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Marquette’s Consistent Inconsistency on Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Civility

By March 4, 2015

Over recent weeks, my colleague Peter Bonilla has treated Torch readers to a series of articles on the case of Marquette University professor John McAdams, who faces losing tenure for criticizing graduate instructor Cheryl Abbate’s direction to a student not to voice his opposition to same-sex marriage in class because it might offend his classmates. Peter’s three-part series explored Marquette’s disregard for due process and its subversion of basic free speech principles, and it thoroughly refuted Marquette’s absurd argument that the case is not about academic freedom and free speech. But we’re not through with Marquette just yet. Today, I would like to draw attention to Marquette University’s devolving view on academic freedom, tenure, and civility.

To set the stage, consider the statement issued by Marquette University President Michael Lovell on February 4 regarding McAdams’s case, which states in part:

The decisions here have everything to do with our Guiding Values and expectations of conduct toward each other and nothing to do with academic freedom, freedom of speech, or same-sex marriage. As I noted in my recent Presidential Address, our Guiding Values were drafted with extensive input from our campus community to keep us all accountable and to provide the foundation for a collegial environment based on mutual respect.

As your president, I assure you of my full support for academic freedom. My academic experiences are rooted in my time as a tenured faculty member, where I saw first-hand the great privileges and responsibilities bestowed upon me and my academic colleagues.

Debate and intense discussion are at the heart of who we are as a university, but they must be balanced with respect – our Catholic faith and Jesuit tradition demand nothing less. There are dozens of ways disagreements can be handled with respect and civility on campus, many of which are outlined in our handbooks. And, there are dozens of ways a professor can productively help a student learn and grow.

We must always remember that academic freedom must be grounded in integrity, be accurate at all times and show respect for others’ opinions.

FIRE has written time and again about the danger of subordinating freedom of expression and academic freedom to vague notions of “civility” and “respect.” The American Association of University Professors is likewise concerned by the threats this poses. But what of Marquette’s history? Is there some past precedent that one can find to shed light on the university’s principles? Indeed there is.

Marquette theology professor Dan Maguire is no stranger to attacks on tenure. His pro-choice stance and vocal support for gay rights have led many to complain that he is unfit to teach at Marquette because his views run counter to traditional Catholic teaching. As John McAdams wrote in 2005, then-president of Marquette Father Robert Wild rebuffed these complaints in a response sent to those who complained about Maguire’s position, strongly defending of academic freedom and tenure. Wild began by explaining the importance and strength of tenure:

Tenure, you have to understand, is a property right strongly protected in law. While you seem to suggest that it would be easy enough for us to get rid of Dr. Maguire if only we had the will to do so, I can assure you that it is not.

For many, many years Marquette University has granted its faculty, as a part of the formal contractual relationship, academic freedom as generally understood in American higher education. This means, among other things, that the university ceded the right to discipline or terminate tenured faculty on the basis of the content of their teaching or publishing. Such academic freedom is a necessary prerequisite for any serious academic institution, and there is no Catholic university of standing that does otherwise. Indeed, this tradition in university life goes back to the 13th century, a time when in Europe the only universities that existed were Roman Catholic.

One might be forgiven for being unaware of the value once placed on academic freedom at Marquette, given the university’s justifications for attacking McAdams’s tenure. But while Wild’s assessment of the necessity and importance of academic freedom is certainly on point, what he says next is downright crucial:

Accordingly, faculty are not only allowed, but are expected and encouraged to follow the evidence of their own minds in research, teaching, and publishing, subject only to the criticism of their peers. [Emphasis added.]

Yes, you read that correctly. That is the former president of Marquette University explicitly stating that part and parcel of academic freedom at Marquette is the understanding that one is subject to the criticism of their peers. The necessary corollary is that criticizing one’s peers is also a component of academic freedom. And that’s precisely what McAdams did—he criticized a fellow instructor’s teaching. So please, President Lovell, explain to us how this has “nothing to do with academic freedom.” I’m sure former President Wild, along with the rest of us, would love to hear it.

Encouragingly, Professor Maguire, too, has risen to the defense of Professor McAdams, despite their vigorous disagreement on many issues, which McAdams has also blogged about. Writing to President Lovell after McAdams was initially suspended, Maguire wrote:

Over the years Professor McAdams and I have disagreed on many issues—and he has excoriated me on his blog—but all my personal interactions with him have been uniformly civil and urbane. Again, as Cardinal Newman said, in a university many minds are free to compete. That’s the glory of it.

This “unnecessary roughness” to borrow a term from the NFL, has already inflicted damage on Professor McAdams’ professional reputation. I am not surprised at the report that he has retained counsel.

Wild’s response to Maguire’s critics is exemplary, and I encourage you to read the entire thing. But one more portion is particularly worth noting here. As he draws near to his conclusion, Wild states:

I would note that I see no way of resolving these problems that people have with Dr. Maguire. I simply know that I will follow in the footsteps of former Marquette President Fr. John Raynor regarding Dr. Maguire’s presence at Marquette and accept his right as a tenured professor to speak out even while personally disagreeing with certain of his positions, especially in terms of their conformity to Catholic teaching and/or their civility and good sense. [Emphasis added.]

So much for the claim that academic freedom at Marquette is constrained by a requirement to adhere to some elusive, universally-accepted standard of “civility” or “respect.” Once again, President Lovell’s assertion finds itself directly contradicted by the former Marquette president’s explanation of the university’s view on academic freedom. It is very disappointing indeed if, in the 10 years since Wild’s statement, Marquette has so greatly reduced the value it places on academic freedom that it now stands directly opposed to the principles once eloquently defended by its president.

Of course, Marquette was not entirely consistent in its support of freedom of expression on campus even during Wild’s tenure as president. In 2006, Marquette infamously demanded that a graduate student remove from his office door—because it was “patently offensive”—a quote from comedian Dave Barry stating: “As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government.” In a FIRE video, Barry decried the rampant political correctness on campus and declared colleges and universities to be “the least free area of thought left in the United States”:

Barry’s words, unfortunately, still ring true at Marquette, with respect to both Abbate’s missive to her student, and the university’s misguided and heavy-handed crusade against McAdams for criticizing her over it.

But whereas at least Wild got it right in his understanding of, and respect for, academic freedom and tenure, President Lovell appears to have taken a decidedly dimmer view of these concepts, to the detriment of the entire university community. So which is it, Marquette? Are tenure and academic freedom sacrosanct and vital to the purpose and soul of a university, or are they simply hollow trinkets that can be discarded whenever public opinion deems them unfashionable? Here’s hoping that Marquette’s old habits die hard.

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