Marquette Faculty Hearing Committee to Weigh in on McAdams Tenure Dispute

September 18, 2015

Next week, suspended Marquette University political science professor John McAdams will face the next step in his tenure revocation battle with the Jesuit university. Marquette’s Faculty Hearing Committee is scheduled to meet on September 21 to consider whether McAdams should be stripped of his tenure following his December 2014 suspension for commentary on his personal blog.

The controversy culminating in McAdams’ suspension from teaching began in November 2014, after the professor posted an entry to his blog, the Marquette Warrior, criticizing a then-graduate student instructor, Cheryl Abbate, for preventing a discussion of negative views towards gay marriage in her class on grounds that it might offend gay students. After the blog was picked up in the media, Abbate reported on her own blog that she received a slew of nasty, vituperative comments, emails, and letters.

On December 16, 2014, Richard C. Holz, dean of Marquette’s Klingler College of Arts and Sciences, suspended McAdams in response to the negative attention received by Abbate and banned him from campus. On January 30, 2015, Holz informed McAdams by letter that Marquette was initiating the process to revoke his tenure and terminate him.

As RT Both wrote in a feature on the case for Milwaukee Magazine last month (non-subscribers can purchase the article for $0.45), “When McAdams went public on local TV and talk radio with … news [of his suspension], the incident became part of a national debate pitting free speech advocates against those who wish to make higher education a ‘safe space’ for alienated minorities.” Marquette professor Angela Sorby commented in Both’s article, “I really don’t know why it got to this extreme point. But it appears that, in this case, [the need for] a safe and respectful workplace outweighed free speech.”

Now, the Faculty Hearing Committee, acting as an advisory body, will take up the question of whether McAdams should be punished for the content of and reaction to his blog post. As we have previously noted here on The Torch, Marquette did not charge McAdams with harassing or threatening Abbate—though the school has issued some vague public statements in the past implying both—or with otherwise writing anything that could constitutionally be punished by a state actor. (Marquette is a private university and therefore not bound by the First Amendment, but does, in its written policies, make commitments to the free speech rights of students and faculty.)   

Instead, according to Holz’s January 30 letter, McAdams faces revocation of tenure because he does not meet the “standard of personal and professional excellence” expected of Marquette faculty. His blog, writes Holz, was “inaccurate, misleading and superficial,” and McAdams’ post on Abbate was “irresponsible” because McAdams “knew or should have known” that it would “result in vulgar, vile, and threatening communications to Ms. Abbate.”  

We hope that the committee will recognize and act on the very real threat to the academic freedom of all Marquette faculty posed by this reasoning. First, Holz effectively imposes subjective, unwritten standards on the content of extracurricular faculty speech. What level of depth and analysis must a faculty member achieve before a post is not considered “superficial”? How can she guarantee accuracy? On the latter, an insightful Atlantic article by Conor Friedersdorf makes the point well:

No academic who speaks or writes with any regularity, whether in the classroom or at conferences or in academic journals or blog posts, can possibly meet the standard of accuracy “at all times.” If tenure can be revoked for failing that standard, every tenured professor is at the mercy of administrative whims. An inaccuracy can always be documented.

Second, as we have written several times before, Holz is holding McAdams responsible for the reaction of his audience, in contravention of the most basic free speech principles. RT Both noted in her Milwaukee Magazine article that “McAdams seems quite sincere when he says that, if he could have anticipated the abuse directed at Abbate, he would not have blogged about her.” That’s too bad for him, according to Holz, because he should have known better. Friedersdorf again makes an excellent point on the topic:

By this logic, a professor who criticized a college football player accused of rape, or a fraternity member who chanted “No means yes, yes means anal,” or a college Republican running an “affirmative-action bake sale” could be stripped of tenure based partly on whether that student got nasty emails. Only myopia can account for failure to see the threat to academic freedom.

If Marquette succeeds in terminating McAdams, the precedent set for the remaining tenured faculty will be ripe for abuse by administrators who disapprove of a professor’s viewpoints or manner of communicating. Indeed, McAdams’ longstanding suspension may well already have faculty hesitating before writing a blog post, op-ed, or Facebook comment. We at FIRE hope the Faculty Hearing Committee will refuse to help the Marquette administration along its way to creating a deeply chilling environment for faculty speech.

Check back to The Torch as FIRE follows this ongoing case.


Schools:  Marquette University

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