Maybe, in your whole college career, you get one professor like Dr. Ken Howell.
The kind who looks you in the eye, smiles, remembers your name without glancing at the seating chart. He takes your questions seriously, answers them thoughtfully, and clearly cares more about actual thinking than your ability to recite his lessons verbatim on a test.
Almost before you know it, he’s engaging your meandering mind … piercing some half-thought preconceptions … stirring those long-dormant embers that once blazed with a desire to learn.
And when, one afternoon, in a casual moment, he quietly asks about some small aspect of your life he recalls from a conversation or an essay weeks ago … you realize, "I’m important to him."
That’s when it clicks for you – why caring friends and family wanted you to go to college. This is what they were hoping for. This is what you were hoping for, and didn’t even know it.
Not every student gets a teacher like that. Not every school does. But the University of Illinois did. For nearly 10 years, they had Dr. Ken Howell, a gifted scholar and one of the most popular, most effective, and most caring professors on campus. Then, they fired him.
Not in spite of how good a teacher he was. But because of it.
The University of Illinois has an old and complex relationship with St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, where, until last summer, Dr. Ken Howell served as director of the Institute of Catholic Thought. For more than 50 years, the Newman Center was one of several religious outposts on the U of I campus, offering transferable credit courses in Church doctrine and moral philosophy. That changed in the early ‘70s, when the university created its own religion department and absorbed most of the religious teaching responsibilities from the sundry faith groups on campus.
The Newman Center, however, remained an autonomous exception, until the turn of the new century, when the university required the Newman teaching staff to become adjunct members of the Department of Religion – reporting not to Catholic authorities, but to university officials.
About that time, in 2001, Howell came on board, to teach Introduction to Catholicism, among other courses. He quickly earned a reputation with students as a compelling and compassionate teacher. Soon, it wasn’t just the Catholic students who were jockeying for a seat in his crowded classrooms.
"[Homosexual behavior] is a defining issue for this generation, just as abortion was for my generation."
Dr. Kenneth Howell
"A lot of professors seem to be interested just in the material," says junior Shawn Resendiz, "or in their perception as a teacher. He’s legitimately interested in students, in their ability to handle the material. I like his very face-to-face, person-to-person sort of teaching style."
"He encouraged us to ask questions," says junior Kristin DeSutter. "Part of our grade from this course was our ability to ask questions in class and actively participate in discussions. He made us stimulate our own minds and examine both sides of an issue before deciding our opinion."
"I don’t only teach a subject – I teach people," Howell explains. "I teach about a particular subject, but it’s ultimately the people and their personal formation that’s important to me. What’s challenging, and what’s rewarding about it, is that I get to watch this formation of people going on during the time I teach them. And because a number of my students keep in contact with me afterward, I see the development of their lives beyond the classroom."
What Howell didn’t see developing, by his own admission, was a new depth of hostility against the Newman Center – and against him personally – and for what both represented on campus.
"I’ve heard there are people in the university very opposed to our presence," Howell says, "but this was the first year I recall where there was a very forthright and virulent opposition to my teaching about the subject of homosexuality."
It is a regular lesson in Howell’s Introduction to Catholicism class: A lecture and discussion on the Church’s position with regard to homosexual behavior and same-sex "marriage." The topic often prompts more questions and to-and-fro than other subjects, but he’s not surprised by that.
"This is a defining issue for this generation, just as abortion was for my generation," he says. "But in the case of this particular class, most of the students have always been very receptive to thinking through the problem, even if they didn’t agree with my conclusions."
Those conclusions, he says, are "what the Catholic Church officially teaches: that people who have a same-sex attraction cannot be held morally responsible for that attraction. That is to say, if they have this orientation, that’s not a moral evil in and of itself. Because all of us have attractions to wrong things … and that’s involuntary for the most part. But the Church also teaches that to act upon these inclinations – to engage in homosexual acts – is ‘gravely immoral.’"
"I try to show that this is based on natural moral law … things we know in our conscience. Everyone who has a good conscience can see that killing an innocent human being is wrong. In the same way, certain sexual acts are wrong, because they go against the natural course of things. They break down that natural order."
"He proposes what the Catholic Church teaches," says senior Jessalyn Rashid, who’s taken the class. "He did not try and change that in any way, but just proposed it in a way that was clear and understandable. He doesn’t impose his views on anyone."
At the start of the discussion, Howell reminds his students that "no student in this class will ever be judged on the basis of what he or she believes, but only upon their academic understanding of the subject. It’s not a matter of belief; it’s only a question of understanding that belief."
"He took questions, he was very calm and very well thought-out in what he said," Chalkey remembers. "Never did he say anything that was wrong about homosexuals, the people … he said the Catholic Church’s teaching was on the act itself."
"I do try to be sensitive to students who may feel inclined to homosexual things," Howell says, "to help them to understand that this is a very human issue, and something that we all need to be concerned about. I try to do it with delicacy."
Two years ago, a student came up after the lecture and told Howell, "I don’t agree with what you say. My sister is a lesbian. But now I understand why you believe what you believe."
"And that’s all that I really wanted to achieve," Howell says, "that she and the other members of the class would understand what the Catholic Church teaches and why it teaches this."
As the class discussion on homosexual behavior ended last spring, Howell was concerned. Student interactions had been more emotional, and some of their questions and responses had been openly pointed, even antagonistic.
One student came up to compliment him. "You handled that so justly and so calmly," she said. Then, before leaving, she added, "Some of the people in that class really hate you, you know."
"I was kind of surprised," Howell says. Looking back, "I could see signs of people being very critical, and unreasonably so. But that subject, that’s when it really all blew up."
Howell sensed where the problem lay. "My students didn’t seem to understand this idea of natural moral law very well. The idea that there’s an objective moral truth that’s based in the nature of things, ultimately made by God, is something that they’re not familiar with."
To clarify things, he sent his students a follow-up e-mail, discussing "not so much the question of [homosexual behavior], but the question of how you decide what’s right and what’s wrong."
Next day, he asked the students if they’d read the e-mail. None expressed any concern about it.
"People don’t deny principles by being overtly evil. They deny principles by being pragmatic."
Dr. Kenneth Howell
After final exams, the head of the religion department asked Howell to come to his office. There, the chairman handed him a copy of the e-mail Howell had sent to his class.
An anonymous student, "a friend" of someone in the class, claiming to be offended by the e-mail, had forwarded it to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Resource Center on campus – which, in turn, had sent it to university administrators, several of whom had passed it on to the religion department chairman, demanding action. "I’ll take care of this," the chairman had promised them.
The e-mail was "very disturbing," Howell remembers him saying. "This could hurt the university enormously."
Howell was confused. "What’s wrong with the e-mail?" he asked.
The chairman ignored that. "The university," he said, "has an interest in not offending students."
"We’ve both been teachers a long time," Howell told him. And, "while we don’t want to alienate people, our goal as teachers is not to protect them from deep and penetrating questions. Our goal is to get them to think."
"Well, in this case, with this student, the university doesn’t want to make any waves," the chairman replied.
Astonished, Howell asked again what exactly was wrong or "offensive" about what he’d written. The chairman wouldn’t say. "But don’t you understand," Howell asked, "that if you don’t allow me to teach, you’re violating my academic freedom and my free speech rights?"
The chairman ignored that, too. Effective immediately, he said, Howell would no longer be teaching at the university.
In the days that followed, Howell decided on two courses of action. First, he would let his students know what had happened. He had e-mail listings for the last two years, and he sent out the news – no editorializing, just the facts. The response was immediate and extraordinary.
Within days, former students had created not one, but two "Save Dr. Ken" Facebook pages. They wrote letters to university administrators, called local media, sent editorials to The Chicago Tribune. Even the campus atheists club sent protests to the university president. Support poured in from France, Ireland, Poland, the Philippines – 10 countries, all together. The case quickly made headlines all over the U.S.
"It just exploded," Howell says. "There must have been tens of thousands of people praying for me. The outpouring was so enormous – I felt a deep level of support."
His second action, at the urging of friends, was to contact the Alliance Defense Fund.
"Other attorneys told me that I had no case against the university," he says. "But ADF said, ‘You can be fired for no reason, but you can’t be fired for a bad reason. We think you have a case.’ They’ve been enormously helpful in supporting me and standing up for my free speech rights."
"I was given no opportunity to explain myself, to defend myself, or in any way to clarify what I was doing in the classroom."
Dr. Kenneth Howell
"This really isn’t an isolated incident," says David Hacker, one of the ADF lawyers representing Howell. "There’s been a growing threat to religious liberty and academic freedom at our public universities. Here we have ‘the marketplace of ideas,’ where students come to learn and engage a variety of topics, and the universities are essentially saying, ‘Some topics are off limits, and if you don’t agree with us, you’re not going to teach here.’"
"The fact that Dr. Howell stood up for his rights was really something extraordinary," Hacker continued. "Many Christian faculty today are unwilling to share their beliefs with their peers. They don’t want their fellow faculty members to know that they have any faith at all, because that is often a deterrent to getting tenure and having a livelihood at that university."
"I had many hesitations about going ahead with this," says Howell, who is not tenured. "I love teaching … being a scholar … the academic life. I realized that this could possibly exclude me from that community forever. But I also believe that this issue is more than about me. It is about a principle, and if we don’t live by principles, then we have nothing to live by."
Last July, ADF attorneys sent a letter to University of Illinois officials affirming Howell’s constitutionally protected academic freedoms. Within two weeks, the university had re-instated Howell as a teacher for the fall semester – albeit with no admission of guilt on their part, and with the stipulation that an investigation of Howell’s teachings would continue. In October, university officials completed that review and vindicated Howell, clearing him of all charges.
"It’s very clear that I’m persona non grata in the university," Howell says. "But I’m very thankful for the many faculty members who’ve contacted me and told me that they support my freedom of speech, even if they don’t agree with me about the particular issue I was teaching."
Other faculty members haven’t been so charitable. Some sent hate mail so vicious that "they’ve told me they think I’m some kind of an animal, basically," Howell says. "One of the things I’ve come to realize about the law is, it can’t give reconciliation. All it can give you is legal justice."
Nevertheless, he says, "institutions have to be held accountable – whether it’s a university, or a church, or a business, or government, or whatever. A big institution like a university is always in danger of a totalitarian crackdown on freedom of speech – if the speech disagrees with the prevailing opinions of those within the university. Freedom of speech has to be protected.
At the height of last summer’s commotion, when Howell was buffeted by waves of media attention and student outrage, administrative silence and personal doubts – his emotions soaring and plunging and spinning like a top on a rollercoaster – he opened his now-crowded e-mail files to another kind note from another caring student troubled by the sudden news of his firing.
This note, though, came from a different place … a place he could hardly have hoped to reach.
"I am a person with a same-sex attraction," the student wrote. "But I agree with the Catholic Church’s position that we should not act upon these attractions. So, I support you in your efforts to teach what the Catholic Church actually teaches … especially in a class on Catholicism."
Ken Howell knows. Maybe, in a whole classroom of students, you get one like that.