Marquette University Dean Richard Holz has written a letter to Professor John McAdams, announcing that university will revoke his tenure and fire him.
The AAUP recently wrote a letter to Marquette objecting to the suspension of McAdams without adequate cause or hearing.
This latest development is far more alarming. AAUP regulations, and Marquette’s own policies, explicitly prohibit what Marquette is now doing: punishing a professor for publicly expressing his opinions.
According to the letter, “your conduct clearly and substantially fails to meet the standards of personal and professional excellence that generally characterizes University faculties. As a result, your value to this academic institution is substantially impaired.”
Much of Holz’s letter is devoted to detailing the flaws of McAdams’ blog post about Cheryl Abbate, a graduate student teaching a class in which a student felt he was not allowed to denounce gay marriage. McAdams’ blog was read by some people who responded by making threats against Abbate, which caused her to transfer to another university. According to the letter, McAdams is being fired because “your inaccurate, misleading and superficial Internet story lacked any measure of the due diligence we expect from beginning students.”
While there is some reason to question Holz’s critique (as McAdams does on his blog), none of that debate is relevant to the attempt to fire McAdams. Abbate was not a student of McAdams, and he was under no obligation to choose more private criticism of her teaching methods. Nor did McAdams have any obligation to contact everyone involved for comment before writing a blog post.
One can conclude that McAdams is a terrible journalist, and a terrible person, and that changes nothing about the threat of academic freedom created by this dismissal, and the lack of any basis for it under Marquette’s policies.
McAdams’ blog is a classic example of extramural utterances. McAdams’ blog is not part of his teaching or his research. It is an expression of his own opinions.
Holz’s letter declares: “faculty members have voiced concerns about how they could become targets in your blog based upon items they might choose to include in a class syllabus. Your conduct thus impairs the very freedoms of teaching and expression that you vehemently purport to promote. Again, the AAUP has called upon University governing boards and administration to exercise their ‘special duty not only to set an outstanding example of tolerance, but also to challenge boldly and condemn immediately serious breaches of civility.’”
This is a complete distortion of the AAUP’s statements. Tolerance requires that a university not fire professors for their expression. Marquette is perfectly free to condemn McAdams for an alleged breach of civility, but not to punish him. And although some faculty might legitimately fear being criticized by McAdams, no one has a right to be free from criticism, or to punish McAdams for their own decision to self-censor.
Holz’s letter emphasizes one section of Marquette’s statement on academic freedom, that a professor “should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others.” The AAUP has made clear that its statement that professors “should” be accurate is moral exhortation, not an enforceable standard for punishment. Obviously, if any professor could be fired for any kind of alleged inaccuracy in any sentence, public or private, then tenure would be meaningless.
Marquette’s policy on academic freedom also declares about a professor, “When he/she speaks or writes as a citizen, he/she should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” Marquette cannot invoke a distorted interpretation of its academic freedom policy to justify firing a professor and then ignore the clear prohibition on doing so in the same policy.
Section 306 of Marquette’s policy, which details the reasons to fire a professor, explicitly declares: “In no case, however, shall discretionary cause be interpreted so as to impair the full and free enjoyment of legitimate personal or academic freedoms of thought, doctrine, discourse, association, advocacy, or action.”
And Section 307.07.2 declares, “Dismissal will not be used to restrain faculty members in their exercise of academic freedom or other rights guaranteed them by the United States Constitution.”
These policies explicitly prohibit the punishment of John McAdams for his extramural utterances. Marquette’s decision to fire McAdams, like its earlier decision to suspend him, is a violation of the AAUP’s standards for academic freedom and Marquette’s requirements in its policies.