensive views, or even that Howell taught offensive views. The complaint was that he "preached" them instead of teaching them in a manner which was not in line with the university's teaching standards. So, while the phrase "hate speech" was used in the email, the intent was never to object to Howell's stance on homosexuality. It was always about his teaching methods. Here's the original complaint email.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Sorry, I mean he preached them instead of teaching them in a manner which was in line with the university's teaching standards.

Jean Kazez said...

Jason, I did read that email. Many instructors ("some of my best friends," in fact) occasionally preach when they should teach. I sometimes do it too. This is probably an especially bad case, but it's a very common thing. What's attracting attention here is surely not the preaching, but what he's preaching. Nobody's trying to let me go because I may occasionally preach the gospel of vegetarianism too much. That's because that's politically correct, and condemning homosexuality isn't. But as an adjunct (like him) I'm vulnerable too. I am simply saying--he should have the same academic freedom any tenured or tenure-track faculty member would have. Which has to include the freedom to say stupid things (as he did).

Jason Streitfeld said...

I imagine there's a big difference between what you are talking about and what Howell was doing. While you may "preach" vegetarianism from time to time, I imagine you make a concerted effort to teach it according to appropriate standards of pedagogy. So, in your case, it's not really preaching; it's just getting a little (or may be a lot) worked up, or taking the discussion to a more personal level.

That's not the problem here. It's not that Howell is passionate or adamant in his beliefs, or that he argues them from a personal point of view. It's that he teaches dogma as if it were natural fact, denying that it's dogma, and failing to properly present contrary points of view.

Sure, he says they're just his beliefs, and his students don't have to agree with them to pass the course. But that doesn't mean he's teaching; it just means he's giving himself a disclaimer.

Jason Streitfeld said...

There's also the fact that I think professors have a responsibility to be more careful when teaching subjects that can be offensive to a recognized segment of the population--especially one that is often singled out and protected from discrimination and hate speech. So, yes, if this case didn't involve homosexuality or any other sensitive issues, it may not have come to our attention. But that doesn't mean the only issue here is Howell's views on homosexuality. It's the way he teaches it.

Jean Kazez said...

I agree that he screwed up, and I don't think I screw up in the same way! But they were happy with him for 9 years (evidently). If you really didn't mind the stance he was taking, would you think the screw up was worthy of dismissal? For example, suppose in this email he was pushing some "good" position, like that gay people should be allowed to marry, or that everyone should vote, or that climate change is real....or whatever. Would you really think the excessive preaching was worthy of dismissal? I doubt it!

Jason Streitfeld said...

Jean, I have a couple problems with the way you're framing the issue.

Firstly, Howell wasn't exactly dismissed. He finished his contract and was told he wouldn't be offered another one. That is nowhere near as serious as firing a tenured professor, and does not require the same degree of diligence.

Second, you ask if I would still agree with the university's actions even if I wasn't offended by Howell's stance. But, honestly, I'm not all that offended by Howell's stance. I don't agree with it, but I don't find it particularly offensive. It's the lack of intellectual integrity that offends me, and that isn't so much about the stance as it is about the way Howell teaches it. If Howell showed the same lack of intellectual integrity when teaching any issue of import, I would have the same reaction.

Though, as I conceded in my previous post, the fact that homosexuals are a protected minority is significant, and shouldn't be ignored.

Third, I'm not sure it's fair to compare Howell's actions to somebody pushing gay marriage or global warming--not because those are more acceptable views, but because of the circumstances in which Howell was hired, and the fact that he's signed a mandate pledging that he will teach in accordance with the Catholic church. To compare this with somebody pushing gay marriage, we'd have to imagine them being hired by some dogmatic civil rights group and employing dishonest and manipulative teaching practices to spread their views. It's very hard for me to imagine what that would look like, but, if it were to happen, I would be as against it as I am what Howell was doing.

Finally, I think it's a little inaccurate, or maybe too kind, to characterize Howell's misbehavior as "excessive preaching." He was committed to church methods at the expense of the standards we expect of a public university. The issue for me is separation of church and state, not homosexuality.

Jean Kazez said...

"Firstly, Howell wasn't exactly dismissed. He finished his contract and was told he wouldn't be offered another one. That is nowhere near as serious as firing a tenured professor, and does not require the same degree of diligence."

This is where we really disagree. The majority of faculty members in the US are adjuncts. So if they don't have protected academic freedom, there is no real academic freedom in the US. It's for the sake of academic freedom that I'm defending this guy, not because I think he was contractually entitled to continue teaching. If it weren't for the specific view he was pushing, I think he would have been renewed (despite other teaching flaws revealed by the email)...and that's problematic.

As to the role of the Catholic church--sure, get rid of this whole way of hiring people to teach Catholicism. But that's not what's happening here. All signs are that the guy's being let go for excessively pushing what many see as "the wrong view." The department is not getting rid of him as an inevitable consequence of getting rid of the whole system. There's nothing that indicates they're getting rid of the whole system.

I don't agree that the protected status of gays (in some places) should stop instructors from taking the position that homosexuality is bad, or even pushing it. In ethics classes, this is a standard topic, and both sides are normally taught. Inevitably, some instructors will take the conservative position. It's another matter if they're biased against students who disagree, but that's not what Howell is being charged with, from what I can see.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I must not have made myself very clear, because I think you've misunderstood my position and my arguments.

I am not saying that adjuncts don't have the same freedom to express their views. I'm saying that, if this were a tenured professor, more evidence and more procedures would be necessary to conclude that he was incompetent. That's the difference: In this case, there is enough evidence suggesting incompetence to say goodbye to this professor, even though it might not be enough evidence in the case of a tenured professor.

And I most certainly do not think that the protected status of homosexuals means that professors cannot push an anti-homosexual agenda. I never said that. What I said is that professors should be more sensitive to the issue. As you said, both sides should be taught, and the professor is allowed to take sides. In Howell's class, only one side was being taught, though Howell gave the false impression that he was representing other sides.

By the way, as the Higher Ed article says, "A Senate committee at Illinois is now again reviewing the link between the university and the St. John's center." This has been an ongoing issue, and faculty have been fighting for years to get rid of the connection. So I don't think it's accurate to say that everything has been fine up until now. I'm not sure what the politics is with the university, but I can't see any reason why the Senate Committee would choose to continue this arrangement. I think they're supposed to make their decision next month, so we might be hearing more about this soon.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't really think I'm misunderstanding you--we just disagree.

I think universities should protect academic freedom just as diligently, whether a faculty member has tenure or doesn't. Evidently you don't think so.

My reason for thinking so is that over half of faculty members are adjuncts. So there can't be academic freedom on college campuses if adjuncts don't have it. You haven't addressed that point. I think it's actually pretty important!

It was the guy's stance on homosexuality that got him in trouble--not his misrepresentations of utilitarianism and not his preaching. I don't think that should happen--employment decisions should be independent of positions people take on controversial subjects. I don't see the proper sort of independence here.

To justify dismissing Howell, I think the body investigating this would have to show that he was actually let go for reasons that had nothing to do with his stance on homosexuality. I'd be very surprised if they could show that.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I don't think we disagree about how diligently universities should protect academic freedom. I never said tenured professors should have more academic freedom. We just disagree about what got this professor into trouble.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, maybe that's what it comes down to.