Is John McAdams a Bully?
MU professor calls it free speech. But faculty seeks new policy against cyberbullying.
Longtime Marquette University political science professor John McAdams is in many ways the kind of character you want in the halls of academia. He’s quirky, rumpled, articulate and has a national reputation for his knowledge of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination; he was interviewed on the PBS show “Nova” on this topic.
He gets a 4.3 rating on a five-point scale and generally positive comments from students on Rate My Professor though they note his old-fashioned style: just standing and lecturing with no visuals of any kind.
McAdams also writes a blog called Marquette Warrior and since 1994 has published more than 3,000 posts, at times criticizing the university administration or other faculty. He’s a bit of a bully: “Dr. McAdams has on at least three occasions used the prospect of a mention on his blog as a threat,” a faculty senate report concluded.
The result was not pretty: A torrent of nasty emails and threats of physical violence. “The volume of hostile and threatening communications made Ms. Abbate fear for her physical safety,” the faculty report notes. “Based on concerns for Ms. Abbate’s physical safety and that of her students, a Public Safety officer was posted outside of Ms. Abbate’s classes… Abbate suffered negative effects on her mental and physical health… by all indications a star graduate student, (she) was unable to focus on preparing her dissertation topic defense… Due to the effects of the controversy and the hostile communications, Ms. Abbate withdrew from her dissertation proposal defense.”
Abbate eventually left Marquette and transferred to another university and McAdams made sure to publish the name of the university, enabling the harassment to continue.
Abbate was both a student and a teacher in the philosophy department, just 24 at the time and faced with an aggressive student challenging her style of teaching after class and then secretly taping her replies. “I think she could have used some guidance, some mentoring” in how she handled such situations, says Prof. Michelle Mynlieff of Biological Sciences, the current chair of the University Academic Senate.
But McAdams did not go to her supervisor in the department or to any officials at Marquette. He did not see this as a learning opportunity for the young grad student, but as a chance to attack her views.
Bruce Thompson, a longtime faculty member at Milwaukee School of Engineering, who writes the Data Wonk column for Urban Milwaukee found this conduct disturbing: “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…McAdams argues that he has no control over what people do with the information he provides…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.”
As a Summary of Facts on the McAdams case by the university noted: “If John McAdams had written this exact blog post and omitted the student teacher’s name and contact information, no disciplinary action would have been taken.”
Marquette suspended McAdams for two semesters and then offered to reinstate him only if he privately apologized to the administration and took responsibility for his actions. McAdams refused and his suspension lasted seven semesters. But he had meanwhile become the darling of conservative activists, including the Bradley Foundation-funded Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, whose director, attorney Rick Esenberg, went to court to sue Marquette University, a case that eventually went to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
As blogger RT Both has written, the case was in many ways a stand-off between two conservative forces: Marquette University’s right to fire McAdams was supported by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, while McAdams was supported by the more upstart far-right elements.
As Thompson’s incisive column noted, the court’s conservative majority wrote a dreadful decision that decided the case was about free speech and simply ignored the issue of cyber bullying. In truth, there is no professor at Marquette who has had more freedom of speech than McAdams. The faculty senate report noted that the MU administration had erred in never creating any written record of verbal warnings to McAdams to not criticize students by name in his blog, and so McAdams continued to do this on occasion.
And now that McAdams is back at Marquette, the faculty senate hopes to create a new policy regarding cyber bullying at the university. Mynlieff notes the McAdams case made clear the need for such a policy but that the issue is far broader than that. Most universities, she notes, don’t even have a policy for student-on-student cyber bullying, and almost none have addressed cyber bullying by faculty.
“This will not be easy,” she says. For the reality is the faculty wants spirited discussions about the most contentious issues. “The university is where you should have these tough discussions,” she emphasizes.
But cyber-bullying isn’t about spirited but weaponized discourse.
Predictably, McAdams, now 72, has written a blog post condemning any policy on cyber-bullying before it has even been written. And Esenberg, too, has warned the faculty senate to back off, noting that the state Supreme Court “made clear that academic freedom is not just allowing popular notions a voice, but all ideas, even those that to some may seem controversial.”
But no one in the university administration or faculty senate has ever asked McAdams to stifle any of his ideas. In the long run, should the faculty be able to craft a useful policy on cyber-bullying, it will prevent all faculty — liberal, moderate or conservative — from such behavior.
Ultimately, universities across the country will have to address the rise in cyber bullying, and the negative impact it can have on academic discourse. And as they do, this case may become a key precedent. Some day John McAdams may become the poster boy not for freedom of expression, but for a nasty professor making life hell for students whose views he can’t countenance.
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