How I Was Fired From Teaching at the University of Maryland and Banned From Setting Foot on its Campus

There is much in the news today about sexism and racism, and some complain of a country that has gone too far in “wokeness,” or “cancellation culture.” This is not a new phenomenon. Here is my story:

Toward the end of the 1990s about the time I sold my consulting company, Howell Associates, I became a part-time lecturer at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs where I lectured on developing seniors housing and on affordable housing finance. I loved the job and enjoyed the opportunity to share knowledge with students, most of whom were adults who were pursuing their continuing education.

Then about 10 years into the job I received a strange voicemail message from the director of the program I was teaching in. “Mr. Howell,” a woman’s voice stated sternly, “There in no place for racists or sexists at the University of Maryland. You are hereby dismissed from your teaching responsibilities and no longer welcomed on our campus.” Then the message ended.

I thought there must be some mistake. I immediately returned the call where I left a return voice message, saying, “I received your message. Could you please explain?”

The next day I received another voice mail message, which stated in an angry tone that I was a racist and a sexist because of the racist and sexist story I told in the class the day before.

For the life of me, I could not figure what she could be talking about, so I called back and got her answering device yet  again and asked for more clarity.  Back came a message that it was because of the terrible racist story I told about the Chinese and that I should call the students I had offended and apologize. She gave me the name and number of the student who was most offended.

Here is the story I told in class, which was true,  when I was trying to explain one of the difficult and maddening issues associated with HUD financing:

I know that this may seem hard to understand and actually it does not make a whole lot of sense, but you do not have to be a rocket scientist to get the picture. This reminds me of an experience I had last week when I was with  one of my clients—the Chinese American Retirement Communities Inc. I was at one of their board meetings and talking to the board about a similar issue in HUD financing. They were bunch of sharp 30 and 40 somethings and very attentive.  Just after I made that comment  about rocket scientists, they all looked briefly at each other and then at me. With a twinkle in her eye and a sheepish grin, a young woman replied, “Mr. Howell, actually we are rocket scientists. All of us. We  work at NASA.”

That was it, the story that got me kicked out of teaching at the University of Maryland and issued a lifetime ban from ever returning to  their campus.

Still curious, I decided to call  the person, a woman, who was the  most offended by my racists remarks, whose surname was American not Chinese. I apologized saying I was not intending to offend anyone, to which she replied she would not accept an apology. When I asked her why she thought the story was racist, she replied that it was  discriminatory and prejudiced to suggest  that all Chinese are smart enough to be rocket scientists.  Okay, I responded, “I get it that I am racist, but why am I sexist?”

She snarled, “Because you said a young woman asked the question. You should have said a young person.”

Then she hung up.

For several months after that incident, I would break out into a cold sweat every time I got within a mile or two of the University of Maryland campus thinking I could be arrested and put in jail. A year passed and then another couple of years. Then I got a call from someone at the University of Maryland who said he was calling on behalf of the director, who had come to the conclusion that by now I must be rehabilitated enough to come back. He confessed they were desperate and could not find anyone to cover the subjects I was teaching. I gladly returned and taught another ten years happily before retiring. 

Happy ending?

Yes, for me. But not for others. The cancellation culture can easily get out of hand.



9 thoughts on “How I Was Fired From Teaching at the University of Maryland and Banned From Setting Foot on its Campus

  1. Wow. Joe, thank you for sharing this story. What amazes me most about your story is your response during the conversation with the woman who you had offended. If i were you i would have mentioned (being you) that i was a civil rights activist, jumping into a blah blah blah counter-moralizing debate with her. Which probably would have accomplished nothing. You just asked questions. Inspiring. I also would have refused to teach at UMD out of spite. which would have been loose-loose. Hats off to you. What also strikes me is a question: what if you had been an early career professor?

    1. Probably not good if I were trying to get tenure. On the other hand given academic politics, I determined a long time ago I would never stand a chance of getting tenure. After “Hard Living on Clay Street” got published there were some who encouraged me to go that route. I never regretted steering a different course. Ditto for not becoming an ordained Episcopal priest.
      Luck breaks for me.

  2. Joe, It’s clear (to some, obviously) that you are sexist and racist, based on identity politics, where intentions don’t count. But in what ‘university universe’ should you be summarily fired, based on one schmuck’s opinion? Liberal democracies exist as forums (fora??) that permit people of good faith to argue without demanding the other be canceled. We no longer duel to protect honor; we don’t hire gunman to settle grievances (except in ghettos). So how have universities regressed so far as to give up on liberalism?
    Mark Lilla warned us about this in his 2017 book “ The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.” Fearing that life-long Democrats have succumbed to identity political theory, he says “The paradox of identity liberalism is that it paralyzes the capacity to think and act in a way that would actually accomplish the things it professes to want. It is mesmerized by symbols: achieving superficial diversity in organizations, retelling history to focus on marginal and often minuscule groups, concocting inoffensive euphemisms to describe social reality, protecting young ears and eyes already accustomed to slasher films from any disturbing encounter with alternative viewpoints. Identity liberalism has ceased being a political project and has morphed into an evangelical one.” We now see daily what was once an occasional tic in the system. The R value for cancel culture is greater than 1.

    1. Irwin,
      Joe’s post was, I’m pretty sure, motivated by a NYT op ed I sent out to an email group of Davidson classmates and old friends. The author is John McWhorter, a college professor by trade, and it may be found in the October 15th edition. In it he discusses the sad case of a cancelled University of Michigan music professor, suggesting that those who cancel consider their own opinions to be “Truths, the predicate to inquisition,” and their reflex responses to what they consider political incorrectness to be “virtue signaling.” He closes by saying that what we are seeing is a radical agenda not proposed but imposed, and then asking by what authority do these people presume to tell the rest of us how to speak, and think, and teach.
      Read it yourself. His analysis is, I believe, long overdue.

      Jim Killebrew

  3. Thanks Joe. Hard to believe it’s true. You’re not pulling my leg are you? Even for paranoia sufferers, it’s extreme. Dickson

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