Stripping a Professor of Tenure Over a Blog Post

Marquette University's attack on academic freedom

Updated on February 10, 2015

Professor John McAdams is being stripped of tenure by Marquette University for writing a blog post that administrators characterize as inaccurate and irresponsible.

Academics all over the United States ought to denounce the firing of the 69-year-old, a Harvard Ph.D. who taught courses on American politics and public policy. If tenure can be taken away based upon one controversial blog post, what protection does it offer? How many tenured professors will censor themselves from participating in public conversation to avoid a similar fate? Marquette has violated core academic values, regardless of what one thinks of McAdams' commentary or the shabby treatment of the graduate instructor he was criticizing (who deserves sympathy for the horrifying torrent of misogyny others directed at her).

For purposes of discussion, I'll begin with the version of events as described by Marquette University Dean Richard C. Holtz, who notified McAdams of his termination. Even assuming that the factual claims Holtz makes are correct, the move has set several sweeping, alarming precedents for when tenure can be revoked.

* * *

The incident that McAdams blogged about happened on October 28, 2014. Cheryl Abbate, a graduate student in philosophy who was leading a class called Theory of Ethics, was teaching undergraduates about John Rawls. She asked for examples of current events to which Rawlsian philosophy could be applied.

"One student offered the example of gay marriage as something that Rawls' Equal Liberty Principle would allow because it would not restrict the liberty of others and therefore should not be illegal," according to Holtz's version of events. "Ms. Abbate noted that this was a correct way to apply Rawls' Principle and is said to have asked 'does anyone not agree with this?' Ms. Abbate later added that if anyone did not agree that gay marriage was an example of something that fits the Rawls' Equal Liberty Principle, they should see her after class."

Sure enough, a student approached her after class, and in what was arguably an ethical breach, surreptitiously recorded their exchange. It is transcribed in Holtz's letter. Here's a slightly condensed version. I've boldfaced the part of the exchange that I'll focus on:

Student: I have to be completely honest with you, I don't agree with gay marriage. There have been studies that show that children that are brought up in gay households do a lot worse in life such as test scores, in school, and in the real world. So, when you completely dismiss an entire argument based off of your personal views, it sets a precedent for the classroom that "oh my God, this is so wrong; you can't agree with this, you're a horrible person if you agree with this." And that's what came off. And I have to say I am very personally offended by that.

Abbate: Ok.

Student: And I would stress for you in your professional career going forward, you're going to be teaching for many more years, that you watch how you approach those issues because when you set a precedent like that because you are the authority figure in the classroom, people truly do listen to you.

Abbate: Ok, I'm going to stop you right there. The question was about gay marriage. So, if you're going to bring statistics up about ... you know single people can adopt children, right? You don't have to be married.

Student: Yes.

Abbate: So gay marriage has nothing to do with the adoption of children.

Student: I know and one of the reasons why I'm against gay marriage is because that gay couples are allowed to adopt.

Abbate: Ok. Do you realize as an individual you can adopt a child on your own and then have a relationship with someone? Even if it's not legal.

Student: Absolutely, and I'm not in agreement with that.

Abbate: I don't think gay marriage has ... First of all, I would really question those statistics.

Student: I'll send them to you.

Abbate: So, any research that you're going to have I'm really going to question it because there is a significant amount of pure research that says otherwise, but even setting that aside, the question is about gay marriage itself. It's not about adoption of children ...

Student: Absolutely, but there are different reasons why you can disagree with gay marriage.

Abbate: Ok.

Student: So.

Abbate: So, gay marriage isn't banned—granting people license to have children, it has nothing to do with that? Do people have people a right to marry someone of the same sex ...

Student: Regardless of why I'm against gay marriage, it's still wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person's opinion when they may have different opinions.

Abbate: Ok, there are some opinions that are not appropriate that are harmful, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions, and quite honestly, do you know if anyone in the class is homosexual?

Student: No, I don't.

Abbate: And don't you think that that would be offensive to them if you were to raise your hand and challenge this?

Student: If I choose to challenge this, it's my right as an American citizen.

Abbate: Ok, well, actually you don't have a right in this class, as ... especially as an ethics professor, to make homophobic comments, racist comments, sexist comments ...

Student: Homophobic comments? They're not. I'm not saying that gays, that one guy can't like another girl or something like that. Or, one guy can't like another guy.

Abbate: This is about restricting rights and liberties of individuals ... and just as I would take offense if women can't serve in XYZ positions because that is a sexist comment.

Student: I don't have any problem with women saying that. I don't have any problem with women joining anything like that.

Abbate: No, I'm saying that if you are going to make a comment like that, it would be similar to making a ...

Student: Absolutely.

Abbate: How I would experience would be similar to how someone who is in this room and who is homosexual who would experience someone criticizing this.

Student: Ok, so because they are homosexual I can't have my opinions? And it's not being offensive towards them because I am just having my opinions on a very broad subject.

Abbate: You can have whatever opinions you want 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.

Student: So, are you saying that not agreeing with gay marriage is homophobic?

Abbate: To argue that individuals should not have rights is going to be
offensive to someone in this class.

Student: I'm not saying rights, I'm saying one single right. Ok? So is that what you're saying? Are you saying that if I don't agree with gays not being allowed to get married, that I am homophobic?

Abbate: I'm saying that it would come off as a homophobic comment in this class.

Student: That's not what you said two minutes ago. Two seconds ago, you just said that is a homophobic comment to disagree with gay marriage.

Abbate: No, the example that I gave was in this class, if you were going to make a comment about the restriction of the rights of women, such as saying that women can't serve ... Are you videotaping or taping this conversation?

Student: No.

Abbate: Can I see your phone?

Student: Oh, I am. I'm going to be showing it to your superiors.

Abbate: Ok, go ahead.

Student: Absolutely.

At this point, both the undergraduate and the grad student instructor spoke to various "superiors" about the incident. And the undergrad talked to McAdams, who decided to blog about it. He has been stripped of tenure for that blog post.

Here's the full text of the post.

McAdams begins by characterizing the incident as follows:

A student we know was in a philosophy class ("Theory of Ethics"), and the instructor (one Cheryl Abbate) was attempting to apply a philosophical text to modern political controversies. So far so good. She listed some issues on the board, and came to "gay rights." She then airily said that "everybody agrees on this, and there is no need to discuss it." The student, a conservative who disagrees with some of the gay lobby’s notions of "gay rights" (such as gay marriage), approached her after class and told her he thought the issue deserved to be discussed. Indeed, he told Abbate that if she dismisses an entire argument because of her personal views, that sets a terrible precedent for the class.

The student argued against gay marriage and gay adoption, and for a while, Abbate made some plausible arguments to the student—pointing out that single people can adopt a child, so why not a gay couple? She even asked the student for research showing that children of gay parents do worse than children of straight, married parents. The student said he would provide it.
So far, this is the sort of argument that ought to happen in academia. But then things deteriorated.  

If Holtz's rebuttal is to be believed, the description of the instructor airily dismissing anti-gay marriage arguments during the class misrepresents what happened. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Holtz's version of events is correct and that Abbate's classroom instruction was completely beyond reproach.

McAdams's post proceeds to quote the part of the after-class exchange that I put in boldface, where the instructor suggests that the student's views were homophobic and inappropriate to utter in a class where there might be gay students.

Says the blog post:

Abbate explained that "some opinions are not appropriate, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions" and then went on to ask "do you know if anyone in your class is homosexual?" And further, "don’t you think it would be offensive to them" if some student raised his hand and challenged gay marriage? The point being, apparently that any gay classmates should not be subjected to hearing any disagreement with their presumed policy views.

Then things deteriorated further as the student said that it was his right as an American citizen to make arguments against gay marriage. Abbate replied that "you don’t have a right in this class to make homophobic comments."

She further said she would "take offense" if the student said that women can’t serve in particular roles. And she added that somebody who is homosexual would experience similar offense if somebody opposed gay marriage in class.

She went on: "In this class, homophobic comments, racist comments, will not be tolerated." She then invited the student to drop the class.

Which the student is doing.   

Holtz claims the student withdrew from the class because he or she had an F and acknowledged that the grade was due to their poor performance, not instructor bias.

Let's assume that is correct.

The blog post goes on to assert that the graduate instructor was "just using a tactic typical among liberals now. 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." He quotes a column by Charles Krauthammer, who argues, "The newest closing of the leftist mind is on gay marriage ... To oppose it is nothing but bigotry, akin to racism. Opponents are to be similarly marginalized and shunned, destroyed personally and professionally."

He adds, "only certain groups," like "gays, blacks, women," have "the privilege of shutting up debate," and that "it is a free fire zone where straight white males are concerned."

The post concludes:

... the student is dropping the class, and will have to take another Philosophy class in the future. But this student is rather outspoken and assertive about his beliefs.

That puts him among a small minority of Marquette students. How many students, especially in politically correct departments like Philosophy, simply stifle their disagreement, or worse yet get indoctrinated into the views of the instructor, since those are the only ideas allowed, and no alternative views are aired? 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.  

* * *

What specifically about that blog post does Marquette University regard as just cause to strip a professor of tenure? One objection is that it named the graduate instructor.

Holtz wrote:

As a result of your unilateral, dishonorable and irresponsible decision to publicize the name of our graduate student, and your decision to publish information that was false and materially misleading about her and your University colleagues, that student received a series of hate-filled and despicable emails, including one suggesting that she had committed "treason and sedition" and as a result faced penalties such as "drawing, hanging, beheading, and quartering." Another note, delivered to her campus mailbox, told the student, "You must undo the terrible wrong committed when you were born. Your mother failed to make the right choice. You must abort yourself for the glory of inclusiveness and tolerance." Accordingly, and understandably, the student feared for her personal safety, and we posted a Public Safety Officer outside her classroom. In addition, as a result of your conduct and its consequences, Ms. Cheryl Abbate now has withdrawn from our graduate program and moved to another University to continue her academic career.

As I noted above, Abbate did receive a lot of threats and hate email after her exchange with an undergraduate was publicized. She deserved none of it, whatever one thinks of how she handled their after-class exchange. She's correct to argue that her online antagonists were engaged in an effort to intimidate and harass. And perhaps nothing of value was gained by including her name in the blog post.

But Holtz's decision to hold McAdams responsible for her harassment sets an alarming precedent: that faculty members will be held accountable not only for their words, but for any efforts to intimidate or harass those they publicly criticize. By this logic, a professor who criticized a college football player accused of rape, or a fraternity member who chanted "No means yes, yes means anal," or a college Republican running an "affirmative-action bake sale" could be stripped of tenure based partly on whether that student got nasty emails. Only myopia can account for failure to see the threat to academic freedom.

Says Holtz elsewhere in his letter:

To endure, a scholar-teacher's academic freedom must be grounded on competence and integrity, including accuracy "at all times," a respect for others' opinions, and the exercise of appropriate restraint. Without adherence to these standards, those such as yourself invested with tenure's power can carelessly and arrogantly intimidate and silence the less-powerful and then raise the shields of academic freedom and free expression against all attempts to stop such abuse.

Again, the precedent this suggests is sweeping. No academic who speaks or writes with any regularity, whether in the classroom or at conferences or in academic journals or blog posts, can possibly meet the standard of accuracy "at all times." If tenure can be revoked for failing that standard, every tenured professor is at the mercy of administrative whims. An inaccuracy can always be documented. And the graduate instructor, along with many other members of the academy, would obviously fail the test of "a respect for others' opinions" if those others include, for example, people who believe that gay marriage should be illegal.

Holtz continues:

You posted this story on the Internet (1) without speaking with Ms. Abbate or getting her permission to use her name; (2) without contacting the Chair of Ms. Abbate's Department (who had met twice with the undergraduate student) to get her perspective or express your concerns; (3) without contacting anyone in the College of Arts & Sciences to get their perspective or express your concerns; (4) without contacting anyone in the Office of the Provost to raise concerns that you believed had been ignored at the Department or College level; (5) without describing what had happened in the very next class following the one you wrote about—when Ms. Abbate discussed and addressed the student's objection (without identifying him); and (6) without even reporting fully or accurately what the student had disclosed to (and concealed from) others in the University about these events.

As I see it, McAdams should've been more careful with the facts in his initial post, and more charitable to the graduate instructor, even granting that, measured against the non-scholarly speech of other academics, his blog post is hardly an outlier. A more perspicacious man might've criticized parts of her behavior without trying to turn an inexperienced instructor who hasn't even earned her graduate degree into the personification of What's Wrong With Liberals in Academia. But that is beside the point. What say you, faculty members of America? Should the sanctity of your tenure depend partly on whether, before criticizing ideas expressed by someone on your campus, you first speak with that person (Professor McAdams reportedly emailed the graduate instructor, but didn't hear back), their superiors, and various members of the campus administration? Again, the standard the dean asserts is a clear threat to academic freedom.

Says Holtz:

... our Faculty Statutes expressly authorize the University to revoke tenure when circumstances arise from a faculty member's conduct which clearly and substantially fail to meet the standard of personal and professional excellence which generally characterizes University faculties," with the further requirement that "through this conduct a faculty member's value will probably be substantially impaired." Examples of conduct that will substantially impair the value or utility of a faculty member include: "serious instances of ... dishonorable, irresponsible, or incompetent conduct." As detailed above, your conduct clearly, convincingly and substantially has impaired your value.

What say you, faculty members? Should your "value or utility" to the university be evaluated based on your years of scholarship and classroom instruction? Or should administrators have discretion to declare your value "impaired" if you write a single blog post that they perceive as "dishonorable" with no objective measure?

Says Holtz:

... your conduct creates fear in your colleagues and students that their actions and words will, at your unilateral "discretion," be put on the Internet in a distorted fashion. Consequently, faculty members have voiced concerns about how they could become targets in your blog based upon items they might choose to include in a class syllabus. Your conduct thus impairs the very freedoms of teaching and expression that you vehemently purport to promote.

Is a faculty member's academic freedom really "impaired" by the mere possibility that another faculty member may, at some future date, criticize their syllabus? The notion that syllabus criticism is a bigger threat to academic freedom than stripping a longtime professor of tenure is the most farcical thing in the letter.

In my view, McAdams' blog post offered one valuable criticism of the graduate instructor: her after-class suggestion that gay marriage opponents should keep quite in the classroom to avoid the possibility of offending gay classmates was wrongheaded (and especially absurd at an avowedly Catholic university). She ought to be met with forceful, intelligent, polite counterarguments—and to reflect on the fact that gay marriage is blessedly legal in so many states right now thanks in large part to the success advocates have had persuading so many opponents to change their minds. If the subject is taboo, a far greater number of freshmen who enter college opposing gay marriage will graduate four years later never having been forced to defend their views. It's social conservatives who ought to hope opponents keep quiet in philosophy class—they're losing most of the arguments that are conducted on the merits!

There are all sorts of valid criticisms of McAdams' blog post that could be made. "He should instead have reacted to the undergrad student’s story by approaching the philosophy department chairman, or the director of graduate studies, or the teaching assistant’s mentor if known to him, or (very gently) the teaching assistant herself," Matthew J. Franck argues at First Things. "The point is to make poor teachers better ones, not to throw others on the defensive about matters they feel strongly about. If the urge to blog about the incident was irresistible, McAdams should have left her name out of it, which was unnecessary to his point."

But even assuming that he erred there, got some of the facts wrong, and that the post could've been written more charitably, his sins were hardly beyond the pale of behavior commonly exhibited by college faculty, =and falls far short of what ought to be required to terminate a tenured faculty member with decades of contributions. As the reasoning set forth by Holtz shows, the precedents created in this case could be used to terminate basically any professor, tenure or not.

Even before the decision to strip McAdams of tenure was handed down, and he had merely been suspended, some of his colleagues were expressing concern. "Over the years Professor McAdams and I have disagreed on many issues—and he has excoriated me on his blog—but all my personal interactions with him have been uniformly civil and urbane. Again, as Cardinal Newman said, in a university many minds are free to compete. That’s the glory of it," Professor Daniel C. McGuire wrote to the university's president. "The incident has a chilling effect on all members and staff since it implies that due-process protections may be brittle and uncertain at this university and specifically under your presidency. It is certainly not an aid in recruiting quality faculty."

Those who value tenure as a guarantor of academic freedom should speak out against Marquette University's administrators and leave its former grad student instructor alone.

Update: Numerous observers who believe that McAdams should be stripped of tenure have pointed to one part of Holtz's letter as the factor that persuaded them. For that reason, I want to include it here. It alleges that McAdams has been warned before about naming students on his blog:

In March 2008, you published the name of a student who worked in advertising for the Marquette Tribune after she had declined to run an advertisement highlighting alleged risks from the "morning after" pill. Only after that student contacted you to advise of the impacts upon her and to request you to cease and desist did you delete her name. In March 2011, you published blog posts regarding a student who was helping to organize a campus performance of The Vagina Monologues. Again, the harmful consequences of your unilateral naming of students were pointed out. You acknowledged at that time that publishing student names on the Internet was a matter of concern, but given your naming of Ms. Abbate that acknowledgment from 2011 appears to be without meaning or effect.

McAdams recently published a response to the situation, explaining that when he wrote his latest blog post he understood himself to be criticizing someone in her capacity as a paid instructor at Marquette University, not a student. And he maintains that he has, in fact, refrained from naming undergraduates in the five years since the 2011 incident.

To me, although this is another aspect of this story that reflects poorly on McAdams, it does not make it any less alarming that Marquette University is revoking his tenure for reasons that I criticize in detail above. Put another way, I don't think it affects any of the precedents that I am concerned about. I'm still working my way through the many thoughtful comments and emails I've received on this piece. My intention is to write a follow up piece that looks more closely at the question of when public criticism is appropriate.