24 Dec

Suspended Marquette Professor Responds

A month ago I wrote about Marquette Professor John McAdams and his criticism of teaching assistant (and graduate student) Cheryl Abbate. Essentially, Abbate told a student that discussion of opposition to gay marriage equaled homophobia, and would not be allowed in her classroom. That seemed to be an unfair restriction on speech to Professor McAdams, and to me.

Last week, following the end of the fall semester, Marquette University suspended Professor McAdams with pay.  The school doesn’t want this to be called a suspension, instead saying that he is relieved of all teaching and faculty duties. I initially thought this was a move by Marquette to make it look like they were taking some action, so the Abbate supporters would be appeased. It seemed unusual that he would be suspended during winter break, as no teaching goes on at that time. However, I understand that all of Professor McAdams’s classes for the winter semester have been canceled, so this appears more serious than I originally thought.

The email from Dean Richard Holz curiously did not say exactly what was being investigated. The vaguery included:

The university is continuing to review your conduct and during this period–and until further notice–you are relieved of all teaching duties and all other faculty activities, including, but not limited to, advising, committee work, faculty meetings and any activity that would involve your interaction with Marquette students, faculty and staff.

[snip]

I am enclosing with this letter Marquette’s harassment policy, its guiding values statement, the University mission statement, and sections from the Faculty Handbook, which outline faculty rights and responsibilities; these documents will inform our review of your conduct.

Apparently, John is being accused of harassment. He writes:

The fact that Holz sent the “harassment policy” suggests that somebody thinks that merely blogging about questionable conduct by a Philosophy instructor constitutes “harassment.” Marquette’s harassment policy is absurdly vague and includes “behavior is intimidating, hostile or demeaning or could or does result in mental, emotional or physical discomfort, embarrassment, ridicule or harm.” That’s right, even mental discomfort (which should be a normal part of having one’s opinions challenged in a university) is considered harassing.

A letter has been sent Marquette University by Professor McAdams’s legal counsel, and a press release about the letter indicates:

The letter, taking a page from Franz Kafka’s The Trial, offered no explanation of what Dr. McAdams is alleged to have done or how it might violate any of the university’s rules and regulations. When Dr. McAdams asked for an explanation, he received no reply.

Suspending a faculty member without specification of what he or she has done wrong and the process for contesting the suspension violates Marquette’s Faculty Statutes. As WILL put it, the letter to Dr. McAdams says only that “he is being investigated for some unnamed event that might violate some unidentified requirement of the university to be found somewhere in one of several documents enclosed with the letter.” While Marquette now claims that Dr. McAdams has not been suspended because “suspension” means “without pay,” its Faculty Statutes say otherwise. All suspensions are with pay. “When someone does not want to follow the rules or explain what he is doing, it’s generally a sign of a deeper problem,” said WILL President and General Counsel, Rick Esenberg. In this case, the problem seems to be the failure of the university to abide by its own guarantees of academic freedom.

Subsequent statements from the university have made clear that the basis for the suspension is a blog post in which Dr. McAdams publicly criticized a graduate instructor in the Philosophy Department for telling a student that opposition to same sex marriage would not be tolerated in her class because it would be considered offensive and homophobic. Dr. McAdams expressed the view that such statements were consistent with a regrettable trend on the left to dismiss disfavored views out of hand as “offensive” rather than debate them on the merits.

Suspension of Dr. McAdams for engaging in academic discourse would violate Section 306.03 of Marquette’s Faculty Statutes, which prohibits suspension or termination for reasons that would impair the full and free enjoyment of legitimate personal or academic freedoms of thought, doctrine, discourse, association, advocacy, or action. “The point is not whether you agree or disagree about what should and should not be said in class or how you feel about same sex marriage,” said Esenberg. “It’s not even about whether Dr. McAdams could have or should have phrased his view differently,” he continued. He explained that the University has committed itself to the robust exchange of ideas and it has promised its faculty that they will not be disciplined for participation in that exchange WILL’s letter asks that Dr. McAdams’ suspension (or whatever other thing it might be) be rescinded and that he be restored to his duties. “I’m not in this for anything but academic freedom,” Dr. McAdams said. “I just want to remind Marquette of its own principles and promises and ask that they be followed.”

I support Dr. McAdams and the principles of free speech. Abbate disputes the student’s account of the events in the classroom and Dr. McAdams’s retelling of the story. If John got the story wrong, then what is the big deal? Abbate could have simply corrected the story and set forth the facts as she saw them. She could have clarified the situation early, and let things play out. Instead, she waited almost a month to tell her side of the story (which I think was a great disservice to herself), and has opted to leave Marquette all together.

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