Postscript to My Post on the McAdams Case

John Wilson’s post containing the letter from the national AAUP to the Marquette administration somewhat clarifies several of the issues with McAdams—that is, clarifies the issues without presuming to resolve them. The university’s position has become that McAdams has repeatedly referred to students by name in his personal blog or other public communications–not simply that he has engaged in various types of unprofessional behavior. That specific behavior is, indeed, a serious breach of professional standards, especially if it has been repetitive.

But, and this is a big “but,” that behavior would warrant discipline as serious as a suspension only if the student were actually harmed and only if the university had formally documented and disciplined him in some way for the previous instances in which he did this.

I’ll address the second “if” first. The basis for the suspension cannot simply be, as the one newspaper headline cited in my previous post on this topic has suggested, that the university administration finally just became completely exasperated with a pattern of behavior–if the administration has not previously bothered to discipline him for much of that behavior. In most cases such as this one, due process requires an escalating series of disciplinary actions in response to a repeated or escalating pattern of behavior. The faculty member must be given the opportunity to change his or her behavior, even if it seems very unlikely that such a change is ever going to occur.

Although doing so is often a daunting and discomfiting proposition, sometimes the principle of due process needs to be defended even if the person being defended comes off as a wingnut.

Anyone is a leadership position in an AAUP chapter, and especially a bargaining unit, has dealt with cases in which a faculty member has just annoyed the crap out of everyone for years and in some instances has done things for which he or she might have been disciplined, at least mildly. But no administrator has really wanted to be bothered, and then suddenly an administrator wants to lower the boom not just for the most recent instance of unprofessional behavior but for the whole history of it–a history that is now just anecdotal, rather than professionally documented. In these instances, one is primarily protecting every faculty member’s the right to due process and only incidentally protecting the individual. In essence, one is holding the administration to the same professional standards that it is now trying to apply, in summary fashion, to a faculty member. In pressing for agreement on such discipline, the administration is, in effect, counting too much on the fact that no one really feels all that comfortable defending that individual.

Actual documentation of behavior warranting discipline seems to me to be especially important because the student involved in this instance was a graduate teaching fellow–teaching a course independently–and because another student raised the issue. If McAdams attempted to resolve the issue with the university administration and felt that he was being stonewalled, one can make the case (I would not personally be inclined to make it in this instance, but one can make the case) that he was attempting to bring attention to an institutional practice that he feels is indefensible.

Which brings me to the second “if”–whether McAdams actually harmed the graduate student.  Gregory Scholtz’s letter makes the point that the complaints against him do not seem to suggest that reinstating him will create any risk of harm to others. Implicitly, that assertion suggests that although the hate mail directed at the graduate student and her decision to transfer to another institution are very troubling developments, it is hard to see how McAdams can be held responsible for everything that has occurred. Indeed, despite all of the suggestions that McAdams’ behavior has been a persistent problem, from the outside it appears that the university administration has, in effect, worked backwards from the graduate student’s decision to leave in determining the degree to which McAdams’ behavior was unprofessional.

If this is a largely accurate estimate of what has occurred, then there is an issue beyond any pattern in McAdams’ behavior and the university’s longer-term responses, or lack of responses, to that behavior. It seems to me to be essentially the same issue that has surfaced in connection to institutional responses to sexual assaults: that is, the existing policies and protections of victims are not really adequate or even legally workable, and the attempts to enforce them in the wake of a “scandal” that attracts media attention serve only to highlight those deficiencies.

In short, the institution should have a means of providing formal and informal support for someone suddenly at the center of an ideological issue, such as this graduate student. I have not come across any defenses of the graduate student that have had any clear connection to Marquette faculty. If these are ideological issues with which the institution is grappling, where is the debate? Why is McAdams the lone, loud voice on the issues? The most ardent defenses of the graduate student have been in the Daily Nous, a blog maintained by Spencer Case, a doctoral student at Colorado State University, and the blog of John Protevi, a faculty member at Louisiana State University.

(Let me digress very briefly. Protevi’s post “7 Points with Regard to John McAdams of Marquette” is very insightful and should have been included in the items that I cited in my previous post, surveying the media coverage of and other responses to this issue. In that post Protevi raises the issue that the graduate student’s academic freedom was violated by McAdams and should have been defended much more vocally and vigorously. It is a position that the AAUP should consider—especially since we have declared our intention to represent graduate students, as well as faculty and other academic professionals.)

In any case, the first post on the issue in the Daily Nous includes this observation: “Abbate reports that her department has been supportive but I am not aware of any positive steps that Marquette University has made to publicly declare their support for Abbate and defend her against these attacks.”

That said, if most faculty thought that they needed to let the institutional response run its course, then any institutional failure to respond in a much more timely way–if not immediately–to McAdams’ behavior, as well as any previous failure to discipline him for behaviors that actually warranted discipline, serves as a cautionary illustration of how the failure to provide diligent and effective due process on these matters not only violates the faculty member’s rights but can actually magnify the effects of unprofessional or irresponsible behavior. Indeed, if McAdams’ behavior so obviously warranted suspension in late December, it is not simply a glib rhetorical question to ask why it did not warrant such discipline many weeks earlier.

In sum, the answer to these kinds of issues is not civility codes or any other new layer of institutional policy-making that is almost certain to create more problems than it prevents or resolves. The answer is to refine or, if necessary, to substantially revise existing policies and then to enforce those policies in a reasonably deliberative but more decisive manner.


4 thoughts on “Postscript to My Post on the McAdams Case

  1. I strongly disagree with Martin Kich when he claims that referring to students by name in a blog is “a serious breach of professional standards.” Professional standards with regard to students should apply only to a professor’s actual students that he has professional responsibilities for, not to all students anywhere.

    So, if a student writes an op-ed condemning Islam, or Christianity, or Judaism, or atheism, a professor should be free to criticize that student publicly as an ignorant bigot, without fear of institutional punishment. The right of extramural utterances includes extramural utterances about people who happen to be enrolled at your university. Suppose that a professor reads something offensive in the local newspaper. Is that professor obligated to find out if the author is enrolled at their university before writing a response? Absolutely not.

    Now, it might be somewhat different if McAdams’ job was to mentor that particular graduate student as a teacher. It is generally unprofessional for professors to talk negatively about their own students by name in public.

    But that was not McAdams’ job. He was simply offering his opinions about teaching techniques, and the teacher in this case happened to be a graduate student. The AAUP has held that graduate students, in the role of teachers, have the same rights of academic freedom, the same power to unionize, and the same responsibilities to their students as other professors. That, I believe, means that they must be subject to the same criticism for their teaching.

    I also think it is wrong to blame someone for the crime of publicizing. If you merely criticize someone and that person receives death threats from a person who read your blog, then you are blameless. We are not inherently responsible for the actions of people who read our work and then commit crimes.

    Kich endorses Protevi’s belief that McAdams violated the graduate student teacher’s academic freedom. I cannot disagree more strongly. Mere criticism of a person’s views or pedagogical techniques is never a violation of academic freedom. There is no such thing as a right under academic freedom to be free from criticism.

    • John, my first sentence should have been more precise. It should probably have read: “The university’s position has become that, in his personal blog or other public communications, McAdams has repeatedly referred to students by name in addressing matters that should not have been discussed in public forums.”

      The university does seem now to be trying to make the case that this is only the latest in a series of instances in which McAdams has handled student issues too publicly and unprofessionally. I am not privy to his personnel file. I am simply leaving the door open if they actually have a case to make. So, however, imprecise the original sentence is, I am saying that the charge is serious if in fact it is supportable–not that I have seen evidence supporting it.

      Indeed, I have very clearly expressed some serious doubts about the case against him because of the whole way in which this situation has been handled. If they actually have that case to make, they seem to be making it–appear to be trying to construct it–too long after the fact, both in this instance and probably in terms of any previous instances.

      That said, your illustrations about replying to a student op-eds in a local newspaper are much more clear-cut than this case with the graduate student. If anyone is writing an op-ed, there should be an expectation that the opinion is open to criticism from any reader.

      On the other hand, the crux of this issue, from McAdams’ own perspective, involves whether the graduate teaching fellow accurately communicated or egregiously misinterpreted a university policy on expressing bias in classroom discussions. It seems to me that whether the faculty member was directly a mentor of that student or not, this sort of issue could have been handled much more professionally and discreetly. As a instructor, the graduate student is “learning on the job” and, on these kinds of issues, should be treated differently than even a faculty colleague might be treated. In any case, I have very clearly stated that this situation, in itself, does not seem to warrant discipline as serious as a suspension.

      I am not sure why the next-to-last paragraph appears to be included as a criticism of my post because your point seems to be the point I was making. You’ve written: “I also think it is wrong to blame someone for the crime of publicizing. If you merely criticize someone and that person receives death threats from a person who read your blog, then you are blameless. We are not inherently responsible for the actions of people who read our work and then commit crimes.” And I have written: “although the hate mail directed at the graduate student and her decision to transfer to another institution are very troubling developments, it is hard to see how McAdams can be held responsible for everything that has occurred.”

      Lastly, I was citing Protevi’s post because it is thought-provoking, not because I necessarily endorse everything asserted in it. But I was struck by the idea that if McAdams were attempting to do more with his post to his blog than simply to vent–if what he was arguing in the post had somehow managed to produce the sort of institutional response that he would have embraced–then that action would have violated the graduate student’s academic freedom as much as the university’s response to his post seems to have violated his academic freedom. I’m not sure if that’s what Protevi is suggesting, but that’s what I was thinking when I wrote the post.

  2. The professor should not have been suspended. That is unacceptable in the absence of an “imminent harm” standard. He should be denounced for his actions. Naming the graduate student on his blog is “a serious breach of professional standards.” While graduate students have rights that approximate those of professors, they are still students under the professoriate’s charge and should not become pawns in a professor’s ideological battles. He was clearly out to get her. He should be ashamed of himself. This situation should have been handled privately and not in this manner. I defend the professor’s rights but have no respect for his conduct.

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