Milwaukee’s Marquette University is poised to fire a tenured political science professor, John McAdams, for speaking his mind.
McAdams's sin? He dared to defend an undergraduate who thought that the ethics of same-sex marriage was an open question—a question worth discussing openly in an ethics class.
That ethics class was being taught, in 2014, by a graduate student. When the topic of gay marriage came up in class, the graduate teaching assistant passed over it as something everyone agreed on, saying that if anyone didn't agree that same-sex marriage should be legal, she would discuss it with them after class.
The undergraduate did just that, meeting privately with graduate teaching assistant Cheryl Abbate—and secretly recording the conversation. "You can have whatever opinions you want," Abbate told the student, "but I can tell you right now, in this class homophobic comments, racist comments, and sexist comments will not be tolerated. If you don't like that you are more than free to drop this class."
One might expect that sort of bullying from, say, a certain Mizzou ex-faculty member. But Marquette is ostensibly a Jesuit institution. Are views held by, for example, the pope out of bounds at a Catholic college? Because for all Pope Francis's moves toward a less judgmental tone on social issues, he has not reversed the church's position on same-sex marriage. Speaking last year in the Philippines, the pope said the family is "threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage." He warned that society was "tempted by confusing presentations of sexuality, marriage and the family."
What could be more confusing than an ethics class at a Catholic university in which discussion of a church doctrine—defense of traditional marriage—is verboten?
The real trouble started 10 days later, when McAdams reported the exchange between the student and the graduate teaching assistant on his decidedly conservative blog, "Marquette Warrior."
"Abbate, of course, was just using a tactic typical among liberals now," he commented. "Opinions with which they disagree are not merely wrong, and are not to be argued against on their merits, but are deemed 'offensive' and need to be shut up."
McAdams asked, "How many students, especially in politically correct departments like philosophy, simply stifle their disagreement, or worse yet, get indoctrinated into the view of the instructor, since those are the only ideas allowed, and no alternative views are aired?" He wrote, "Like the rest of academia, Marquette is less and less a real university. And when gay marriage cannot be discussed, certainly not a Catholic university."
The school's response wasn't long in coming. McAdams was suspended and banned from setting foot on campus, as if his very presence would infect the student body. In a Jan. 30, 2015, letter, dean of the school's college of arts and sciences, Richard Holz, informed McAdams that action had begun to revoke his tenure and fire him.
Detailing the charges in a 15-page letter, the dean accused McAdams of "unilateral, dishonorable and irresponsible" publication of Abbate's name: The professor's blog post had made her the target of an undisclosed number of hateful and threatening emails, abuse that led her to transfer to another university. Holz also blamed McAdams for "reckless" inaccuracies, even though the professor based his post on the recording the undergraduate had made of his conversation with Abbate.
Holz branded McAdams someone who, "invested with tenure's power can carelessly and arrogantly intimidate and silence the less-powerful." Never mind that McAdams was coming to the aid of the least powerful person in the controversy: the undergrad who had been told to shut up.
For well over a year, McAdams existed in no man's land while a Faculty Hearing Committee labored mightily to birth a 123-page report. Because it is officially confidential, it's not entirely clear what's in the report. But last month Marquette president Michael Lovell used it to justify continuing to suspend McAdams without pay through next fall's semester. McAdams was told that, unless by April 4 he fessed up to his "reckless" conduct and apologized for the emails others had sent to Abbate, he would not be reinstated.
In a lengthy written response, McAdams refused to apologize and defended his actions as a proper exercise of free speech and academic freedom. While he regretted that Abbate had been the recipient of nasty emails from others, he suggested that accepting Lovell's demands would effectively silence any faculty member whose actions or opinions might be controversial.
McAdams, in turn, called on Lovell to rescind his demands by April 14. As of this writing, both sides' deadlines have passed with no action.
Once upon a time, universities were animated by the classical liberal belief that learning and knowledge, let alone liberty, are best served by robust debate. As John Stuart Mill wrote, it "is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied." Dogma is the alternative.
Marquette, its administrators, and faculty would be wise to recall how this inquisition started: An instructor told a student that a legitimate debate could not be held because it would cause offense. The college seems determined to compound the original error by punishing the professor who had the courage to call attention to this betrayal of intellectual freedom.
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