Marquette University Professor Facing Termination For Supporting Student Who Said He Was Barred From Questioning Same-Sex Marriage in Philosophy Class

McAdams_largeThere is an interesting controversy out of Marquette University, which has moved to suspend and possibly fire Professor John McAdams after his criticism of a junior faculty member Cheryl Abbate in a free speech dispute. Abbate was recorded by a student in saying that his views against same-sex marriage were not appropriate to be voiced in her class. The response of the university has some problematic elements for a free speech perspective.

The controversy began in October 2014 in a philosophy class when a student attempted to discuss his opposing view of same-sex marriage. He said that the class was run on the assumption that support for same-sex marriage and other homosexual rights were beyond dispute. The student approached Graduate Assistant Cheryl Abbate after the class to say that he felt that the class should have been able to discuss the issue. He recorded the conversation where he said “Regardless of why I’m against gay marriage, it’s still wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person’s opinion when they may have different opinions.” Abbate allegedly responded by saying: “There are some opinions that are not appropriate, that are harmful — such as racist opinions, sexist opinions and quite honestly, do you know if anyone in the class is homosexual?”

The student gave the tape to McAdams, who posted it with criticism of Abbate on his conservative blog. After being informed of the posting, the university ordered McAdams to stay off campus and the cancellation of this second semester classes. In a January 30th letter, Arts & Sciences Dean Richard Holz informed McAdams “in accord with Section 307.03, we are commencing as of this date the procedures for revoking your tenure and dismissing you from the faculty.” He specifically noted that the use of the instructor’s name exposed her to hate mail, though the quoted messages are from third parties and McAdams can object that he has no control or responsibility over such individuals. Holy noted that [i]nstead of being a mentor to a graduate student instructor learning her craft, including how to deal with challenging students, you took the opportunity to publicly disparage her.”

I can see the basis for that objection. This was an after-class conversation and there are real collegiality concerns. This is particularly problematic when a recording is made secretly of a colleague. While I am unsure of the status of such one-party consent recordings in this state, such recordings would be unlawful in those states requiring both parties to consent. Since the focus does not appear to be any illegality, I assume that it is the propriety of the posting not the legality of recording that is the main issue in dispute. Moreover, Abbate objected that McAdams distorted the facts and that she simply wanted to keep a focus on an in-class conversation about the philosopher John Rawls’ equal liberty principle. Finally, the blog unleashed a torrent of hate mail for this graduate student in her handling of the issue.

Abbate appears to have tried to avoid the inclusion of same-sex marriage in the discussion of John Rawls’s equal liberty principle under which every person has a right to as many basic liberties as possible, as long as they don’t conflict with those of others. She had asked for examples of violations of this principle and raised classic examples of seat belts and laws that prevent people from selling their own organs. That is when one student raised the ban on gay marriage violated the principle. That would seem to be an interesting example for debate. Indeed, in my legal philosophy class, I often raise that and other controversies as good vehicles for passionate and contemporary debates. Abbate clearly did not want to trigger a broader debate and cut off the example. That caused the student to object later to being “very disappointed” and “personally offended.” The conversation after class included the suggestion of the student that he had seen data suggesting that children of gay parents “do a lot worse in life.” Those studies have been heavily criticized but, in my view, such debates only deepen the interest and understanding of such theories. Abbate also objected that McAdams erroneously attributed a quote to her: that “everyone agrees with gay rights and there is no need to discuss this.” (During the class, Abbate said she did say “it seemed right to me” that a ban on gay marriage would not be in accordance with Rawls’s equal liberty principle). All of these objections raise legitimate questions over the fairness and accuracy of McAdams’ postings.

However, there are also the merits of the original dispute over the propriety of students from raising opposing views of such things as same-sex marriage in a philosophy class. While it is true that he heavily criticized the graduate student in the controversy, he was also supporting a student who felt censored in the class. Moreover, while McAdams brought attention to the dispute, the student appears to have already moved to publicly raise the conflict with his teacher. Once this becomes a public dispute, McAdams has a free speech right to discuss its implications as well as an interest as an academic. After all if it is considered a violation for a student to raise such views (even in a philosophy class), it could also be claimed that faculty members are barred from such discussions.

McAdams did not hold back on his blog. He denounced the teaching assistant for “using a tactic typical among liberals now. Opinions with which they disagree are not merely wrong, and are not to be argued against on their merits, but are deemed ‘offensive’ and need to be shut up.” McAdams was raising a growing expansion of speech codes on campuses where academics are being disciplined for “micro aggressions” and insensitive statements in raising such controversies. Indeed, as we recently discussed, even when an academic is “cleared” she can face remedial actions and training. While the posting was problematic in various respects, I believe McAdams had a perfect right to discuss a campus controversy and weigh into the merits. This could have done by presenting the general controversy (without the use of a secret taping of a colleague) and ask if the expression of such views do run afoul of the university rules.

president-lovell300x250In a letter to the Marquette community, Marquette University President Dr. Michael Lovell said the stated:

“Following the faculty statutes, a Faculty Hearing Committee made up of seven of Professor McAdams’ peers conducted a hearing over a period of four days last September. The committee consisted of a diverse set of tenured faculty members from different academic disciplines. After months of deliberations, the committee issued a thorough 123-page report to my office in January regarding Professor McAdams’ actions. It is noteworthy to mention that the report provided a unanimous recommendation on a path forward regarding the issue under consideration.

“Today, I want you to know that after significant personal deliberation, I have decided to formally implement the Faculty Hearing Committee’s unanimous recommendation. While I cannot provide specific details of the recommendation because it relates to a personnel matter, I can assure you that my decision has been guided by Marquette University’s values and is solely based on Professor McAdams’ actions, and not political or ideological views expressed in his blog.

“In closing, I want to sincerely thank the seven faculty members who served on the Faculty Hearing Committee. They provided substantial service to the university through their extremely thorough, objective and diligent approach throughout this process.”

McAdams was informed that he would be suspended without pay from April 1 through the fall of 2016 and that he lose his job unless he admits “guilt” and apologized “within the next two weeks.” Specifically, the demand is “Your acknowledgement that your November 9, 2014, blog post was reckless and incompatible with the mission and values of Marquette University and you express deep regret for the harm suffered by our former graduate student and instructor, Ms. Abbate.”

McAdams views this punishment as a demand for a public confession and denounced what he saw as an “Inquisition.” He also noted that the faculty committee had not demanded such a public apology. In his response, McAdams refused to yield on principle even if it may cost him his position:

The addition of a demand that we abase ourself and issue an apology and sign a loyalty oath to vaguely defined “guiding values” and to the University’s “mission” is obviously a ploy by Marquette to give the administration an excuse to fire us. They have calculated, correctly, that we will do no such thing.

I have deep concerns over the suspension for the expression of free speech by McAdams outside of his class. This was speech that occurred in the public realm and touched on an issue of growing concern for academics. There is a new debate over impact of social media on academics and whether there is content-based approach to such controversies. For example, we previously debated the status of Boston University sociology professor Saida Grundy after a series of racist postings on social media. Boston University retained Grundy. Likewise, a Memphis professor, Zandria Robinson, has triggered the same debate after denouncing whites and insisting that “whiteness is most certainly and inevitably terror.” However, in Robinson’s case, she was rehired by Rhodes College, which seemed to view her controversial comments as a positive element supporting her appointment. I have tended to oppose efforts to terminate or discipline academics for such postings on free speech grounds and, in some cases, academic freedom grounds.

The Holz letter has some particularly troublesome elements like blaming McAdams for the reaction of unhinged third parties for calling the instructor a “traitor” and other bizarre comments. It also took him to task for criticizing the department chair who Holz insisted had incomplete information. Yet, I know of no rule at most universities barring public criticism of a department chair. Moreover, the letter criticizes him for failing to fully confer with the instructor or to get permission to use her name. Once again, the class was publicly registered and the name known to the student. I know of no rule against naming colleagues or requiring consent for the use of a name on a private blog or in a public communication. I understand the criticism of the alleged inaccuracies. I also agree that collegiality and civility concerns are valid. It may be true that most academics would have refrained from the use of the instructor’s name if it was not widely known (particularly with the added concern over secret recordings), but that is not a binding or legal requirement for McAdams.

This case is a closer question because of the accuracy of the account and the use of a secretly used recording of a colleague. The fact that this is a graduate student should have also tempered McAdams’ response. However, the free speech concerns seemed to have been dismissed and the punishment is quite severe. Could McAdams have handled (and written on) this controversy in a more restrained and collegial fashion? Yes, I think he could have. Yet, the underlying uncertainty over the discussion of such views is troubling and worthy of public debate.

What do you think?

73 thoughts on “Marquette University Professor Facing Termination For Supporting Student Who Said He Was Barred From Questioning Same-Sex Marriage in Philosophy Class”

  1. Just like in the rest of life, university prosecutors can indict a ham sandwich.
    The stated violations obfuscate the actual reason for prosecution.

  2. No, CaptRoss, that’s just the bureaucratic pretext nonsense to obscure why they’re doing it.

    If he were not a white male conservative criticizing a SJW, this would never have been noticed.

  3. But he wasn’t being terminated for supporting Catholic doctrine. He was fired for publishing the names and contact information of students. After promising he would not publish students information, he did so – three times.

    1. CaptRoss wrote: “But he wasn’t being terminated for supporting Catholic doctrine. He was fired for publishing the names and contact information of students.”

      This is not true. Professor McAdams published the name of the INSTRUCTOR of the class, with a link to her wordpress site. What is wrong with that? Nothing. What got him fired was this blog post from November 2014:

      If you read the letter from the Dean (, the problem was that professor McAdams posted to his blog a criticism without first contacting the instructor and appropriate university authorities to try to resolve the problem without having to publicly criticize them.

      In other words, professor McAdams was fired for publicly criticizing the university’s official position on gay marriage. Apparently, according to the university, a responsible professional would only resort to free speech as an absolute last resort. McAdams blog post concluded with these words: “Like the rest of academia, Marquette is less and less a real university. And when gay marriage cannot be discussed, certainly not a Catholic university.” I can imagine how this last paragraph pierced the heart of those in charge of the university. They had to make an example of this Harvard graduate.

    2. CaptRoss wrote: “After promising he would not publish students information, he did so – three times.”

      I think you are misrepresenting facts here as well. Apparently professor McAdams was criticized previously for mentioning the names of students. He removed a student’s name after complaints, and he later acknowledged that naming students was a matter of concern. In this case, however, he did NOT name the student. He named the instructor (who also was a graduate student). Calling attention to her graduate student status is disingenuous when the criticism concerned her role as an instructor at the university.

      Following is how the Dean described these prior occurrences. Notice no mention of an agreement not to ever name students:

      Your Prior Similar Reckless and Irresponsible Acts, Together With Your Taking Pride from the Impacts of Your Current Conduct, Preclude the Lesser Sanctions of Reprimand or Suspension

      You have been asked, advised, and warned on multiple prior occasions not to publicize students’ names in connection with your blog posts. In March 2008, you published the name of a student who worked in advertising for the Marquette Tribune after she had declined to run an advertisement highlighting alleged risks from the “morning after” pill. Only after that student contacted you to advise of the impacts upon her and to request you to cease and desist did you delete her name. In March 2011, you published blog posts regarding a student who was helping to organize a campus performance of The Vagina Monologues. Again, the harmful consequences of your unilateral naming of students were pointed out. You acknowledged at that time that publishing student names on the Internet was a matter of concern, but given your naming of Ms. Abbate that acknowledgment from 2011 appears to be without meaning or effect.

      What the Dean ignores here is Ms. Abbate’s role as an instructor. The Dean, therefore, has no basis for claiming that his acknowledgment from 2011 appears to be without meaning or effect.

      Notably, Ms. Abbate blames all this on her gender. She claims she is a victim of online misogynist abuse and misogynist violence. She actually articulated that “men in western society, as a social group, are responsible for rape culture.” She wrote, “All men … contribute to the prevalence of rape.”

      Following are some more thoughts from Cheryl Abbate:

      Gender based violence is violence that is directed at a person on the basis of gender. It is normally the case that gender based violence is directed at women but it is important to note that men can also be the target. I will refer to gender based violence that is directed at women as “misogynist abuse” or “misogynist violence.” While misogynist abuse can take many forms (rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse, stalking, and so forth), one form of misogynist abuse that is becoming increasingly prevalent, and that I have recently been subjected to, is cyber-misogyny or online misogynist abuse (see Amanda Hess’s article “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” for an excellent overview of the online misogynist abuse that many women face).

      It seems odd to me that she can perceive herself free to espouse such esoteric viewpoints on her blog, yet deny the same freedom to Professor McAdams by calling for his termination because he questions the legitimacy of silencing those opposed to gay marriage.

  4. Indeed I was in error to to frame my position “by church definition,” and therefore arrogant, even if I (like others) disagree with the 1983 interpretation of canon law (but not the canon law per se).

    I simply do not care if the statement “most US Catholics aren’t Catholics” is highly offensive to many, because they are in fact no longer among ‘the faithful.’
    Their anti-Catholic stance offends me, but they are not concerned about that.
    Fiver has no problem offending me, for example.
    ‘Giving offense’ is a meaningless jibe meant to silence opposition.
    Being ‘offended’ is a continuous state of affairs for the PC crowd.

    I no longer care.

    More to the issue at hand, you cannot be for gay marriage and/or abortion and remain Catholic.
    The Church says in one area “you will always be Catholic” but in others it says they are “rejecting the faith” or even “excommunicated” from Catholicism if they support/perform/attend gay marriage or abortion.
    That is, the canon is self-contradictory.
    I suppose it always
    But it is written by people, so there you go.

    Remember, we were discussing a “Catholic” university aiming to fire a professor for supporting Catholic doctrine.
    That is much like most American Catholics, who do not attend church (as I’d shown) and reject the Church’s canon law, and supoort direct violations of its beleifs.

    Are they Catholics?
    I say they very clearly reject the Church.

    But only God makes the final call.

  5. stevegroen – “I certainly can see how the statement “most US Catholics aren’t Catholics” is highly offensive to many of the faithful.”

    Why would this be? I am Catholic and if someone shows me that yes most people going to the church are not practicing what the religion stands for and I am comfortable with my own faith, it wouldn’t bother me at all. In fact the faithful probably would acknowledge it.

  6. Correction: “I am in error about the interpretation of Canon law, however.

    The Church has been in turmoil about the definition of ‘the faithful’ since Jesus was killed, so I stand in good stead.
    Especially given the travesty of Vatican II and the changes in canon law which are rightly criticized for the expansion of papal power and which is seen as a break with catholic tradition.

    Did you know that if a Catholic liberal has an abortion, she is “automatically excommunicated” (Can 1398)?
    I myself did not.
    So Catholics who support abortion are supporting a sin and getting Catholics excommunicated.

  7. In contrast, my thanks to Steve for using evidence rather than snide comments to advance the discussion.
    (Although he could not resist the snide comment at the end, but I forgive him for being unable to resist temptation).

    1. KCFleming: After a noble admission of error, you have diverted from the original issue, namely, your statement that “most US Catholics aren’t Catholics,” Your admission appears temporal, as a matter of current interpretation, which you reject although you were previously willing to frame your position “by church definition.”

      I have no religious convictions, but as Fiver’s retort indicates, absent any faith I certainly can see how the statement “most US Catholics aren’t Catholics” is highly offensive to many of the faithful. I hope that single ray of sunlight through gray which permitted you your admission gives you some pause for the next.

  8. fiver, you have to be the least interesting commenter on the blog.
    Do you ever offer anything other than vitriol or ad hominems?
    So boring.
    Like a junior high Twitter feed.

  9. Steve. thanks for using evidence instead of ad hominem.
    A nice albeit rare effort.

    1. You are correct about the current interpretation of regulations of Canon law. This has changed over time.

    The actual canon law states only this:

    “Can. 11 Merely ecclesiastical laws bind those who have been baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it, possess the efficient use of reason, and, unless the law expressly provides otherwise, have completed seven years of age.”

    It mentions nothing about who is or is not Catholic.

    What it says is “once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” even if you leave the Church, formally reject Catholicism, become an atheist, or join Islam.
    However, it states you do have to become reconciled with the Church. They are sinning if they take communion, for example, without taking penance.
    For example, a lapsed Catholic who rejects the faith (becomes an atheist) cannot be married in the Church.
    Rejecting the faith includes believing something contrary to the Catholic faith, such as supporting abortion or gay marriage.
    So our argument centers on the use of what it means to be “Catholic”.
    I reject the idea that atheists or Muslims are still Catholic, as it violates a later canon law on rejection of the faith.
    I understand the idea behind it, but it makes no sense except as an open invitation to salvation.

    I am in error about Canon law, however.

  10. fiver – “Just how much class time must the professor (and the rest of the class) devote to the disproved rants of fundamentalists? Should the geology professor (and class) be forced to devote their class time counting the “begats” in the Bible to see whether the earth is only six thousand years old?”

    This made me laugh because wow how times have changed for the worse. While attending college getting my Geology degree, I had an instructor in an early class poss that exact question. I can still remember him standing there in the lecture hall, stating that the earth was 4 billion years old and not 6000. He paused for some time, restated it, and paused again. Then he said, “Really? no one here has a problem with that? No one wants to challenge the Earth being that old?” He was genuinely disappointed that no one wanted to debate it. He eventually became my adviser and I asked him about it and what I leaned from him and most of my Geology teachers was that they never felt that science was “settled” and questioning was a good thing. His disappointment was based on the fact that no one was willing to challenge or think past what they were told.

    I’m so happy I do not attend school these days.

  11. The last time I read our constitution on the issue of free speech I seem to have noticed that “we the people” are protected against governments preventing us to speak in numerous ways. I could understand that a state university is therefore prevented from regulating “speech” on its campus but a private university? I doubt that.

  12. I agree with KCFleming that many Catholic colleges have strayed so far from C teaching that it would be a stretch to consider them C at this point. I assume that they are responding to market forces – perhaps there are just not that many students or parents interested in a C education anymore, so the schools have adopted the standard leftist ideology. When I applied to the “Jesuit” Univ of San Fransisco Law School in the early 80s, the application asked if I was a Roman Catholic. That question has since been dropped, and the school offers a course in “Queer Law,” whatever that is. (And they wonder why their post-gradation employment stats are so low…) When I attended Georgetown Law, our ethics instructor was not a priest, and not Catholic. Just some lay person whose day job was an attorney for the IRS.

    But these institutions are businesses, and to stay in business they have to compete with other colleges. The immigration demographics have shifted since the days when large numbers of Catholics from Italy, Ireland, Germany and Poland were seeking a Catholic education for their kids. Virtually all immigrants now are from the Third World and are not Catholic. Plus many Catholic top students, such as Antonin Scalia and John Roberts, choose Harvard or Yale over a C law school because H & Y are the prerequisites to judicial clerkship, white shoe law firm, and the Supreme Court. So the former C colleges have shifted to meet demand, which is fine, but I think the Vatican should cut them loose and they should rebrand themselves as secular colleges. Some of the activities engaged in at C colleges are an embarrassment and a direct affront to Catholic teaching.

  13. Just a personal FU to those who think they get to decide who the “real” Catholics are.

    You don’t get to do that unless you’re Pope. So sorry, but your statements will have to stand on their own.

    And you really haven’t done very well with that now… have you?

  14. This case reminds me of the Galileo inquisition. The TA clearly was in the wrong, and the professor has every right to discuss such matters openly and publicly with names. The university is clearly in the wrong to fire the professor over this matter and enforce their orthodox dogma regarding support for gay marriage. The ironic thing is that the university’s orthodoxy that is not allowed to be questioned differs from the Church’s orthodoxy.

  15. McAdams has more of an history than this post suggests. It is worth considering before judging the university.

    “On December 12, 2014, McAdams was placed on indefinite academic leave from Marquette University and was suspended from all teaching and faculty duties, banned from campus but retaining pay and benefits. This indefinite suspension came about after McAdams publicly named a graduate instructor in a post on his private blog.[10] A letter from Marquette University indicated that the firing was the result of his thrice violating student privacy and deliberately publishing students’ names and information to target them for harassment, and because he had done so in the third instance despite making written agreements with the University that he would not do so after the 2nd instance.”

    Perhaps there could be some discussion regarding the violation of student privacy.

  16. I’ll post it again in hopes you read it:
    “Today, Catholics who attend weekly make up just one-third of those who identify as Catholic (and one-fifth of those who were raised Catholic).

    1/3rd is less than 1/2.
    This means the majority of US Catholics are not Catholics.
    So it appears I have to type it, read it for you, and interpret it for you.

    Unlike the fad of transgenderism, being Catholic is more than just identifying as Catholic, by church definition.
    And no, it’s not up to Steve’s opinion.

    1. KCFleming writes, ” And no, [lapsed Catholic is]” not my personal definition. That’s what the RCC says.
      For example, you can’t be married as a Catholic unless you promise to become a practicing Catholic.”[B]eing Catholic is more than just identifying as Catholic, by church definition.”

      Good try. Unfortunately. you’re wrong.

      Once becoming Catholic by baptism or reception, one remains a Catholic One can be a lapsed Catholic, i.e., non-practicing, and even ex-communicated, and still be Catholic, according to the Code of Canon Law, Canon 11. (New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, ed. by John P. Beal, James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green, Paulist Press, 2000, p. 63 (commentary on canon 11).)

      According to the Sacrament of Baptism: “Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation.83 Given once for all, Baptism cannot be repeated.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church – Section Two: The Seven Sacraments of the Church, THE SACRAMENT OF BAPTISM, Section 1272.)

      Practicing and lapsed Catholics are still Catholics “by church definition,” unless of course you doubt the Code of Canon Law pertains to Roman Catholicism or you believe the spiritual mark of baptism can be erased.

      In short, your statement “They’re called ‘lapsed’ Catholics and no, they’re not Catholics, they used to be Catholics,” is inaccurate and, as I stated earlier, arrogant. Say hello to Pleasantville.

  17. And no, that’s not my personal definition.
    That’s what the RCC says.
    For example, you can’t be married as a Catholic unless you promise to become a practicing Catholic.

    1. So, back to your graph: Where does it indicate that “most US Catholics are not Catholics”? For that matter, don’t limit yourself to the graph. Please, bring whatever authority you have for the quoted proposition.

  18. They’re called ‘lapsed’ Catholics and no, they’re not Catholics, they used to be Catholics.

    Lapsed doctors aren’t doctors.
    If you haven’t flown a plane in 30 years, you’re no longer a pilot, though you used to be one.

    It’s okay, Steve.
    You’ll be right someday.

  19. KCF, The core of the jealousy is about how doctors are held in much higher esteem than attorneys. Doctors are in an upper stanine, barristers in the lowest.

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