Colleges Need Their Imperfect Critics

A defense of public disagreement on campus

Having argued that Marquette University is wrong to strip Professor John McAdams of tenure, setting precedents that are likely to undermine academic freedom, I'd like to set aside the debate about whether or not he should've been terminated and take up the question of how disagreements on campus ought to unfold.

For those just coming to the story, McAdams published a blog post last November criticizing a Marquette graduate student in her capacity as an instructor of undergraduates. Citing an incident that occurred that October, he declared that the instructor, Cherly Abbate, has wrongheaded views about whether undergrads who oppose gay marriage should be able to argue their position in class. McAdams' critics say he misrepresented various facts in his blog post and that it's wrong for a tenured faculty member to publicly criticize a grad student. He maintains that his blogging is a legitimate exercise in expressing dissent.

As I reflect on the controversy, it's easy to see the best in everyone involved, and to conclude that, if only they'd engaged in the right kind of debate, they'd all have benefitted.

What went wrong? I'll offer four related arguments:

1) McAdams fell short of best practices in his criticism. As a professor, he should maintain higher standards of conduct and commentary during public debates.

2) By focusing on his worst qualities, his critics fail to see the parts of his role in public discourse that are admirable and necessary. Ideological bias helps to explain this.

3) The graduate instructor did take a position that warranted criticism (though not emailed abuse or threats, which she also received), and there is a public interest in knowing that a code of conduct at Marquette was interpreted to constrain free inquiry.

4) While I'd have counseled McAdams against blogging the graduate student's name, especially given that Marquette administrators say they've twice chided him for blogging the names of undergraduates, public criticism shouldn't become a punishable offense on campus because when done right it is useful and important.

A Flawed Critic

I'll start with McAdams and his transgressions. What could he have done better?

  • First off, he could've taken more care when characterizing what happened during a philosophy class that he didn't attend and that wasn't recorded by his source.
  • Second, he could've presumed that the graduate instructor was a well-intentioned person trying to employ university policy as she understood it rather than a tactician whose ultimate aim was shutting up people who disagree with her. At the very least, he could've remained agnostic about her motives.
  • Third, he could've criticized how the graduate instructor spoke to an undergrad during an after-class meeting without casting the instructor as the personification of what "liberals" do in higher education (as if liberals behave in just one way, when of course there are intra-liberal divides on many subjects).
  • Fourth, he could've written in a spirit of persuasion and engagement rather than ridicule.
  • Fifth, if McAdams had foreknowledge that some of his readers were likely harass the graduate student—I have no idea whether he anticipated that or not, or if he should have—he could've taken more care to avoid vilifying his target and implored his readers to engage her respectfully and politely (as I encourage you to do if you email or tweet at McAdams or anyone else in this controversy).

McAdams' shortcomings are not trivial, but countless blog posts written by college faculty and administrators (and many others!) fall far short of the high standards I'm suggesting. Public debate is generally rife with logical fallacies, ideological blind spots, tribalism, inflamed passions, inaccuracies, and rhetorical excesses. These shortcomings should be criticized. But harshly punishing transgressions doesn't yield better public discussions, just fewer of them. The degree to which public discourse gets people fired is the degree to which it is ceded to a small class of pundits who do it for a living. Against interest, I think that would be harmful.

The Importance of Dissenters on Campus

For all his flaws, McAdams deserves kudos for speaking up, however imperfectly, when he observed what he saw as the unfair treatment of an undergraduate.

As a journalist, I've heard from dozens of faculty members from diverse ideological backgrounds who privately felt things weren't right in one way or another on their campuses but decided against speaking out because they didn't want to run the risk of alienating colleagues or losing a committee assignment or getting fired. I've lost track of the number of professors who've written me "thank you for publishing that, I strongly agree, but I can't take that position publicly" emails.

For that reason, I respect academics for forthrightly declaring what they regard as unfairnesses, whether I agree or disagree with their specific take. Powerful institutions ought to have dissident insiders as well as quiet reformers. McAdams sometimes behaved like a jerk. But another thing he did was offer critiques that he earnestly believed, though he knew they would make his life more difficult.

I wish he'd been more constructive, but I'm glad that there are ideological minorities who decide against just shutting their mouths, scoffing in private at developments they dislike, and quietly collecting a paycheck or a pension. Their edge is often due in part to unpleasantness directed at them over the years. Campus conservatives, especially those approaching their eighth decade of life, may assume they'll be dismissed as irrelevant cranks if they use internal channels. Academia has certainly shown that absent public pressure or even lawsuits, they do not adequately protect free academic inquiry for the right or the left. Airing examples of speech suppression is a reasonable response to that trend.

I suspect that the flaws in McAdams approach as he published his blogged defense of free inquiry would've been more easily overlooked by colleagues and less likely to garner punishment if his ideology wasn't an object of disdain in his subculture.

Here's a rough test—not a precise parallel, but a perhaps useful thought exercise—to gauge if your reaction to this controversy is viewpoint neutral: Say that a straight, male graduate student at a pretend institution called Nominally Jesuit University instructs an undergraduate philosophy class. He lectures that homosexuality is immoral under natural law. After class, a liberal undergrad challenges the instructor, who says that while the young woman is welcome to her pro-gay opinions, she shouldn't voice them in a classroom because they violate Catholic theology, and maybe an orthodox Catholic in the class would take offense.

The undergrad goes to a tenured faculty member in the Gender Studies department to complain: "My ethics professor says I shouldn't voice pro-gay opinions in class." The tenured faculty member sees this as yet another example of a Catholic college treating pro-gay views unfairly due to the ideological climate.

Exasperated, she takes to her blog: "At our college, an instructor who teaches undergraduates, Michael Smith, told a student I spoke to that voicing pro-gay views is unacceptable in class. This is outrageous! An affront to the free exchange of ideas that's core to a university's mission. This is a tactic social conservatives use to shut down debate. Our college will lose vibrance unless we stop these practices." Should that liberal faculty member be punished for naming a grad student in a blog post? What if the grad student receives nasty emails?

The polarized existence of a conservative like McAdams is underscored by the fact that some people on campus are deeply upset by his blog, while others, like the undergraduate in this case, identify him as one of the few people they're comfortable approaching when they feel that they've been mistreated by the prevailing campus order. Ideally, McAdams would fulfill that role for conservative students with impeccable judgment, but a community rarely gets perfect dissenters.

A comparison to journalism is instructive.

Every day, critics of journalists carelessly misrepresent them, get facts wrong, unwittingly prompt third parties to write them harassing emails, and take an angry tone. But they often make great points, too, insightfully flagging blind spots in journalists' thinking or helping them to see the world from a different perspective. If all highly imperfect critics were ousted from our community of readers, journalists like me would be worse off.

So would their readers.

The Value of Public Criticism

Do journalists sign up for public criticism when choosing this field? Sure. But they don't deserve harassment, abuse, or threats any more than anyone else–and academics, like journalists, are a privileged class. They are paid to educate young people, to pursue the truth, and to influence what information passes from elites to broader audiences. It's important to subject influential people of that sort to scrutiny and constructive criticism, and the parameters of legitimate debate surely include the rules that govern what viewpoints can be aired in the classroom.

Citing specific examples helps to ground those debates.

That's why I'm surprised at how many observers are arguing not just that McAdams shouldn't have named the graduate student, as a judgment call in this instance, but also that the whole affair should've been handled quietly and privately, and that a faculty member publicly criticizing a grad student is a punishable offense that's always wrong. This despite the fact that in journalism, the unquestioned norm is to disagree with people by name, whether they are national politicians or grad students or obscure bloggers. The same is true on social media.

In those contexts, the value of naming interlocutors is widely accepted. When Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang wrote a provocative op-ed on privilege in a campus newspaper, for example, the online masses didn't think twice about criticizing him by name. This doubtless caused him to receive all manner of abusive emails. Should Fortgang's critics have stayed silent to spare him that predictable outpouring of digital abuse? Fortgang's critics included adults with powerful positions in academia. With no apparent backlash, Imani Perry of the Princeton Center for African American Studies appeared on Huffington Post Live, disagreed with parts of Fortgang's analysis, and said he should take one of her classes. As I see it, her polite, constructive criticism of the 18-year-old was unobjectionable.

But if no one objected to countless people, inside and outside of academia, criticizing a Princeton freshman by name for opinions he had no power to impose on anyone, should it also be a firing offense for a professor to criticize a grad student he'd never teach in her capacity as a compensated instructor whose views shaped the educations of the undergraduates directly subject to her control? As Noah Millman observed, "It has become all too difficult to draw clear contours around the new implicit restrictions on academic speech, which would appear to put professors in the distinctly odd position of being less free to criticize one another in print than civilians not crowned with the blessing of tenure."

Tenured faculty are powerful. But a widely reviled conservative professor on the edge turning 70 is hardly more powerful with his obscure, low-traffic blog than the dozens the outlets and writers who uncontroversially criticized an undergrad when he ran afoul of center-left pieties. As a student at any level, would you rather be denounced on the equivalent of the Marquette Warrior Blog or Gawker?

What's more, Marquette's dean went so far as to suggest that it would be wrong for McAdams to criticize a syllabus published by a fellow member of the faculty—that doing so would somehow interfere with his or her academic freedom. That leaves the impression of an unduly thin-skinned faculty.

Within a large university, faculty will sometimes strongly disagree with the ideas or actions of administrators, colleagues, or graduate students from different disciplines. When grad students act as instructors, or campus newspaper columnists, or pro-life activists, or supporters of divestment from Israel, they have substantial power to shape the community and its norms. If our notion is that learning should take place both inside and outside of the classroom (my bias as the alumnus of a small residential college), what's wrong with a blog post that forcefully but respectfully engages in debate, naming a grad student interlocutor as any blogger would? McAdams fell short of the standard of engagement I'd like to see, but not because he included the instructor's name. There are benefits to critiquing, engaging, and debating particular people. To the extent that universities circumscribe such debate, their role as hubs of ideas will decline.

Consider two visions of campus life going forward:

1) Public criticism of others in the university community is frowned upon. It's okay to convey objections to someone, but only privately, and mediated through official channels when possible, so that no one feels intimidated or threatened or risks being harassed or having his or her career damaged by intellectual critiques going public.

2) Public criticism of others in the university community is expected, as it is a place where people with diverse perspectives are gathered together in search of the truth. While uncomfortable at times, being subject to forceful, more or less substantive critiques makes people regularly evaluate their ideas and actions. When that happens in public, everyone can learn from one another's various exchanges.

There is value in both of these visions, and neither ought to be wholly discarded. To preserve a healthy learning environment, faculty members should, I think, refrain from publicly criticizing students that they teach and even grad students in their department. Their role, in those cases, is to mentor, challenge, and support. Many would learn less well if all their instructors publicly aired their mistakes.

With that caveat, I'd always choose an academic environment that operated in closer accord with the second vision, a place where facing public criticism isn't considered risky, traumatizing, and victimizing so much as normal, educational, and ultimately empowering–a crucible for one's ideas and behavior. To face public criticism is to be treated as if one's ideas, or approach to instructing undergrads, or campus activism is important enough to matter and be taken seriously.

That vision is admittedly complicated by the era of social-media pile-ons.

"Absent the mob," Millman writes, "the professor's blog post would similarly have raised few hackles; it would have been no worse a breach of etiquette than saying the same things out loud in the faculty lounge. That mob is what transformed this situation from a routine ... ivory tower spat into a dark precedent for academic freedom." Digital mobs can be awful, as I've observed on numerous occasions (some of them first hand). But universities should be loath to give Internet trolls the ability to shut down whole categories of campus discourse with the threat of nasty emails. Any criticism voiced by any academic  could lead to the person they're criticizing being harassed online. But that doesn't mean the social justice movement should stop criticizing anyone who is at risk of a backlash, or that a climate scientist should refrain from naming and criticizing an instructor in the political science department who's teaching undergrads that global warning is a conspiracy designed to hand power to liberals.

Earnest criticism from the right is just as legitimate. It should proceed, though I now think that all who engage in public criticism have an obligation to avoid encouraging—and at times to discourage—digital pile-ons. As yet, the contours of that obligation are ill-defined, understood as poorly as mob "justice" itself. Regardless, public criticism is so indispensable that it should be retained in all truth-seeking institutions. Imagine an alternative history at Marquette. Say that the undergrad complained to a different professor—someone in the mathematics department—and soon after, the math professor published the following on her personal blog:

For some time, I've been reading critiques of non-discrimination policies at universities. Their critics warn that they're written in a way that could prohibit the free exchange of ideas, something core to our mission as truth-seeking academics. I haven't reached any general conclusions on that subject. But I did just learn of a specific incident here at Marquette University, where an instructor interpreted our policy in a way that worries me. An undergrad approached his philosophy instructor, Cheryl Abbate, about a time when gay marriage came up in class. In the course of their after-class chat, she told the undergraduate that some opinions, like the notion that gay marriage should not be legal, are not appropriate to express in class, because there might be gay students in the class who'd take offense at homophobia.

I'm so happy that we have hardworking grad students here at Marquette who share in the responsibility and privilege of teaching undergraduates, and I want to be clear that I appreciate Abbate's contributions, as well as her desire to create a non-discriminatory classroom environment. This post isn't meant as an attack on her value as an instructor–this addresses just one interaction of dozens she navigates every day. But it seems to me that an undergrad definitely ought to be able to express that opinion in a classroom discussion.

I wanted to raise this publicly so that Abbate has the opportunity to explain her perspective in greater detail, if she wishes–I have no doubt that she is both thoughtful and persuasive if she's doing her post-graduate work here–  and because this subject strikes me as sufficiently important to warrant a broader campus conversation of the sort that I can't conduct one-on-one. I'd be grateful for feedback from other professors, whether here at Marquette or elsewhere, to see if my thinking here is at odds with my peers or in keeping with them.

Ponder that instance of a faculty member naming a grad student in a critical blog post. Should that blog post be a firing offense? I can see why Marquette University officials would want to suppress a public conversation of that sort. Open debates about controversial subjects create headaches for administrators and fund-raisers. But I think a blog post like that would spark an important exchange of ideas, and that an academia that forbids it has grown too averse to conflict.