McAdams Decision Is a Travesty
Cyber-bullying was championed by state Supreme Court, while trashing faculty governance.
John McAdams has been a professor of political science at Marquette University since 1977; he received tenure in 1989. In 2002, McAdams started his Marquette Warrior Blog and became a very active poster in 2005. A repeated theme of this blog is that Marquette is infested with left-wing political correctness.
McAdams’ blog is fairly typical of a common type found on the right: the chief goal is grievance collection of attempts by the left to shut down discussion of certain issues. A good day is when someone on the left—or even the mainstream–says something stupid.
At the top of his blog is a paragraph that includes these sentences. “This site has no official connection with Marquette University. Indeed, when University officials find out about it, they will doubtless want it shut down.” To McAdams’ evident disappointment, for the next ten years, it appears that Marquette ignored the Marquette Warrior Blog.
On November 9, 2015, this changed. Under the headline “Marquette Philosophy Instructor: ‘Gay Rights’ Can’t Be Discussed in Class Since Any Disagreement Would Offend Gay Students,” a post started off:
A student we know was in a philosophy class (“Theory of Ethics”), and the instructor (one Cheryl Abbate) was attempting to apply a philosophical text to modern political controversies. So far so good.
It went on for over 1000 words to describe an incident that, briefly, went as follows: Abbate, a graduate student who taught two philosophy courses, was introducing a unit on the philosopher John Rawls’ equal liberty principle. She listed several current controversies to which this principle might be applied. One student argued that the issue of gay marriage should be added to the list, which Abbate rejected.
At the end of class, as Abbate cleared the classroom for the next class, the student (identified only as “JD”) approached her to continue his argument. Unknown to Abbate, he had set his cell phone to record the conversation. In this conversation, she made a number of comments that lent themselves to McAdams’ charge of political correctness (for instance, that the discussion could be upsetting to gay students).
In my judgment, Abbate was wise to reject JD’s suggestion but did a poor job of explaining why. Using gay marriage would have turned the unit—ostensibly about John Rawls—into an argument about gay marriage. According to the faculty report, three weeks later, JD could not remember which philosopher’s theories were under discussion, guessing that it was perhaps Kant or Nietzsche.
In both the first post and subsequent ones, McAdams linked to Abbate’s email, making it easy for people to harass her. This post resulted in a number of messages threatening the graduate student, resulting in her leaving Marquette for another university. McAdams then published the name of the university to which Abbate had transferred, enabling the harassment to continue.
The Marquette administration informed McAdams that the university intended to revoke his tenure and terminate his employment. This decision then went to a Faculty Review Committee (FRC), which produced a 164-page report. The FRC’s report was critical of the administration:
… the suspension of Dr. McAdams pending the outcome of this proceeding, imposed by the University with no faculty review and in the absence of any viable threat posed by the continuation of his job duties, was an abuse of the University’s discretion granted under the Faculty Statutes. … The Committee therefore recommends that Dr. McAdams be suspended, without pay but with benefits, for a period of no less than one but no more than two semesters.
However, it was far more critical of McAdams:
… Dr. McAdams’s conduct with respect to his November 9, 2014 blog post violated his obligation to fellow members of the Marquette community by recklessly causing harm to Ms. Abbate, even though that harm was caused indirectly. The Committee concludes that the harm to Ms. Abbate was substantial, foreseeable, easily avoidable, and not justifiable. …
Second, the Committee concludes that the University has demonstrated that Dr. Mc-Adams’s conduct was seriously irresponsible, and that his demonstrated failure to recognize his essential obligations to fellow members of the Marquette community, and to conform his behavior accordingly, will substantially impair his fitness to fulfill his responsibilities as a professor.
The suspension recommendation was accepted by Marquette president Michael Lovell. However, he added a requirement that McAdams apologize to Abbate before the suspension would be lifted.
Judge Hansher’s decision was appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which ruled 4-2 for McAdams. Justice Daniel Kelly wrote the majority decision. Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote a concurring opinion, as did Justice Kelly himself, joined by Rebecca Bradley. Justices Michael Gableman and Patience Roggensack were the other two votes in the majority. (Justice Annette Ziegler did not participate on the case.)
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, joined by Shirley Abrahamson, dissented. A reader familiar with the justices will note that the personalities seem skewed—with conservatives seeming to uphold academic freedom and the two liberals voting against it.
This irony is more apparent than real. That is because this is not an academic freedom case. No one is challenging McAdams’ right to post whatever thoughts he has on issues of public concern. Instead his willingness to publicly attack a student, while supplying contact and other information that allows his readers to harass and threaten Abbate was the basis of the sanctions imposed by Marquette.
This decision raises a number of disturbing issues:
- The court majority endorses cyber bullying. McAdams argues that he has no control over what people do with the information he provides. That is a theme that Kelly takes up in his decision. But it is very clear that McAdams is fully aware that cyber bullying is one likely result and facilitates it by, for instance, linking to Abbate’s accounts, listing her new university, and threatening other Marquette officials with a negative review in his blog.
- While cyber bullying is a growing threat to reasoned discourse, in my experience, it is particularly reprehensible when practiced by college faculty against students. It violates one of the fundamental, if unspoken, contracts between college faculty and students.
- The majority’s decision is a masterpiece of intellectual dishonesty. Its very first sentence attempts to reposition the case as an attempt to censor a faculty member, “Marquette University suspended a tenured faculty member because of a blog post criticizing an encounter between an instructor and a student.” This theme, which Kelly repeats again and again, is aimed at disguising the true reason that McAdams’ got in trouble: his deliberate plot to generate attacks on Abbate.
- Surprisingly for justices who present themselves as conservative, the court is no respecter of existing institutions. In its amici brief to the court, the Marquette Faculty Senate asked the court to preserve its appeal process:
Prior review by a committee of the faculty is a critical procedural protection for academic freedom at Marquette and elsewhere, and is an important component of the shared governance structure that faculty members and the university have contractually arranged. Whatever opinion this Court reaches on the issue of whether summary judgment was properly granted in this case, it should preserve the contractually bargained-for role of the faculty in reviewing dismissals for cause.
The faculty’s argument was unsuccessful. Combining ignorance with arrogance, the court rejected Marquette’s existing system for resolving disputes between faculty and the institution, on the excuse that it left ambiguities concerning the relationship between the faculty and the president. While disparaging the existing system, the court substituted its own far more legalistic process.
- The result is that the models for shared governance at all Wisconsin colleges and universities are likely in a state of limbo. As Justice Ann Walsh Bradley points out, the court has diminished the ability of these private educational institutions to make their own academic decisions in fulfillment of its unique mission. In the future, not only will Marquette become less autonomous but so will other Wisconsin private colleges and universities.
- Finally, the decision confirms a disturbing trend apparent in earlier cases, such as that shutting down the John Doe investigation of coordination between Walker’s campaign and various ostensibly independent organizations. Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has become an instrument of a clique of right-wing ideologues. If a liberal Marquette professor had set up a conservative student for public abuse it is hard to imagine these justices would have been as outraged or ruled in the same way.