Marquette vs. John McAdams

Fired conservative professor only had to apologize. Instead he’s going to court.

By - Mar 22nd, 2018 02:59 pm
John McAdams

John McAdams

Professor John McAdams may be suspended from Marquette University without pay, his tenure revoked, but he’s still writing his “Marquette Warrior” blog, vigorously defending himself and grabbing headlines. With the deep-pocketed conservative legal organization WILL fighting his battles to the end, McAdams will keep the university’s alleged infringement of his first amendment rights in court for as long as it takes.

McAdams is back because he lost in court last May. Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge David Hansher ruled in favor of Marquette University, dismissing McAdams’s case. However, McAdams could still have gone home and polished up his syallabi for next semester. All he had to do was apologize for getting a graduate student viciously harassed and demonstrate good behavior in the future, and Marquette would have allowed him back as a full-time faculty member, despite being past what might be considered retirement age.

But McAdams is not about to apologize when he thinks he did nothing wrong. Rick Esenberg, the professor’s long-time lawyer and WILL’s director, filed a petition to bypass the court of appeals process and take the case directly to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which agreed to hear it.

The hearing date is set for April 19th. Though the outcome of any Supreme Court hearing is uncertain, Wisconsin’s high court tilts notably to the right. A flurry of amicus briefs have been filed on behalf of both sides, in addition to the mountains of testimony dating back to the incident in November 2014 that kicked off these proceedings. As the result of a McAdams blogpost based on a clandestinely recorded conversation between a young teacher and her student, the instructor began to receive vicious emails from right-wing trolls, including death threats, and made the decision to leave Marquette.

McAdams was no novice teacher when he wrote a blogost accusing Cheryl Abbate of liberal tyrany. He is a Harvard Ph.D. with tenure who had been teaching at MU since 1980. Writing in support of McAdams, who says that whatever happened to Abbate was not his fault and who wants his tenure reinstated along with back pay – were legal community notables like Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel; FIRE, a group that monitors first amendment rights on campuses nationwide; The American Association of University Professors (AAUP); and the Thomas More Society, a “non-profit, national public interest law firm whose mission is the defense of First Amendment rights.”

As Andrew Bath, writing for the Thomas More Society, put it in their amicus brief:

“Marquette stripped McAdams of tenure for his blog post [italics mine], and in doing so it violated its contract with McAdams. . . . McAdams’ comments protested the browbeating of an undergraduate student by his teacher after the teacher stifled classroom discussion about the definition of marriage [italics mine]. Posting his comments on his personal blog, an online soapbox he erected to reach the browsing public, McAdams argued that the incident illustrated the disturbing ‘pall of orthodoxy’ that oppresses higher education today. For those comments, Marquette stripped McAdams of tenure, the only professor it has so treated in its 135-year history.”

In McAdams’s own words, he merely “blogged about a graduate instructor (Cheryl Abbate) who told a student who wanted to argue against gay marriage (which had come up in class) that he could not do so, since he was not allowed to say ‘homophobic’ things, and any such argument would ‘offend’ any gay students in class.”

But this, says attorney Ralph Weber, who will argue Marquette University’s case on April 19, is the “McAdams narrative.”

McAdams posted this highly dressed-down version of events on his blog as recently as February 19, 2018, once again mentioning by name the graduate student/young professor who was harassed as a result of his earlier posts, in which he characterized her as a totalitarian liberal who refused to allow an appropriate discussion of conservative ideas – on an equal time basis – in her class.

McAdams’s November 2014 blogs about Abbate caused immediate blowback. Far-right trolls already hyped-up by talk radio, Fox News, and the conservative Interweb, targeted Abbate. Charlie Sykes was still on the radio at the time, and always glad to provide a megaphone to McAdams’s gripes about Marquette and its totalitarian-liberal faculty, also publicized the issue. McAdams has also focused his ire on the fact that LBGTQ issues and women‘s sexuality are openly addressed by extra-curricular and curricular campus programs.

And then Cheryl Abbate, the young Ph.D. student whose own student taped her without her knowledge, left MU and went back to her former graduate school, reportedly because of the harassment. McAdams was was barred from MU’s campus after Abbate left, and he became the cause celebre, portrayed as a victim of the university’s careless disregard for first amendment rights, which are supposed to be enshrined by faculty statute.

Fox News covered it. So did and a lot of other online versions of respectable magazines.

But how much resemblance does the McAdams Über-narrative have to what really happened?  Certainly, it’s not the Marquette university administration’s version of the facts.

Nor is it the Marquette faculty view. As an eight-year adjunct professor at Marquette whose program is about to be eliminated, I know some things about the internal points of view within the university on the McAdams matter. But I also have my own insights as a Marquette freshman-wrangler who has locked horns with many a conservative MU first-year student. There is another angle here that both parties are too delicate to explore because it suits neither of their cases. Right-wing students sometimes think the freshman English curriculum itself is synonymous with liberalism, even if all they’re being encouraged to do is gather evidence and think critically. And they fight back against it. The culture wars are duked out on the floor of the classroom.

The View from the Trenches

In November 2014, Cheryl Abbate was a young scholar in her twenties who’d gotten her MA in philosophy from UC-Boulder and who pursues a specialty in the cutting-edge area of animal rights. Her presence at Marquette coincided with Nancy Snow’s serving as philosophy department chair.  Snow, who was called out by name in McAdams’s blog several times, has since left Marquette for the University of Oklahoma. Snow took with her to Oklahoma a $2.6 million grant she received from the Templeton Religious Trusts for her work on “The Self, Motivation, and Virtue.”

The controversy surrounding Abbate is a classic tempest in the academic teapot. It occurred because Abbate had a student who did not see eye-to-eye with her and was repulsed by her teaching of “liberal ideas” in a 200-level class survey class which included a unit on the political philosopher John Rawls.

Student Zero (what I called him in an earlier article for which I interviewed him), AKA “J.D.” in the current WI supreme court filings, was also known at Marquette as John Rourke, the only registered member of the campus chapter of Young American for Freedom, one of a broad network of Koch Brothers-funded or influenced organizations.

Unfortunately, in Fall 2014, Student Zero found himself enrolled in a class that blatantly taught “liberalism.” Abbate was conducting a class discussion on John Rawls, who first gained prominence in the 1960s, and his notion of an “equal liberty principle” by which rights within a society are extended to groups who were not previously able to exercise them – like voting rights for blacks in the South. The students had been told to read and think on this and bring their examples to class. One of the examples Abbate put on the board was “seatbelt laws.” Gay marriage was mentioned by a student and duly put on the board. Abbate had other things to discuss that day, and since “gay marriage” is clearly covered by the principle, she moved on.

She may have said something like, “since we’re all agreed on this.” The recording didn’t start until later, so it’s impossible to be sure. But it’s a good bet she was only thinking at that moment of moving the class along, not consciously suppressing anybody’s right to speak.

One thing that seems a cloudy issue to the defenders of the first amendment in their amicuis briefs is that Student Zero had in fact no “right” to express his point of view on gay marriage at this point. That was not a requirement of the curriculum. Abbate may not even have known that Student Zero objected. She simply moved on with the class.

After class, perhaps needing a break after doing all that high-level philosophical teaching, Abbate was approached by her Student Zero, who had a shy, nervous smile plastered across his face and one hand stuck in his pocket.

He said, “During class just now? I didn’t get a chance to give my own views on gay marriage. I’m against it.” Or words to that effect.

So then, maybe thinking it’s already well understood, Abbate jumped right over the curriculum question (hypothetically: “your opinion is no good here until you learn enough about Rawls to make it worthwhile”). Instead, she said, “Well, if you bring that up, some people in class may be offended, if they happen to be gay.” She was thinking in terms of classroom chemistry and logistics. A couple of people in class, she knew, are gay, and she doesn’t want to risk the whole class being sidetracked by useless undergraduate debates when there is material to be covered.

But by saying these words, Abbate gave Student Zero what he needs. This is suppression of speech.  They cannot make him stay in a class that’s this liberal. He’s leaving. He is out of here!

But first, he went to the chair of her department, tp see what she has to say about the fact that his inalienable rights as an American have been compromised.

Philosophy department chair Nancy Snow, with a big grant in the wings, had no interest in fanning these flames. She never heard the recording. She simply encouraged Student Zero to make up with his teacher, stay in class, and write a nice paper. What any department chair would do. There were no disciplinary issues here. Only personal ones.

McAdams, on his blog, has repeatedly said department chair Nancy Snow, of whom he has been critical in the past for her so-called liberal totalitarianism, “blew off” Student Zero, waved aside his concerns as airily as Abbate in her class supposedly said, “Let’s move on. Nothing to discuss here!” After putting gay marriage – the very words – on the board and offending Student Zero’s right-wing sensibilities.

But on paper, all was serene. Student Zero wrote Nancy Snow a nice email thanking her for the meeting and saying he would go back to class and give it his all. He went back to class. The next unit was on animal rights. Take my word for it – right-wing students from prosperous, conservative Northern Illinois and Wisconsin families are offended by the very idea of animal rights. They don’t like the idea of having to consider animals somehow “equal” to themselves.

Student Zero, a junior when I first interviewed him and a political science major, groused to me about how he would have to sit there all semester in Abbate’s class writing liberal papers, and how he just couldn’t take being that oppressed. His grade up to that point was an F, but he fully acknowledged he deserved it, since he hadn’t been able to make himself turn anything in.

Student Zero needed just one more thing before he got the hell out of that class – wasting part of a tuition payment since it was too late to sign up for anything else – and that was the signature of his advisor, John McAdams.

For McAdams, he played the recording of his conversation with Abbate, which is now the only direct evidence of anything she said that day. And it was long after this that all hell broke loose.

Part I of a three-part series. R.T. Both is a free lance writer and Marquette University instructor who writes the Wiscoland blog.   

Categories: Education, Politics

14 thoughts on “Marquette vs. John McAdams”

  1. Troll says:

    It appears that anyone that believes in traditional marriage is a homophobe at a Catholic University.

  2. PMD says:

    A grown man bullied a student. That shouldn’t be tolerated. If a liberal professor bullied a conservative student you’d be outraged Troll. So spare us.

  3. geoffreyskoll says:

    The article by R.T. Both is informative, but I would add a few points. This cannot be a First Amendment matter, because Marquette is not part of government, and The First Amendment restrains only government acts. McAdams claimed Abate had restricted student speech. She hadn’t. According to the present article and many previous reports, she only told the student that should would not allow homophobic speech in class. Disagreeing about gay marriage is not anywhere near homophobic speech, and in any case, Abate didn’t do anything; she merely stated her intention as a hypothetical. Nonetheless, I think the most important point is that Marquette has a duty to protect its students against defamation. They were exercising that duty against McAdams. Abbate was in no position to sue McAdams for libel, because unlike McAdams, she did not have unlimited legal resources.

  4. Berkeleian says:

    The class was on John Rawls’ equal difference principle. The Catholic Church has not taken a position, as far as I know,on Rawls’s equal difference principle. The student’s views on gay marriage were not germane to that issue. No teacher would have allowed class discussion to be hi-jacked.

  5. 2fs says:

    It’s worth noting that far too many students think that if they’re asked to read about “liberal” ideas in a class, that must mean that (a) the teacher endorses those ideas, and (b) any paper they write must agree with their perspective.

    Neither is correct: (a) may or may not be true, but should not be relevant unless the teacher is unethical…which is why (b) is untrue.

    Of course, the problem with rabidly ideological students is that even if a teacher tells them this, they don’t believe it. Some of them will even see it as a trap.

    The student here wanted to turn the classroom into his ideological lectern, while Abbate merely wanted to teach the class and stick to her syllabus and schedule. Given that “gay marriage” was an issue germane to Rawls’ ideas, which were relevant to the class, the student could have written a paper arguing against gay marriage.

    But that would require actual work and thinking, rather than just martyr-playing.

  6. John says:

    Ok this country is getting lost in the “Free Speech” argument. What’s next, a student can disrupt a science class because they want to debate creationism? Students DO NOT dictate what is said in class. They have the right to drop the class, hand in papers arguing their point and if they receive a failing grade appeal their grade based on those papers to a higher authority. You cannot yell, “Fire!”, in a theatre or other assembly of people. You cannot take over a classroom to express your opinions as a student when asked by the person in authority to sit down. You are obligated to follow the rules of the classroom or rightfully be asked to leave. Free Speech is not a license to dictate your views anywhere or anytime in any place just because you want to. The radical right is abusing the First Amendment time and time again. They support our electorally appointed President the right to tell a crowd to beat the hell out of someone who speaks up in an open rally without regard to free speech then turn around and sue for the right to disrupt a classroom where discussion can be legally restrained by the teacher if it is going to be a detriment to the classroom.

  7. Jake currently of the MKE says:

    As far as I am concerned most mainstream conservatives and Republicans are tyrants who practice a thinly veiled authoritarianism.

  8. Eric J. says:

    Student Zero : ” being that oppressed. His grade up to that point was an F, but he fully acknowledged he deserved it, since he hadn’t been able to make himself turn anything in.”

    -All of this unnecessary commotion over the actions of this individual and McAdams going to bat for him.

    -It will be a colossal waste of time when McAdams loses in court again despite the backing of W.I.L.L.

    John : maybe there’s a job for you at Oral Roberts U

  9. Troll says:

    Look at it a different way. Let us suggest the student teacher was a male teaching ethics at Marquette University. The subject is abortion, and the male teacher states the father of the future individual has equal say to the mother as life progresses inside her. A young lady(student) challenges this premise. The female makes the argument because the life is in a women’s body that she bares more risk and skin in the game. The male teacher ends her argument stating that the DNA is shared by both man and women and they have equal say and her argument does not meet societies current norms. Let us than stipulate, the female student contacts a Professor (Abortion McAdams)at the school who runs a left leaning blog. Would the Professor(abortion McAdams) be fired for not retracting the Professor’s blog statement outing the student ethics professor?

  10. Crazy Chester says:

    Congratulations Troll. You’ve created a counter-hypothetical utterly divorced from your target.

  11. PMD says:

    Lol. I love it when someone thinks they are being provocative or raising a compelling hypothetical when in fact they are spouting gibberish in a feeble attempt to avoid admitting they can’t defend something.

  12. geoffreyskoll says:

    There are two things going on here. The first obvious one is the lawsuit. McAdams complains he was wrongfully fired. The trial court dismissed on summary judgment as I recall. McAdams was fired for cause. He violated faculty work rules, and in the past had repeatedly done so, and had been warned and disciplined. So, on the surface, this is a labor relations case, and the question is whether an employer (Marquette) can fire and employee (McAdams) for cause. I can’t see even this current Wisconsin Supreme Court finding against employers. The second issue is coming out of a right-wing agenda wherein the Right uses claims of free speech to call into question whether anyone can say anything without consequences. Of course that position is nonsense. As I wrote previously, this cannot be a First Amendment matter because Marquette is private. It cannot be an academic freedom issue, because McAdam’s complaint is not about academic principles, but about how a department of which he is not a member handles their grad student TAs. It can only e a vague free speech claim, which ignores the fact that free speech is not a judiciable issue outside Constitutional and statutory mandates. There never has been free speech in this country or any other, as speech always has costs.

  13. RT Barnum says:

    Hopefully, Ms Both will never report on any controversial topics, or else she’ll be as liable (based on her own standard) as McAdams.

    As if aspiring journalism students needed any more reason to pick a different profession.

  14. Robert Mallinger says:

    John’s comment is on target. Abbate was covering a particular principle of a specific philosopher. She was not looking for a general discussion on each student’s stand on political issues which gets to why McAdam’s was intruding on that faculty member’s content area. More specifically, IT IS NONE OF MCADAMS’ BUSINESS WHAT ANOTHER FACULTY MEMBER IS PRESENTING IN HIS/HER CLASSROOM, PROVIDED THAT THE COURSE CONTENT IS MEETING THE DEPARTMENT’S CURRICULUM; DIVISION GUIDELINES; COLLEGE STANDARDS; AND THE UNIVERSITY’S MISSION.

    From what I have read about this incident, Abbate was doing her job. Then along came budinsky McAdams. I blame the Philosophy and Political Science department chairs and the appropriate division Dean for not telling McAdams to back off, apologize, and mind his own course content. So far, I side with the Court decisions to date.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us