Firing Professor McAdams: When a Catholic university collides with political correctness

In my 35 years of teaching in the Marquette University philosophy department, there were always some faculty (including the present chair) who were quite public about having “partners.” I never witnessed any discrimination against them, nor was I aware of any attempts on their part to impose ideology in classes.

I never encountered any difficulty in discussing the pros and cons of “hot button” issues such as homosexuality or abortion in my ethics and philosophical anthropology classes. (My 1999 book, Politically Incorrect Dialogues: Topics Not Discussed in Polite Circles, was an offshoot of such discussions.)

I was a member of the campus branch of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for several years, and was a member of the committee that succeeded in removing the decades-long censure of Marquette for the summary firing of Quentin Quesnell, a tenured Jesuit professor who married a graduate student in the early 1970s–an action which the university claimed was in conflict with the contracts agreed to by Jesuits.

But termination of tenured professors, except in cases of dereliction of duty, major mental health problems, or incompetence, was almost unheard of.

Before my retirement in 2002, there were frequent all-university mandatory sessions on “sexual harassment,” as well as mandatory department-level sessions looking for input on maintaining “Catholic identity” in our Jesuit university. Since then, the mandatory sessions have focused on “sensitivity training,” emphasizing that respect for others’ opinions is de rigeur, and offenses in word and deed must be avoided.

And in a Catholic University in which anti-Catholic positions have been amicably tolerated (witness the untouchable position of theology professor Daniel Maguire, noted nationally for his outspoken defense of abortion), all of a sudden the limits of toleration, even for tenured professors, have been reached on an issue of…political incorrectness.

In the Fall 2014 semester, political science professor John McAdams, who has been on the faculty since 1981, was suspended for allegedly overstepping the bounds of academic propriety. In his conservative and independent blog, McAdams had criticized a graduate student, Cheryl Abbate, who was teaching ethics in the philosophy department, after a student’s taped conversation (taping is legal in Wisconsin and thirty-seven other states) with the teaching assistant was brought to his attention.

After class, the student had complained that the topic of gay marriage, brought up briefly by another student in class, had been too summarily dismissed. He suggested that there were valid arguments against gay marriage that should be considered in an ethics class.

Ms. Abbate replied that homophobic views are not welcome in class because gay students might be offended if the issue was discussed, and that he could withdraw from the course if he wished.

He did withdraw. McAdams, in his blog, defending the rights of the student, commented that the 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… In the politically correct world of academia, one is supposed to assume that all victim groups think the same way as leftist professors. Groups not favored by leftist professors, of course, can be freely attacked, and their views (or supposed views) ridiculed.

In the aftermath of this criticism, McAdams and the graduate student received both kudos and vituperations, locally and nationally.

Things turned out well for Ms. Abbate, who was soon offered the opportunity to finish her doctoral studies at the University of Colorado.

Professor McAdams, however, was summarily suspended by the dean of Marquette’s Klinger School of Arts and Sciences, Richard Holz. Dean Holz also canceled all of his courses scheduled for the Spring semester, and warned him not to set foot on campus.

McAdams and his lawyers, pointing out infringement of faculty statutes and lack of due process, have been negotiating for reinstatement; and they have received support from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, as well as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Illinois state conference of the American Association of University Professors.

McAdams has also received strong support from Daniel Maguire, whose 2006 pamphlet on contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage was condemned by the Archbishop of Milwaukee and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), but who fortunately (for his tenure status) does not parlay any politically incorrect ideas.

Even if traditionally-minded students may feel disrespected by Maguire’s insensitive disparaging of Catholic beliefs, his academic freedom is unimpeachably protected here. And Maguire commendably wants the same protection to be extended to McAdams, with whom he has been in frequent and vocal disagreement.

However, these initial efforts to prevent a heavy-handed termination have been unsuccessful, and McAdams’s lawyer on February 6 received a letter from the Dean stating:

In accord with Section 307.03, we are commencing as of this date the procedures for revoking your tenure and dismissing you from the faculty.

Dr. Michael Lovell, the recently appointed president of Marquette University (the first non-Jesuit to hold that position), has advised the faculty that:

The decisions here have everything to do with our Marquette University Guiding Values and expectations of conduct toward each other, and nothing to do with academic freedom, freedom of speech or same-sex marriage…. We must always remember that academic freedom must be grounded in integrity, be accurate at all times and show respect for others’ opinions. When these standards are not met, the power of tenure can abuse and silence our students–the very minds we are seeking to cultivate, grow and ultimately transform…. The safety and well-being of our students will come first in every decision I make as president of this great university.

In other words, academic freedom and freedom of speech are of course limited when the power of tenure threatens the right of students or graduate student instructors to quash classroom discussion of insensitive, i.e., politically incorrect, topics.

Parents of Marquette students can now rest assured that their children in college will be “safe” from homophobic and other politically incorrect indoctrination; professors of philosophy will no longer consider it their “mission” (pace Socrates) to subject widely accepted meanings and values to intensive reexamination; and professors of other subjects who manage their own private blogs now know that what they formerly considered to be “free speech,” even in their extracurricular activities, has now been redefined by their employers.

Marquette University is billed as a “Jesuit Catholic” university, although relatively few Jesuits still staff the university, and (largely as a result of “affirmative action” guidelines during the last few decades) the number of practicing Catholic faculty members is probably not great.

It is regrettable when the traditional Jesuit commitment to “social justice” can be reinterpreted as being “politically correct.” Ideology has come to the fore, and what could have been, and should have been, a mere “tempest in a teapot,” is gaining national attention and developing into a potential cause célèbre. A good effect of this attention may be that the identity crisis of Jesuit universities and some other Catholic universities may instigate some rethinking about their mission, and a possible resolution of the ambiguity.