Officials at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana have sparked controversy over their decision not to extend the hiring of Adjunct Professor Kenneth Howell, a highly rated instructor who has taught electives at the university since 2001 on the history and tenets of Catholicism. Howell’s apparent “offense” is that he accurately rendered those teachings in an e-mail distributed to students in one of his classes.

According to a local newspaper, the trouble began when a friend of an unidentified student sent the chairman of IU’s Religion Department a copy of an e-mail Howell wrote to students in his Introduction to Catholicism class. The e-mail contained a detailed explication by Howell of the idea of “natural moral law” and utilitarianism as applied to the Catholic understanding of the morality of homosexual acts. Howell intended his e-mail, he wrote, to assist students in addressing a “question on the final exam about utilitarianism.”

The complaining student wrote that Howell’s e-mail amounted to “hate speech” that should be “entirely unacceptable” at a public university. A faculty member who agreed with the complainant reportedly wrote that Howell’s e-mail “violate[d] university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us.” The department chairman, Robert McKim, stated that he would send university students a note “dissociating our department, College, and university” from Howell’s views.

Attorneys for the Alliance Defense Fund have challenged the university’s action and are demanding a reply by July 16. They note Howell’s strong evaluations from the students who take his courses as well as the fact that he makes clear to his students that their work is graded on its quality and knowledge of the subject matter—and not on the extent to which they agree or disagree with the religious and moral tenets of Catholicism.

Interestingly, the views of the anonymous student that were related to McKim did not include any contention that Howell’s e-mail misrepresented Catholic teaching. In other words, the objection was based on the content of that teaching and not on Howell’s ability as an educator to faithfully communicate the subject matter of a university course offering. For now it’s fair to say that in June 2010 political correctness has triumphed over academic freedom at a major public university.