Marquette University has been trying to get rid of John McAdams, a conservative gadfly, for nearly four years. In October 2014, they came close to making that happen.
When Cheryl Abbate, a grad student in philosophy, was teaching a course about John Rawls and asked students for examples of current events to which Rawlsian philosophy could be applied, “one student rightly suggested that the ban on gay marriage would violate Rawls’s Equal Liberty Principle” Abbate wrote on her blog (Thoughts from a Vegan Feminist Philosopher). “I wrote it on the board and noted that this was the correct way to apply Rawls’s principle to a ban on gay marriage and then moved on to more nuanced examples.”
Well, maybe not. According to The Atlantic, Abbate did not move on. Rather, she added that “if anyone did not agree that gay marriage was an example of something that fits the Rawls’ Equal Liberty Principle, they should see her after class.” Such conversations had to be held in secret so as not to offend others. Abbate made it clear that the classroom was not a “safe space” for dissent on the value of same-sex marriage—even though Marquette is a Catholic university that is supposed to support Catholic teachings on the sanctity of marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
One Catholic student in the class decided to pursue this further with Abbate after class—secretly audio recording the exchange. According to the transcript of the conversation, the student told Abbate that he did not agree with same-sex marriage: “So, when you completely dismiss an entire argument based off of your personal views, it sets a precedent for the classroom that ‘oh my God, this is so wrong; you can’t agree with this, you’re a horrible person if you agree with this.’” Abbate responded: “Ok, 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? And don’t you think it would be offensive to them if you were to raise your hand and challenge this?”
When the student replied that “If I choose to challenge this, it’s my right as an American citizen,” Abbate responded: “Well actually you don’t have a right in this class…to make homophobic comments, racist comments, sexist comments…This is about restricting rights and liberties of individuals…If you don’t like that you are more than free to drop this class.”
The perplexed student attempted to find support for his views from the Chair of the Philosophy Department, Nancy Snow. He then went to his advisor, Professor McAdams who attempted to contact Abbate. She did not respond, and so McAdams chose to blog about the incident after listening to the student’s audiotape of his encounter with Abbate. After publishing his blog, McAdams claims to have been “accosted by Nancy Snow” who accused him of “picking on graduate students (Abbate).” McAdams claims that Snow told him that “your student is lying,” to which McAdams responded: “We have the audio, Nancy.”
Reversing a lower-court decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in the case of McAdams vs. Marquette that the Jesuit University violated professor John McAdams’s free-speech rights and its own contractual obligations when it suspended him for writing a blog post in 2014.
Because of his blog post, McAdams was relieved of his teaching and other faculty duties. He was later stripped of his tenure. In a December 6, 2014 letter to McAdams, Dean Richard C. Holz of Marquette’s Klinger College of Arts and Sciences wrote: “The University is continuing to review your conduct and during this period—and until further notice—you are relieved of all teaching duties and other faculty activities, including but not limited to advising, committee work, faculty meetings and any activity that would involve your interaction with Marquette students, faculty, and staff.” Holz was critical that although McAdams did not reveal the name of the student, he did reveal the name of the Professor in the class and this was a violation of the graduate student’s rights.
McAdams has protested that the graduate student had full-authority in charge of her ethics class. She was not a teaching assistant – she had full authority to award grades to students—putting her in the role of a faculty member. She was not functioning as a graduate student in her capacity as the identified faculty member for that ethics course. On December 17, 2014, Marquette released a statement on its suspension of McAdams publicly insinuating that the professor had violated Marquette’s harassment policy through his blog.
The American Association of University Professors sent a letter to Marquette objecting to the treatment of McAdams, but although McAdams received support from students on campus, there was little faculty support. It is likely that McAdams had made himself unpopular among the progressive faculty members on campus because of his willingness to expose what he sees as campus corruption. In 2011, he blogged about the search for a new Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette that resulted in the hiring, and then not hiring, of Jodi O’Brien, a self-described “sexuality scholar” who openly denigrated Catholic teachings on marriage in her publications.
O’Brien said she had been recruited by several senior leaders (including Philosophy Professor Nancy Snow) to lead the College of Arts and Sciences. Professor McAdams blogged that Marquette had sent a representative to Seattle to encourage O’Brien to apply for the dean’s position—confirming his belief that she was “pushed by some faculty and administrators adding the right kind of diversity to the school.”
Marquette has been ordered to restore Professor McAdams immediately with his full rank, tenure, compensation, and benefits. Marquette is also required to provide back pay from December 2014 when he was first suspended.
In a misguided attempt to protect students from any comments or opinions that may hurt their feelings, many professors have created “safe spaces” in their classrooms—controlling all conversations to ensure that no one is ever offended. Marquette University attempted to provide a “safe space” that is free from Catholic teaching on marriage. But where does that leave faithful Catholic students at Marquette? Is there a safe space for them? This student was invited to drop the class and was called a “liar” by the Chair of the Philosophy Department.
It is likely that he was not the only student who was offended by Abbate’s dismissal of counter-arguments to Rawlsian support for same-sex marriage. It is likely that other faithful Catholic students were offended in that 2014 class. But, at Marquette, it seems clear that the rights of Catholic students who are faithful to Catholic teachings on marriage are secondary to the rights of progressive professors who feel validated in their support for same-sex marriage.