Teaching religion at a secular university

NB: Rick’s comment made me realize that I did not clarify at the outset that I was not commenting directly on the merits of Howell’s hiring or firing. I was commenting on the practice of allowing an organization or donor outside of the university dictate the hiring or firing policies.

The University of Illinois is receiving a lot of flak right now over the decision to not reappoint a lecturer of Catholic thought. From Inside Higher Ed:

The way the University of Illinois teaches Catholic thought has attracted widespread attention in the last week with the news that a long-term instructor, Kenneth Howell, was told that he would not be rehired, following complaints about an e-mail message he sent to students, which many viewed as misinformed about homosexuality, and as hostile to gay people.

The full piece is worth reading as it presents the arguments and concerns quite clearly. It seems that for decades UI has had an arrangement whereby St. John’s Catholic Newman Center vets, approves, and pays the salary for this instructor who then teaches courses within the religious studies department. Needless to say, this has brought up questions of separation of church and state (UI being a state school) and academic freedom.

As someone who has always taught religious subjects in secular schools, both private and public, as well as having directed both Jewish studies and religious studies programs, I have very strong and clearly formed views about such hirings. I can certainly understand the origins of such a position and payment situation. It was a common scenario in Jewish studies as well where the college or university had its roots (or assumptions) in Protestant traditions and the only way other religions were to be taught was through external funding. Such funding often comes with pressures and guidelines from the donors. But that is not where UI is anymore. They have a well established department of religion with top-notch faculty.

In order for religious studies to maintain its integrity and for the proper academic (as opposed to apologetic) teaching of the subject matter, it is imperative that the department and faculty make hiring decisions according to appropriate guidelines. In such a manner the process can be assessed and put under the usual rigors of the hiring and tenure process rather than being at the capricious whims of the donor. (I wonder what the outcry would have been had St. John’s not renewed Howell’s contract?) Catholic thought is certainly a field that is appropriate for a department of religion and I hope that UI funds a permanent tenure-line appointment within the department of religion.

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