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After Gay Marriage Flap, Marquette Moves to Fire Tenured Prof

February 5, 2015

MILWAUKEE, Wisc., February 5, 2015—Disregarding freedom of speech, academic freedom, and its own policies, Marquette University will attempt to revoke Professor John McAdams’s tenure and fire him.

Marquette is taking action against McAdams, a political conservative and frequent critic of the administration, supposedly in response to his online criticism of a graduate student instructor who told a student not to oppose same-sex marriage in her class. Marquette had previously suspended McAdams without due process, treated him as though he presented a violent threat, and cancelled his current semester’s classes.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has called for McAdams’s reinstatement in light of Marquette’s egregious violations of his rights.

“If Marquette can fire a tenured professor for criticizing a fellow teacher on a blog, then tenure at Marquette is worthless, as are freedom of speech and academic freedom,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “While this is more than likely just an excuse to get rid of McAdams, the fact that McAdams’s supposed offense was criticizing a teacher for squelching dissenting opinions in class only makes Marquette’s utter contempt for dissenters more obvious.”

On November 9, 2014, McAdams, a tenured associate professor of political science, posted an entry on his Marquette Warrior blog describing a recorded conversation between an undergraduate student and the instructor for his “Theory of Ethics” philosophy course. The instructor, Cheryl Abbate, was also a doctoral student in Marquette’s philosophy department. Abbate was recorded telling the student that the expression of certain opinions in class was inappropriate because those opinions may be considered offensive to other listeners. Abbate specifically cited the student’s stated opposition to same-sex marriage as a problem. McAdams’s post received widespread attention, with various commenters defending or criticizing his and Abbate’s arguments.

On December 16, Richard C. Holz, dean of Marquette’s Klingler College of Arts and Sciences, suspended McAdams. The suspension letter stated that Marquette was “continuing to review [McAdams’s] conduct” and ordered him not to enter the Marquette campus except with advance permission from the university. Holz did not inform McAdams of any alleged policy violations justifying the suspension, as Marquette’s faculty policies require. Marquette later claimed in public statements that McAdams was “under review” and had not been suspended, claiming that its “definition of suspension is without pay”—which is also contradicted by Marquette policies governing faculty suspension. On December 18, Marquette cancelled McAdams’s spring semester classes.

In a January 2 letter, Holz told McAdams that he “had no justification to put [the] graduate student’s name in [his] internet posts” and informed him that as a result of his doing so, Abbate had received harassing and threatening letters and emails and had decided to transfer to another doctoral program. Marquette publicly justified McAdams’s continued suspension and ban from campus by claiming that “[t]he safety of [Marquette’s] students and campus community is [its] top priority.” Though it had not charged McAdams with any conduct violations, Marquette further stated that it “does not tolerate harassment and will not stand for faculty members subjecting students to any form of abuse, putting them in harm’s way.”

In a January 30 letter calling for McAdams’s immediate reinstatement, FIRE cautioned Marquette that unilaterally suspending McAdams for the opinions expressed on his blog violated his freedom of speech and academic freedom. FIRE also pointed out Marquette’s multiple violations of faculty policies, noted its public insinuations that McAdams constituted a threat to campus safety, and highlighted the severe threat to free speech posed by Marquette’s claim that McAdams was directly culpable for the actions of unknown individuals who allegedly harassed or threatened Abbate after reading his blog.

“A fundamental principle of our society is that you aren’t responsible for how unrelated and possibly unhinged third parties react to your speech,” said FIRE’s Shibley. “Marquette’s disgraceful argument is no different in principle from saying that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were somehow to blame for their own deaths.”

Despite FIRE’s repeated criticisms, as well as criticism from organizations including the American Association of University Professors, Marquette informed McAdams on January 30 that it intended to revoke his tenure and fire him. Marquette claimed that McAdams’s actions amounted to “serious instances of … dishonorable, irresponsible, or incompetent conduct” justifying his termination. Marquette also continued to blame McAdams for threats and harassment made by third parties over whom he had no control, stating that he “knew or should have known that [his] Internet story would result in vulgar, vile, and threatening communications.”

Astoundingly, Marquette President Michael R. Lovell claimed in a statement Wednesday evening that the university’s efforts to revoke McAdams’s tenure “have everything to do with … guiding values and expectations of conduct toward each other” and “nothing to do” with academic freedom or freedom of speech.

“It’s madness to claim that Marquette’s case against McAdams has ‘nothing to do’ with his academic freedom and free speech rights. You could hardly have a more direct attack on both freedoms than the one Marquette is mounting,” said Peter Bonilla, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “If a professor can be fired for being less civil in pedagogical debates than administrators would prefer, freedom in the academy is simply nonexistent.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; katie@thefire.org

Schools: Marquette University Cases: Marquette University: Faculty Member Facing Loss of Tenure for Opinions on Blog