Monday, July 19, 2010

From Church & State to Church & Inquiry to...

Earlier this year, Kenneth Howell was told that his contract as an adjunct professor of religion would not be renewed at the University of Illinois (here's an article and commentary).  Howell's position was peculiar-- though teaching at a public university, the instructorship is paid for and its occupant approved by St. John's Catholic Newman Center.  The firing was precipitated by concerns about an email Howell sent to students in preparation for an exam that discussed homosexuality, which email has been criticized as offensive, inappropriately asserted (as "preaching" rather than "teaching"), etc.

I'm not interested in discussing the merits of this particular case and whether or not Howell was unfairly treated by the administration.  In any case, there are a number of good discussions out there on both sides of the issue, and most everyone with an opinion has struck me as being pretty fair and reasonable in their points (and this state of the discussion isn't a small victory, given the perfect storm of sex, politics and religion that have come together here).

What I find sort of odd... and worth considering more directly... are two articles at IHE written by Scott Jaschik on the 15th and the 19th of this month.  In "Teaching or Preaching?", Jaschik thoroughly lays out facts of the matter and discusses the varieties of opinion currently circulating.  In "The Real Scandal at Illinois?" there is further consideration of what exactly is the root of the problem at UI... here the Newman Center becomes the primary object of scrutiny rather than Howell himself, and concerns are raised about its history and legitimacy within a public university setting.

In both articles, the oft-repeated concerns of church-state violations and protection of free inquiry are raised.  In the second article, however, these questions strike me as culminating in a weird amalgamation of reasons that raises more questions than it answers.

Church & State

Jaschik starts out by highlighting the differing standards of teaching religions at UI; while courses in Buddhism or Methodism or Judaism are taught by religion scholars acquired through normal academic review standards, the professor of Catholic thought is nominated and paid for by a Catholic institution (though presumably approved for hire by UI). This is apparently a Very Bad Thing:
This arrangement has existed for decades, and been opposed by faculty members -- also for decades. Not only is it highly unusual for a college to give an outside group the right to screen and nominate candidates to teach, but the situation raises church-state issues at a public institution, presents issues of fairness when it is permitted for only one religious group at a secular college, and may undercut the values of the field of religious studies, faculty critics say.
All of these worries are understandable.  An institution of higher education should be concerned about the quality of its religious studies courses and the threat of undue privilege offered to outside bodies with a decided interest in certain religious norms.  One could easily imagine a situation where a renegade proselytizer infiltrates a classroom of critical learning in a normal academic situation; the addition of a sectarian organizational backing only increases the likelihood of such a problem.  The privilege offered to professors of Catholic thought via the Newman Center would become a difference that actually makes a difference for free inquiry, and under such conditions the university would stand helpless before religious-studies-as-apologetics.  

...unless, somehow, the university could develop some kind of institutional review process and executive decision-making protocol... you know, like the ability to receive complaints and fire an adjunct professor as necessary.

The odd thing about Jaschik's point, then, is that the Howell situation itself seems to present something of an argument against the concerns that led to it in the first place.  If the university can end the contract of this Catholic instructor as easily as it can any other contingent faculty, then it's not very clear what exactly everyone was worried about in the first place.  Does the Newman Center really exercise all that much influence, if Howell stands so decidedly at the mercy of the university?

The reader of Jaschik's article continues to be taken in circles by Nicholas Burbules, and it's not exactly clear what the problem is, exactly:
"This has never really been about just one e-mail," said Nicholas C. Burbules, a professor of education and former Senate president at the university. "This has been an arrangement that has been rife with potential for things to go wrong, and this seems to be an instance in which things did go wrong. This was foreseen and argued over for decades at the university, with faculty members and some administrators trying for years to change this arrangement."
 If this is not about the recent email, then it's about the long-standing arrangement.  But the arrangement itself is "rife with potential", and I can't imagine that Howell failed to have his contract renewed for being rife with any sort of potential.  Certainly his predecessors weren't fired for any such reason.  So what exactly is the problem?  Well, Burbules says "this seems to be an instance in which things did go wrong."  But is he talking about the email again here?  The concern seems to vacillate between an unsavory arrangement with a Catholic institution and some specific recent occurrences.  The only problem is that it's not clear why the Newman Center arrangement is anything more than "rife with potential for things to go wrong", which doesn't seem to be any sort of violation itself.  And if the current problem with Ken Howell is what is actually wrong (although Burbules says that it's not the problem just before he seems to imply that it is the problem), the decision not to renew his contract seems to relieve any concerns about the Newman Center's potential for trouble.  There's no question that UI is in the driver's seat here.

Church & Inquiry

The article goes on to discuss what "religious studies" should be, and offers concerns about the place of faith commitments within the field:
Ann Taves, president of the American Academy of Religion and professor of religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said that defining religious studies as an academic field about religion, not one that seeks to promote a given religion, is a distinction that most often comes up in fund raising. But she said it was crucial to the field to maintain its independence. [...]

Taves said that she does not make this distinction to denigrate the way various religions teach their faiths to fellow believers, but to note the differing roles of religions and of religious studies faculty members. "Religions have their own obligation to teach people what it means to be a practicing Catholic or Hindu or Jew, but that's not the purpose of a [nonsectarian] university," she said. "Our goal is to teach people about religious traditions, as we do in the humanities and the liberal arts." There is nothing wrong with what religions do, "but that's a different task," she said.
As a mundane point about keeping inquiry critical, all of this is fine. I'm not sure, however, that Taves is exactly correct with her more extensive assertions.  To begin, I'm curious about Jaschik's bracketed adjective "nonsectarian" within Taves' discussion of "the purpose of a university".  Did this replace an originally less-clear word, or was it an editorial addition to a blank space?  In any case, is it even obvious that a non-sectarian institution shouldn't hold within its academic purpose the teaching of religious practices or beliefs?  There seem to be quite a few nonsectarian institutions that get along just fine teaching sectarian beliefs and practices within their walls.  The University of Chicago is nonsectarian and its Divinity School is recognized as an important contributor to the religious studies field, but it also teaches theology and offers ministerial degrees.  The University of Virginia is a public nonsectarian university that is well-known (and well-respected) for its religion department, though it doesn't at all shy away from engagement with religious arguments, norms, and interpretations as partners in religious studies inquiry.

Further, Taves' comments seem odd coming from a president of the AAR.  This scholarly association, purportedly the primary representative of religious studies scholars in the United States, is crawling with sectarian and theological approaches to inquiry concerning religion (as is the SBL).  Conference sections for theology are among the most populated at yearly meetings, and if you close your eyes and point in any direction from inside the exhibit hall, you're more likely to be singling out a religiously-affiliated or theologically-focused publisher than anything else.  There are of course scholars who disagree with this interaction between religious and non-religious inquiries into religion in nonsectarian settings, but I don't quite understand why this disagreement should establish any particular ground rules for the field of the sort that Taves provides here.  Nor do Taves or others in charge seem to be very much concerned about enforcing such standards, whatever they say about the state of things. In the recent past we have also seen Emilie Townes and Jeffrey Stout holding the presidency, and the work of both involves either religiously-situated theological inquiry or traditionally informed normative and ethical arguments.  Next year, Kwok Pui Lan will hold the AAR presidency, another testimony to the fact that religious studies isn't nearly so distinct from religiously-normed inquiry as Taves seems to imply.

From Church & State to Church & Inquiry to...

Questions about the connection between a Catholic institution and a public university have centered around church-state violations and the legitimacy of the Newman Center's role in providing funding for Catholic Studies adjuncts at the University of Illinois.  Other questions about how religious studies should best be pursued moved on to the problem of church-inquiry relations, and analogous "violations" were identified for this new boundary. What seems to be missing... and might have provided a bit more perspective for the commentary that was offered by Jaschik... is the relationship between an institution's public status and its ability to pursue free inquiry.  Fixation on the church, that is, seems to have distracted from the state-inquiry relationship, which itself is "rife with potential for things to go wrong".

Haven't we been bombarded over the past few years (decades, really, but recent economic crises have instigated a new wave) with apologias for the humanities disciplines and for free inquiry in the face of a capitalist political economy and the professionalization or commercialization of the academy?  Why do we move so quickly from such a struggle to what seems to be a naive conflation of the "nonsectarian" and the "public" in the current conversation about UI and Ken Howell?  The argument is that the funding for the Catholic instructorship at UI is highly peculiar because of its connections to a religious body.  Peculiar or not, though, does it really provide a threat to free inquiry that is very much distinct from the pressures put on universities by state budgets or more general societal standards?  Aren't these dilemmas rather consistently present in the university?  I don't see why the current case suddenly finds Howell's opposition jumping in bed with the "public", as if this is any protection against the compromising of free inquiry.

My argument here isn't that public institutions are simply the secular equivalent of sectarian or religious institutions.  Nor am I trying to say that Howell should get his contract back-- indeed, some of my earlier points actually lean on the legitimacy of his firing in order to make their case.  What I have a problem with is the apparent need to make categorical arguments about what constitutes proper inquiry and decision-making in a public institutional setting or in accordance with modern research standards.  As far as I can tell, university and disciplinary standards are currently much more diverse, complicated, and ad hoc than many people seem to be implying.  An argument could surely be made that this is a bad thing, but doing so strikes me as embarking on a more general conversation and not one that has much to do with Howell's instructorship in itself.  It also strikes me as a rather ambitious conversation to initiate, given that current inquiry in religious and theological studies speaks so strongly against a more monolithic notion of secularity and the religions.


  1. You argument in your "Church and State" section is the sort that sounds quite reasonable, but upon further scrutiny is a little odd.

    What if the Catholic Church paid the president's salary and chose the president, but the president could be impeached by Congress at will. And let's even say that this is a functioning institutional arrangement - that Congress does impeach the Catholic-appointed president on occasion. It's not just a power on paper.

    Is this an appropriate arrangement?

    I'm not of the opinion that it is strictly unworkable, and I'm not arguing it's a great travesty. I'm not even arguing it should stop necessarily. But let's be honest about how weird this is. Do any other endowed chairs operate like this (it's an honest question... I didn't think they did, but perhaps they do)? I agree with you - in practice it's not hugely disconcerting, but of all the institutional sponsors of a professorial position, I'd imagine the Catholic Church is one of the least disinterested.

    Shouldn't that raise any eyebrows?

  2. It may indeed be an inappropriate arrangement, but I'm not sure that anyone has made a clear case for why it would be. What troubles me is that people seem to be shuttling back and forth between this being about an email and about the wider issue of a Catholic-funded instructorship, but never really coming to a conclusion about which is the problem and why. You're right to point out that just because the university reserves certain measures to fix a problem doesn't mean that the established arrangement is acceptable, but this isn't exactly equivalent to the appointment of a head of state. An adjunct doesn't possess any executive power, and a university isn't a democratic polity that loses popular sovereignty the way a country would if its leadership were appointed by an external religious body. This is an arrangement between two administrative bodies about how one contingent faculty member is nominated, hired, and paid.

    Finally, if you agree with me that "in practice it's not hugely disconcerting", I'm not sure what the problem is. Isn't this good enough reason to question peoples' concerns about abstract boundaries between church, state, and inquiry?

  3. ...on the question of how peculiar this is, I take the article at its word that this is a pretty uncommon thing in public universities-- I'm not familiar enough with norms of hiring in these institutions, but I haven't see any reason to question the fact. It's worth keeping in mind, though, that this is a matter of two courses taught by an adjunct professor, and not exactly an "endowed chair".

  4. This type of calm, systematic and logical analysis is why they pay you the big bucks Evan.

  5. I see the more likely church-state issue having to do with the fact that a specific church is allowed to nominate and fund a faculty member (albeit an adjunct one). If other groups were interested in doing so, would they be allowed to? While it might be a great way to fund classes on topics that we would all like to see taught, we would presumably not want to allow anyone with a few tens of thousands of dollars to be able to pay for classes on the religious topic of their choice. By what criterion, then, can the faculty accept an adjunct professor of Catholic thought from the Newman Center but reject an adjunct professor of creationist thought from some fringe fundamentalist group? I'm all for the ad hoc approach to these things, but would it hold up in court?

  6. Evan -
    Well, we run two risks here - you risk minimizing it because "aw gee, nobody really gets hurt by it", and I risk overstating the point by comparing it to the presidency. But at least we now have some parameters on it.

    It is strange - that's my only point. Why can't we acknowledge that? I had taken the point about the institutional arrangement to be entirely separate from the point about this particular dismissal (which obviously had nothing to do with the arrangement itself and more to do with the professor) - but you're more knowledgeable about that than I am.

    And when you say that it's not that big of a deal, that cuts both ways. If it's not that big of a deal then why have it in the first place? Is a position that's "not that big of a deal" worth having a professor that owes his position to the Catholic Church?

  7. Evan, thanks for your thoughts. It seems that the real issue is not necessarily the firing of Prof. Howell--whether it be just or unjust. The problem seems to be with UI, and as you mentioned, the relationship with the Newman Center. This relationship--which looks quite ambiguous--seems like the locus of potential problems.