At Marquette, Honesty, Free Speech, and Tenure No Match for Political Correctness

No case better illustrates the degree to which American universities are in the thrall of political correctness than the fight that erupted back in 2014 at Marquette, and continues to this day.

A tenured professor of political science, John McAdams, was barred from campus, suspended from teaching, threatened with termination, and told that he could only return if he made a groveling apology—all for having written a blog post critical of the way a student was treated by another faculty member. 

Ordinarily, such a minor incident would have occasioned no interest by school administrators. In this instance, however, there were two highly inflammable ingredients involved: the faculty member being criticized was female and the criticism involved her stance that same-sex marriage could not be discussed in class because doing so would be “homophobic” and offensive. 

Hypersensitive administrators felt the need to respond by inflicting the academic equivalent of capital punishment on the tenured professor.  

This astounding story began in the fall of 2014. Cheryl Abbate, who had been a teaching assistant in Marquette’s Department of Philosophy for several years was teaching an ethics course. In a class where she had listed topics that would be considered during the course, a student asked if gay marriage would be included and she said that it wouldn’t be. 

Afterward, another student approached her and said that he thought there were valid arguments against gay marriage and gave his opinion that the issue should be addressed.

Abbate made it emphatically clear to him that there would be no such discussion because, she said, the issue was settled and bringing it up would be “homophobic” and offensive to any gay students in the class. She also told the student that if he didn’t like it, he ought to drop the class. (The College Fix has an interview with the student here.)

That rebuke did not sit well with him and he tried to bring the matter up with Abbate’s superiors in the department—but to no avail. Weeks later, the student’s recording of his encounter with Abbate came to the attention of Professor John McAdams.

McAdams then wrote a post on his personal blog (“Marquette Warrior,” adverting to the name of the university’s sports teams before the school changed to “Golden Eagles” in 1994 to avoid any “disrespect”) in which he provided a full account of the matter and criticized the way Abbate handled the encounter with the student. 

Abbate, he wrote, “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.” McAdams also pointed to similar behavior by other Marquette faculty members.

The academic world is loaded with arguments such as McAdams made every day and they rarely lead to anything more than hot tempers and more argumentative blogging.

Not in this case, however. McAdams had, as Marquette president Michael Lovell would later put it, “inflicted a personal attack” on Abbate, whom he delicately referred to as “our student.” 

The university’s first salvo against McAdams came from Dean Richard Holz of the school of arts and sciences when he summarily canceled all of his classes for the coming semester and even barred him from setting foot on campus. Subsequently, McAdams was informed that the university was going to revoke his tenure and dismiss him from the faculty.

Among the numerous groups and individuals who expressed their shock at the way Marquette treated McAdams was the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. In FIRE’s letter to President Lovell, Peter Bonilla wrote, “Marquette has not provided a single piece of evidence to suggest that McAdams is guilty of anything other than exercising his own right to free expression….”

That’s right but free expression is no longer protected for those who criticize favored groups or challenge the progressive orthodoxy.

Despite mounting opposition to its attack on academic freedom, for more than a year Marquette kept the case in limbo. On March 26th of this year, McAdams finally received a letter from President Lovell that gave him a path back to reinstatement, provided that he state (among other things) that his blog post “was reckless and incompatible with the mission and values of Marquette University” and further that he “express deep regret for the harm suffered” by Ms. Abbate.

Lovell gave McAdams until April 4 to comply.

McAdams did not do so, but instead further exercised his freedom of speech to explain in this letter that Lovell had misrepresented the facts, that he had violated university procedures and denied McAdams due process, that his punishment was chiefly due to what other people had written, and that Lovell himself was acting against the university’s values in trying to force him to speak contrary to his beliefs.

Most importantly, in my view, McAdams indicts the university’s weak approach to academic freedom, writing, “The Faculty Hearing Committee would make the ability of faculty to speak subject to an after the fact balancing test; the result of which will be indeterminate. This leaves faculty members with no clear guidance as to what they can say—particularly if what they wish to say is disfavored by the administration and unpopular among their colleagues.”

That hits the nail squarely on the head. If speech can cause trouble for a professor (and a fortiori the possible loss of his job) depending on a complex evaluation afterward, then speech is no longer free. It must be carefully calculated to eliminate the risk of offending anyone.

If Lovell thought he could quietly get out of this battle by allowing McAdams to crawl back with some insincere mea culpas, he was mistaken. Now he will either have to carry out his threat to fire McAdams or back down. 

One lesson we learn from this dispute is that faculty contracts and tenure are no shield against vengeful leftist academics. The Marquette administration should have immediately realized that McAdams was perfectly within his rights and told those who were calling for his head to go to their keyboards and argue with him. Instead, it chose to lead the mob. 

Another lesson is that academic freedom is on thin ice, at least at some of our institutions. It’s particularly thin under the feet of students and faculty members who dare to contest politically correct ideas. If any Marquette professor had criticized McAdams for his views or the way he treated a student, there would have been no repercussions: no administrative rebuke, no banishment, no suspension, no threatened termination. 

But free speech on campus has become like the equality of animals in Orwell’s Animal Farm. All animals were supposedly equal, but, once the revolution took over, some were more equal than others. Similarly at Marquette, faculty members are supposed to have academic freedom, but some are more free than others.

And there’s a third lesson in the offing, I believe. 

That lesson will be for President Lovell and the Marquette administration. If McAdams is indeed fired, the school will learn that many alumni and other supporters will find other uses for their money. Lovell would do well to read this Pope Center piece by Professor Thomas Lambert on the blowback at the University of Missouri for its cave-in to PC demands last year. The repercussions at Missouri have been harsh, but they’ll probably be much worse for a private university that has turned its back on the religious and academic values upon which it was founded.