Robert J. Howell: Professor of Psychology - Y Magazine
Check out the latest podcast episode Listen
A Closer Look

Robert J. Howell: Professor of Psychology

By Tad Walch

Since Robert J. Howell has been on BYU’s faculty for 44 years, longer than any other full-time professor, it is perhaps understandable that he has discussed evolution with an Apostle and learned to love computers.

But plenty of professors retire without ever testifying in court, hypnotizing anyone, writing state law, or being asked to determine whether Gary Gilmore is competent to stand trial, as has the 70-year-old Howell, who will retire on Aug. 31.

Of course, some of that comes with the territory when you’re a forensic psychologist. Howell describes his profession as “the interface between the field of mental health and the law. It includes competency to stand trial, competency to defend oneself, competency to be sentenced and serve your sentence, and competency to be executed. It also includes mental illness and insanity, personal injury, custody, child abuse, adult abuse, and competency to govern one’s own affairs.”

Howell’s national reputation has led to well over 1,000 appearances in court since 1949. Many have come in high-profile cases. Three times he has been asked to determine the competency of someone facing execution. The first time, the inmate committed suicide. The second time, the Utah State Supreme Court reduced the man’s sentence to life in prison. The third case involved Gary Gilmore. Howell found him competent to stand trial, and Gilmore was later sentenced to death and executed.

“After those three I decided I didn’t want to do those anymore,” he says. “I don’t like the idea of being party to the death of another person. I’m not saying I’m opposed to capital punishment, but I don’t want to be involved.”

Instead, he’s involved himself in other important issues. When John Hinckley was found innocent by reason of insanity of shooting President Ronald Reagan and James Brady, Howell stepped into the resulting furor over the insanity defense.

“To think that a man might get off after shooting the president caused a nationwide ruckus,” he says. The insanity plea was in trouble; Idaho and Montana abolished it. Many in Utah wanted to. Howell published an article in the American Journal of Forensic Psychology titled “In Defense of the Insanity Plea.” Utah Gov. Scott Matheson appointed him to a committee on the subject, which led to his writing a bill that became state law. He preferred leaving Utah’s law the way it was, but the committee was forced to compromise with the abolitionists.

“I think people should be responsible for the things they do,” Howell explains, “but if people are mentally ill and they have an illness that makes them not responsible for what they do, they shouldn’t be prosecuted.”

Mental illness is real, Howell says, and sometimes it is the cause of criminal activity. He cites two other important factors the public generally doesn’t know.

First, “studies show that people who successfully use the insanity defense spend more time locked up than if they hadn’t used that defense.”

Second, “there is a misperception about how often a criminal gets off because of mental illness.” Some of Howell’s students once called 100 people in Utah County to ask what percentage of defendants get off because of the insanity defense. “The answers ranged from 1 percent to more than 90 percent. The average was 40 percent,” he recalls. The truth? “The percentage of people successfully using the insanity defense is approximately one-tenth of 1 percent.”

Furthermore, Howell says the insanity plea isn’t used in as many cases as the public thinks, and that is because defendants like Ted Bundy would rather be known as evil than mentally ill.

Ironically, Howell enrolled at the University of Utah planning to spend a career in court, but as a lawyer. He switched majors after taking a psychology course and earned a bachelor’s degree from Utah in 1948. He remained in Salt Lake to earn an MA (1949) and a PhD (1951).

While teaching at Fresno State College (now a university) in 1952, Howell reluctantly listened when BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson asked him to come to Provo. “I told President Wilkinson I wanted to be at a university with a doctoral program in clinical psychology.” (Howell is also a certified clinical psychologist.) One such school, the University of Southern California, was talking with Howell. Wilkinson revealed that doctoral programs at BYU would soon be approved.

Finally, Howell agreed to an interview and asked that it be conducted by Joseph Fielding Smith, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “I wanted to know if this was a Church calling, as President Wilkinson had indicated,” Howell says. “Elder Smith said no. Then I asked him about academic freedom. I was teaching a class on the history of psychology, and part of the relevance of that class was the development of the theory of evolution.”

Howell smiles as he recalls Elder Smith’s reaction. “He said, ‘If that’s what you’re supposed to do, do it, but you should know it’s not true.’ He had just published his book, Man, His Origin and Destiny.”

Howell says that regardless of whether evolution is a fact, it has been helpful. “The scientist is really interested in the usefulness of a theory, not so much its ultimate truth. The important thing in my field about the concept of evolution is its practicality. The ideas for various concepts of intelligence have come from chimps and monkeys. It turns out studying intelligence and mental illness in humans can be done through animals. Scientists can control the studies better. You don’t have to get into whether animals or humans come from the same line. I don’t even care about that. I care about the practical value.”

He has no question about the practical value of computers, just one of the many changes he’s seen on campus during his 44 years. “When I did my dissertation,” he says, “I spent 10 days on a calculator, working 10 to 12 hours a day, doing the statistics. With today’s computers I could do them in six hours.”

For a man who has published more than 75 research articles and 125 book reviews, the word-processing value of a computer cannot be overstated. “I once had to change one sentence in a 46-page article I had written. My secretary had to retype virtually the entire article. I shudder to think of trying to get along without a computer. I couldn’t do without them.”

If you ask his students, they’ll tell you they couldn’t do without Howell. True to Wilkinson’s word, in 1957 clinical psychology became the first doctoral program at BYU to be approved. “It’s one of the best programs in the country,” says Lisa Norton, who earned her PhD in clinical psychology from BYU in 1978. She returned to BYU in 1994 as an assistant professor. “Dr. Howell works together with students on research; he’s coauthored papers with dozens of them. He also got us involved in rotations at the Utah State Hospital and the Utah State Prison before other programs were doing it. I realized when I left BYU that our training was absolutely superb.”

Norton says Howell doesn’t let his incredible body of work intimidate his students. “There is an awe about it,” she admits, “but he gets the students involved in the same things, so they think they can be doing what he does, too. It’s not as though he’s on a pedestal the students can’t reach. It gives his students a real edge when they go out into the real world.”

Howell has been a good example of a professor who can mesh excellent research with excellent teaching. “I’ve appreciated the school’s recognition of research and scholarly productivity,” he says. “I’m convinced that the professor concerned with research is a better professor.”

Despite his initial reluctance, he’s glad he came to BYU to create its five-year doctoral program. “To be very frank, I stayed because of the camaraderie we have within our department and our program. I can only think of one serious argument in our department over all these years.”

And Howell has never seen a conflict between Church activity and his field. On the contrary, “All the literature is very clear that Mormons and others who are active in church have a lower divorce rate, fewer mental illnesses, and a lower depression rate.”

If Howell has any complaints about how the university has evolved, it has to do with the swelling number of faculty, not students. (There were just 6,000 students when he came to Provo, and the number of psychology undergraduates has jumped from four in 1952 to nearly 1,400 today.)

“Given the pluses and minuses, I wouldn’t change it,” he says. “But when I came here in 1952, all the faculty knew each other. Now there are a lot of professors who don’t know what we do, and we don’t know what they do.”

Explosive growth forced Howell to change offices often–he’s been in six different buildings over the years. At one point, he was shipped to lower campus, the old Brigham Young Academy. “I was in Karl G. Maeser’s old office,” Howell says. “That was my favorite.”

Wherever he is, Howell works on the most important subjects in psychology. He has published studies like “Memory processes in children: Implications for investigation of alleged child sexual abuse.” It’s a primer for interviewers of children who may have been abused. Howell–who is board-certified in clinical hypnosis–believes people, once grownup, should avoid hypnosis therapy aimed at digging up memories of abuse. “I’m opposed to trying to elicit memories of abuse,” he says. “My basic premise is weighing the costs. If the projected costs outweigh the projected benefits, you don’t do it. I think this is one of those areas.”

Obviously, Howell is not one to rest. He’ll continue to work in retirement, teaching an evening psychology class. “It’s a very interesting area,” he says of his field. “I’ve enjoyed it completely. If I had everything to do over again, I’d do it exactly the same–except for taking those pre-law classes in college.”