“Be the difference” is the motto of Marquette University, the generally not-very-newsworthy Jesuit university in Milwaukee. Marquette is in the news now for reasons that it cannot be very happy about.
First a teaching assistant at the Catholic institution, Cheryl Abbate, a doctoral student in philosophy, was caught on tape earlier this year giving a very un-Catholic answer to a student who wanted to write about his objections to same-sex marriage in a course titled, “Theory of Ethics.” The student complained to an associate dean and to the chairman of the Philosophy Department, neither of whom saw a cause for concern. The student then played the recording to a Marquette professor of political science, John McAdams, who after listening to the recording, blogged on November 9 about the incident, making some pointed criticisms of Abbate’s refusal to countenance the expression of opinions counter to her own. The story began to attract significant public attention, including an article on Inside Higher Ed, November 20, which reprised the story and gave links to accounts supporting McAdams’s views and others attacking him.
The story might have ended there, but it was about to take a dramatic turn. McAdams’s blog post named Ms. Abbate, and in response, the chairmen of eight academic departments, including Philosophy and Political Science, issued a public letter (November 22) saying “We support Ms. Abbate” and accusing McAdams of failing “to meet the standards we aspire to as a faculty,” of “pitting one set of students against another,” and of “exploiting current political issues to promote his personal agenda.” An additional 66 faculty members and graduate students signed the letter.
Part of the complaint enunciated in the letter is that “McAdams’s actions—which have been reported in local and national media outlets—have harmed the personal reputation of a young scholar as well as the academic reputation of Marquette University.” This, of course, may be true. A factual statement that brings to public attention deplorable behavior often harms reputations—often appropriately so.
Following soon after the collective denunciation from his colleagues, McAdams received notice from Marquette’s Dean of Arts and Sciences, Richard C. Holz, that he was suspended (with pay). The text of the dean’s letter was posted by Eugene Volokh on his widely-read Washington Post-sponsored blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, December 17. It bears repeating:
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. Should any academic appeals arise from Fall 2014 semester, however, you are expected to fulfill your obligations in that specific matter.
Your salary and benefits will continue at their current level during this time.
You are to remain off campus during this time, and should you need to come to campus, you are to contact me in writing beforehand to explain the purpose of your visit, to obtain my consent and to make appropriate arrangements for that visit. 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.
Professor McAdams responded by asking for help from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), which agreed to give him legal representation. On December 22, WILL wrote to Marquette’s president, Dr. Michael Lovell, pointing out that McAdams’s suspension violated his rights as a tenured member of Marquette’s faculty. The letter from WILL described the letter from Dean Holz as “a Kafkaesque document, telling Dr. McAdams that he is being investigated fo 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.” WILL also noted that when McAdams emailed Holz, “asking what he was being charged with,” Holz did not even answer.
Marquette’s official position, however, did shift. A university spokesman claimed that McAdams was not “suspended,” because the university is continuing to pay his salary while barring him from teaching, other faculty responsibilities, and setting foot on campus. McAdams is supposed in the status of “under review,” a status which WILL points out is nowhere mentioned in Marquette’s Faculty Statutes.
Marquette has also issued an official public statement on its actions against Professor McAdams. It refers to the university’s values, which include respecting “the dignity and worth of each member of our community.” It quotes Marquette’s president, “Respect is at the heart of our commitment to the Jesuit tradition and Catholic social teaching.” Volokh’s blog includes the full text. Inside Higher Ed posted a follow-up account (December 18) of McAdams’s suspension. Matthew J. Franck, writing at First Things, also has a succinct account of the whole affair, as of December 18.
Marquette is, meanwhile, soldiering on as though nothing in particular has happened. Marquette Today, the university’s house organ, is reporting that the Diederich College of Communication has received a $3.5 gift. Dr. Marta Leatherwood has been named the university’s new Title IX Coordinator. Spring semester parking permits are now available online. And Marquette researchers have received a $1.85 million grant for neuroscience study.
Universities are, of course, busy places, and things do not grind to a halt merely because of one highly contentious case involving issues of academic freedom, allegations of harassment, and failure of due process.
But much as Marquette would like to see the McAdams affair as a minor dispute that will have no real effect on its reputation, these are the sorts of events that are likely to crystalize for people across the country what kind of university Marquette really is.
Habits of Mind
The problem that runs through the whole affair is the university’s apparent unwillingness to abide the expression of dissenting views. The unnamed student in Ms. Abbate’s “Theory of Ethics” class who wondered why she had told the class that, “Everyone agrees on this [gay rights], and there is no need to discuss it.” Plainly everyone does not agree. The student in question approached her after class to tell her he, for one, would like to discuss it, and that he thought she was setting a poor precedent for the class to rule it out. Their conversation was reasonable up to a point, but then Abbate simply invoked her authority: “You don’t have a right in this class to make homophobic comments.” She went on to explain, “In this class, homophobic comments, racist comments, will not be tolerated,” and she suggested that the student drop the class. He did.
It seems clear that Abbate’s definition of “homophobic” must be pretty broad, since it ruled out in advance any discussion of issues around gay rights.
McAdams’s suspension likewise followed from his speaking about something that the University deemed unspeakable. Why, exactly, is it a matter worthy of suspension to quote verbatim and with attribution the words of another instructor at the university? A possible answer is that the student who recorded Ms. Abbate’s words did so surreptitiously. McAdams clearly did not put him up to this but was willing to publish things that Ms. Abbate did not intend for public distribution. That raises some questions worth thinking about. Sometimes we praise people for revealing what is normally hidden. McAdams acted only after the associate dean and the department chairman had brushed off the student.
Dean Holz’s letter suspending McAdams, however, says nothing about this. In fact, it gives no reason at all for the suspension but merely says, “The university is continuing to review your conduct,” and refers him to “Marquette’s harassment policy, its guiding values statement, the University mission statement, and sections from the Faculty Handbook.” From this we are probably justified in the inference that McAdams’s blog is being cast as a form of “harassment.” But all we are really left with is the impression that McAdams expressed a view that Marquette officialdom regards as intolerable.
Ms. Abbate and Dean Holz, in that respect, seem cut from the same cloth.
Is this really the considered view of Marquette University as a whole? I wouldn’t rule it out. We live in a time when borders of academic and intellectual freedom are shrinking rapidly. Words and ideas get tagged as “insensitive” and failure to self-censor such words is castigated as harmful and unjust. Identity politics has escalated to the point where merely calling for open debate on campus on issues that are, in fact, widely and openly debated off-campus sets off paroxysms of rage among the keepers of campus decorum.
A university that slips into this kind of censoriousness forfeits any legitimate claim it has to upholding the liberal arts. Its claim to teach “critical thinking” is likewise compromised. Critical thinking requires at a minimum serious consideration of contrary views.
Professor McAdams is buffeted with declarations such as, “Respect is at the heart of our commitment to the Jesuit tradition and Catholic social teaching.” Respect for what? Seemingly not for truthfulness, candor, or transparency. Marquette is a private university and is free, of course, to shrug off criticism like this. But it does appear, at least among its faculty, to have some regard for its academic reputation. In that light, Marquette might be well-advised to consider how precipitously it is falling into some bad habits of mind. “Jesuit tradition” has never been a matter of telling students, in effect, “Shut up because I say so.” “Catholic social teaching” has never been grounds for punishing whistleblowers. Something is seriously amiss at Marquette.
Professor McAdams chose to “be the difference.” Look where it got him. I hope that the higher authorities at Marquette choose to “be the difference” too, between the continuation of this folly and some wiser direction for the university.
This article originally appeared at Minding the Campus on January 4, 2015.