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Marquette Professor’s Lawyer Smacks Down Dean’s Weak Justification for Suspension

By January 22, 2015

Over a month after he was suspended from teaching and banned from campus, Marquette University professor John McAdams has yet to be presented with clear disciplinary charges against him. Marquette’s Dean of Klingler College of Arts and Sciences Richard Holz did, however, offer his explanation as to why the university was “review[ing McAdams’s] conduct and considering all appropriate responses” in a letter dated January 2. Yesterday, McAdams’s lawyer and president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) Rick Esenberg wrote a letter thoroughly explaining why the university’s statements thus far have been self-contradictory and insufficient to justify McAdams’s suspension.

Though McAdams hasn’t been formally charged, statements from university officials indicate that the suspension was motivated by McAdams’s November 9 post on his personal blog, in which he criticized a graduate student assigned to teach an ethics course for declaring that one side of the same-sex marriage debate was “not appropriate” for class. FIRE covered the incident in November, arguing that this restriction on speech is inconsistent with Marquette’s promises of free inquiry. After McAdams had been suspended, WILL wrote to Marquette, chiding the university for failing to follow its own written procedures regarding discipline of tenured professors.

Back in December, a university spokesperson seemed to suggest that because the class instructor McAdams wrote about was also a student, she could not be criticized by a professor. Holz apparently agrees—in his letter this month, he chastised McAdams for using the class instructor’s name in his post and “intimidating” her with his expressions of disapproval. Holz stated that McAdams had “no justification to put [the] graduate student’s name in [his] internet posts.”

Is it not “justified” to publicly comment when one believes an instructor has fallen short in his or her duty to uphold Marquette’s written commitments to its students? Besides that, how can free inquiry exist in an environment where statements about named individuals have to be deemed “justified” by a university official? No one has an inherent right not to be named in public commentary—just ask Kirby Delauter.

Esenberg aims to clarify what Marquette is and isn’t claiming with respect to McAdams’s post:

In his letter, Dean Holz says, for the first time, that the allegedly improper conduct by Dr. McAdams was to identify Cheryl Abbate as the instructor who told a student that opposition to gay marriage would not be tolerated in her class. He does not claim that anything that Dr. McAdams said is false. He does not say that it was uncivil or constituted “harassment” under university rules. It was wrong, he says, because, even though Marquette made Ms. Abbate solely responsible for the class in question and placed her in a position of authority over undergraduates, she was still “only” a graduate student. As such, she apparently cannot be publicly criticized.

He goes on to contend that Marquette blames McAdams for the negative messages Abbate subsequently received from third parties. He explains why this is problematic:

[W]hatever the provenance of these nasty comments or the reasonableness of the university’s response, academic freedom is not limited by the responses it provokes. One would hope, in light of recent events in France, that the university does not believe that freedom of expression must be restricted less [sic] it provoke illiberal extremists.

Esenberg also objects to the public characterization of the case as one in which “safety” is a concern:

Finally, as to the comments reported in yesterday’s newspaper, spokesperson [Brian] Dorrington is reported to have said that, in banning Dr. McAdams from campus, the “safety of our students and campus community is our top priority.” He adds that the university will not tolerate “abuse” or “harassment” of students. Tell me, is it the university’s position that disagreement with someone constitutes endangering their “safety? Is it the university’s position that criticism is tantamount to “abuse” and “harassment?” These would be extraordinary positions and hard to reconcile with Mr. Dorrington’s concession that “a professor would not be subject to a review of this nature simply for voicing an opinion.”

Is it the university’s position that Dr. McAdams has done something other than voice an opinion? If so, we have not heard it say so.

Holz’s and Esenberg’s letters are posted in full over at McAdams’s blog, the Marquette Warrior, which boasts this disclaimer at the top:

THIS SITE HAS NO OFFICIAL CONNECTION WITH MARQUETTE UNIVERSITY. INDEED, WHEN UNIVERSITY OFFICIALS FIND OUT ABOUT IT, THEY WILL DOUBTLESS WANT IT SHUT DOWN.

Sounds about right.

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