Marquette to Fire McAdams for Dereliction of Duty

[Guest Blogger Ira Allen is an assistant professor of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University of Beirut.]

In November of last year, alongside scholars from around the disciplines, I signed an open letter written by philosopher John Protevi. The letter urged Marquette University to support embattled philosophy graduate student Cheryl Abbate and to “take steps to ensure that Professor McAdams learns the rudiments of professional behavior.” John McAdams was a tenured member of Marquette’s political science department who had written a scathing public condemnation of Abbate’s teaching practices. The story to date was summarized in early December at The Daily Nous.

Marquette University took steps. After suspending McAdams with pay in December, it more recently began dismissal proceedings. Whether Professor McAdams will learn or not is an open question, but he’s unlikely to do so at Marquette.

Thus far, representatives of the AAUP have communicated substantive solidarity with McAdams, first writing Marquette to object to his suspension and now, after notification of McAdams’ intended dismissal, posting unequivocally here in his support.

Urging defense of McAdams’ academic freedom, Academeblog editor John K. Wilson leaves little doubt regarding the position of at least this particular segment of the AAUP: “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.”

Is it, though?

Is Marquette’s decision to fire McAdams a violation of the AAUP’s standards for academic freedom? Leaving aside Marquette’s requirements in its own policies—a discussion for the lawyers, and one virtually certain to ensue—is the issue at stake best viewed through the prism of academic freedom in the first place? Are Professor McAdams’ blog postings about graduate student Cheryl Abbate, as Wilson puts it, “classic example[s] of [protected] extramural utterances”?

What will constitute an appropriate response for the AAUP (of which I am a member) and other, interested members of the professoriate depends largely on this last question.

In brief, if McAdams’ postings about Abbate are indeed extramural utterances, protected speech offered outside of his role as a member of the graduate faculty of the University, then we have an obligation to support him—odious as his speech certainly is—in a labor dispute that would otherwise further erode the already weather-beaten principle of academic freedom.* Conversely, if McAdams’ postings about Abbate fall within the scope of his responsibilities as a teaching member of the University faculty, then he is in dereliction of duty and rightly subject to serious censure. Academic freedom, though always relevant in faculty employment disputes, would in this event not be an especially apt way of framing the conflict. (What appropriate censure would be is a secondary question, one not addressed here since we have not yet found substantial agreement upon the first.)

So, AAUP has taken McAdams’ postings to be extramural utterances. Marquette’s letter of dismissal, penned by Dean Richard C. Holz and publicly posted by McAdams, rejects this view. Somewhat surprisingly, given that McAdams’ speech is clearly uncivil and that the idea of “civility” has become central for those wishing to deny the centrality of academic freedom to anything that would be a university, Marquette does not invoke civility (save for a regrettable lapse on page 14 of a 15-page document) in justifying its dismissal of McAdams. Rather, Holz consistently foregrounds McAdams’ failure to fulfill basic obligations to students.

Competence and integrity “in the current case,” as Holz puts it, demand that McAdams refrain from “sham[ing] and intimidat[ing] [a graduate student teacher] with an Internet story that was incompetent, inaccurate, and lacking in integrity, respect for other’s opinions, and appropriate restraint.” In Holz’s telling, McAdams need not exercise appropriate restraint because doing so would foster a more civil discourse—that would be the deeply problematic civility narrative. Rather, he needs to do so because this is how you help graduate students develop as teachers, a key part of faculty members’ jobs at a university: “it is vital for our university and our profession that graduate student instructors learn their craft as teachers of sometimes challenging and difficult students.” Whenever faculty choose to take an interest in graduate students’ teaching, those student instructors have a reasonable expectation of “appropriate and constructive feedback in order to improve their teaching skills.” McAdams made no effort to offer constructive feedback before or after condemning Abbate as a teacher, by name, on his public blog.

After listing several incidents of a similar flavor, Holz concludes that “with this latest example of unprofessional and irresponsible conduct [Marquette has] no confidence that [McAdams] will live up to any additional assurances . . . that [he] will take seriously [his] duties to respect and protect [Marquette] students, including [Marquette] graduate student instructors.” This is an important rhetorical move.

Whether one agrees with their decision or not, Marquette should be applauded for eschewing, by and large, the idea that “talking nice” is an acceptable measure when considering whether to revoke a tenured professor’s protected employment status. Faculty have rightly resisted, and must continue to resist, efforts to strip them of employment rights in the name of civility. Holz, however, frames the move to fire in terms of McAdams’ dereliction of duty, his refusal or inability to take seriously a responsibility to the development of Marquette students.

So, then, back to the question: Regardless of how Marquette sees its actions in moving to fire McAdams, how ought we to view those actions?

Unlike other situations where protected faculty speech has come under attack (the “pre-employment firing” of Steven Salaita, of course, or the University of Oregon administration’s efforts to insert “civility” language into a new faculty contract), the labor dispute between McAdams and Marquette hinges primarily on McAdams’ rejection of his responsibilities as a teaching member of the faculty. Academic freedom, though necessarily onstage in the dispute, does not play a leading role. We ought to conceive of this matter in terms of other principles.

Specifically, we should regard McAdams, as Marquette does, as being in dereliction of duty.

It is one thing to snipe at administrators or to criticize one’s colleagues’ teaching on one’s blog—though unpleasant or uncivil (circumstances depending, of course), such is and must remain protected speech—and it is something very different to publicly condemn a professional-in-training, for whose welfare one bears some responsibility.

When responsible for the development of another—even at a distance or only transitively, as with a student in another department—publicly cutting that person down by name is simply failing to fulfill an obligation. Naturally, faculty members lie under no special charge to search out graduate students around the university and ensure their development as teachers. But, when members of a graduate faculty choose to interact with graduate students at their own university with regard to those students’ status as professionals-in-training, such faculty bear a substantive duty to foster the students’ development.

That duty can, of course, come into conflict with other duties. After all, one has a duty to one’s own speech. In the case of McAdams, a political science professor who sees himself as an investigative journalist, there was a conflict between his duty to help Abbate develop as a university teacher and his duty to expose the facts as he understood them to an interested public. Marquette has asserted that McAdams failed to accomplish the latter with due diligence, and that may well be true, but McAdams’ competence as a journalist is incidental to his dereliction of duty as a member of a graduate faculty.

In one’s capacity as a faculty member, in interactions with and about students, one’s obligation is to their development even as it is also to one’s own speech. When those two obligations (to student development and to exercises of speech) conflict, one faces a heavy burden of responsibility: for careful, substantive negotiation of the competing obligations.

There is no evidence that McAdams performed such negotiation. Indeed, he’s publicly pursued the opposite line entirely. On his blog, and as quoted in Inside Higher Ed, he’s maintained the position that, as a graduate student in another department, Abbate was entitled to no consideration from him: “We had no teacher/student relationship. The people who should have mentored her (the Philosophy faculty) apparently failed to do so.”

This is misleading. One does not contract with a university to foster only the development of students in one’s hiring department. As anyone who’s taught at a university knows, situations where one bears a broad and general responsibility for student development extend well beyond courses offered in one’s own department. From sitting on university committees or judging graduate student awards to conducting disciplinary hearings or discussing the introduction of new programs in fields outside their own, faculty members regularly have opportunity to confront a fact that is always the case: in their dealings with, for, and about students, faculty members have a substantive obligation to foster student development.

As noted, responsibility to student development can come into conflict with responsibility to the exercise of speech. It did not, in McAdams’ own characterization of his activities, because McAdams did not recognize himself as having borne any responsibility to the student in the first place. Imagining himself merely a journalist and not also a member of a graduate faculty, he explains why he made no effort to help Abbate develop as a teacher: “Blogging is journalism, and it’s simply not standard journalistic practice to quietly try to right a wrong by appealing to officials to fix the situation.” Holz’s letter suggests that this particular abdication of responsibility for student development has been ongoing.

Academic freedom is a license to say whatever one please in one’s research and non-institutional, extramural communications. It needs to remain such, as this license guarantees the very possibility of inquiry. And there are of course grey areas, where the limits of academic freedom are unclear. The AAUP often intervenes in these areas in the service of protecting speech rights—and rightly so. Defending faculty speech rights makes the project of a modern university possible. But so does helping students develop.

It is true that, as a matter of principle, the academic freedom central to the very idea of a university trumps civility. But McAdams’ is not a case of academic freedom under siege. His is a case of an abusive professor persistently, up to the present day, refusing to acknowledge any special obligation to the development of a graduate student at his university.

We only harm ourselves in working to add this sorry story to the record of CIVILITY v. FREEDOM.

* To be clear, we really do have a responsibility to defend odious extramural utterances from institutional attack. This is part of what academic freedom means. We do not have a responsibility to protect such utterances from all negative consequences, however.

Consider a counterfactual. If McAdams’ attack on Abbate had been an attack on a graduate teacher at an institution other than his own, it would actually have been extramural speech subject to protection under the aegis of academic freedom—and we would be obligated to defend it from institutional sanctions. In such a case, however, we would nonetheless still be right to publicly reject his behavior as beyond the pale.

Abbate writes compellingly about the misogyny of McAdams’ post, the predictable results of which were hundreds of rape and death threats and demeaning emails directed at her. These results, whether or not they play into McAdams’ dereliction of duty (and I would argue that in fact they do, though my case here does not rest on that), suggest that we have a moral duty to produce discourse condemning his behavior in the strongest possible terms. A commitment to protecting extramural utterances from institutional retaliation, by the very principle, cannot in any way entail limiting production of further speech aimed at judging and rejecting even the utterances being protected.

14 thoughts on “Marquette to Fire McAdams for Dereliction of Duty

  1. I have written two posts on this case. In one, I simply attempted to provide a sort of informal lit review of the materials on the case because the first post to this blog on it was from another faculty member at Marquette who feels that the suspension was unjustified (even though he is quite open about his own ongoing conflicts with McAdams).

    In my second post, I raised many of the same issues that you have raised, and to some degree my opinions have clashed with John Wilson’s–though, as I indicated in a reply to his critical comment on my post, I don’t think that we are as far apart in our opinions as he seemed to think.

    Your post is extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking, and I agree that the treatment of the graduate student is cause for discipline. But I think that I would still argue against McAdams dismissal for the following reason, which I don’t think that you have addressed or have addressed sufficiently: namely, there is no evidence that I have seen that McAdams has been previously disciplined for similar unprofessional behavior toward students, graduate or undergraduate. It may simply be that such discipline has occurred but is part of his personnel file and somewhat confidential. But if he has not been previously disciplined for such unprofessional behavior, then to frame this incident as the straw that broke the camel’s back is clearly an expedient violation of his right to due process.

    Indeed, from what I have read, it seems that no due-process policies or procedures were followed in placing him on suspension–in effect, while the university was deciding what to do next. The fact that the university did not act against McAdams until the repercussions on the graduate student became public suggests that it is, in effect, working backwards from those repercussions in order to resolve this. But if McAdams’ behavior was so egregiously unprofessional as to warrant dismissal, then disciplinary action should not have had to wait until the consequences of his treatment of the graduate student became so clear and so public.

    If McAdams has not been previously disciplined for even broadly similar unprofessional behavior toward students at the university, he can reasonably claim that he was not aware that his response to this incident would be a cause for dismissal. Indeed, the contentiousness surrounding the issue of gay marriage, especially for religious groups and religiously affiliated institutions, could arguably have seemed more paramount to him than the issue of his responsibilities to a graduate student who was not his student.

    I am not trying to defend what McAdams did. I personally find it all extremely unprofessional, if not reprehensible. And I certainly do not share his political or cultural views. But academic freedom rests on the right to due process, and if due process is denied to anyone, it can be denied to everyone. Indeed, we are all very painfully aware of how it has been denied to any number of faculty whose careers have been derailed for even less appropriate reasons than those being used, apparently, to justify McAdams dismissal.

    • Martin, thank you for this careful response. I think there are at least three interlocking issues that you raise, on which we would find some agreement but which you rightly note I have not addressed:

      1. The appropriateness of the sanction;
      2. The adequacy of the procedure; and
      3. The question of repetition of an offense and reprimand for that offense.

      In fairness to myself :-), the point of my post was not to establish a position regarding any of the three (indeed, I suggested that discussion of the correct sanction should only follow on agreement about framing), but rather to reframe the situation in a way that seems to me more adequate.

      That said, my own sense has been that the sanction is broadly adequate, and that surely comes through in the piece. So, I owe you engagement with at least that point, and probably both of the others as well. Working backwards, because it’s easiest:

      3. I acknowledge that we do not know the material facts. Holz directly indicates that the type of offense (refusal to try carefully to negotiate between obligations to students and obligations to one’s own speech) has been both repeated and repeatedly reprimanded. McAdams asserts that this is not so. I am more inclined to believe Holz, if only because McAdams strikes me as having a fast and loose relationship with truthfulness, but on this matter, there are competing narratives whose accuracy we are not well-equipped to judge. I am glad that this does not dissuade you from agreeing with my framing in general (i.e., notwithstanding uncertainty about McAdams’ typical behavior, we agree that, with Abbate at least, he was failing to fulfill a pedagogical responsibility), but accept that we might wager differently on the truthfulness of Holz’s and McAdams’ competing stories.

      2. I absolutely agree with you that the adequacy of Marquette’s procedure in this matter has been, at the very least, questionable. This was the substance of Scholtz’s letter to Marquette regarding the suspension, as you know. I think there is a case to be made (Protevi has begun laying one out in comments on The Daily Nous’s more recent piece [typing on a phone; sorry, no links]) that McAdams could reasonably have anticipated the very damaging consequences of using Abbate’s name in his piece and, since there was no pressing journalistic need to do so and his doing so was a failure to fulfill an obligation the existence of which he denies, but he did so anyhow, that he was likely to continue doing that sort of thing. And if he continued doing that sort of thing, he would be likely to continue substantively harming students–and that likelihood of knowingly contributing to substantive harming constitutes posing a threat, and that Marquette was thus correct in suspending McAdams without full process. As I say, I think there is a case to be made for this. I’m still making up my own mind about the adequacy of the procedures throughout, though. If asked, I hope the AAUP will investigate this very question and arrive at a more detail-driven determination than is available to us from this distance. Indeed, I think investigation of this question would be the most appropriate site of intervention available to the organization, which after all has an interest in protecting faculty labor rights and interests even in cases where academic freedom per se is not substantially implicated.

      1. The appropriateness of the move to dismiss is least clear to me. As I mentioned, my sense is that dismissal of McAdams is probably the correct outcome. But I am not adamant about that. Without having a full accounting of (3) and a stable judgment about (2), it is exceedingly hard to make justifiable assertions about (1).

      If you or anyone else has more information about (3) and better grounds for a determination about (2), I’d love to discuss all three points further! But–and it may just be because it’s two a.m. here–with the information currently available, I don’t know that I can have any more to say about the points.

  2. Let me correct one major error here: I am not a representative of the AAUP. I have argued that this is a case of extramural utterances, but the AAUP has not stated this.

    Basically, your argument can be summarized as this: it is a dereliction of duty for which professors can be fired if they ever say anything negative publicly about a student enrolled at their institution. I strongly disagree. I find no statement of ethics or academic freedom that justifies this paternalistic attitude, and I think such a broad prohibition on criticism of students creates the danger that the only ones punished will be those such as McAdams who are disliked by administrators.

    • John: clearly, my argument can indeed be summarized in the cursory, dismissive fashion you suggest. But not well.

      As to my “error.” I am aware that you are not an official representative of the AAUP–and suggest as much in referring to “one segment” of the organization. As a regular editor of Academeblog, however, you do in fact represent the AAUP to many people. Though surely not your job description, and though the blog is careful to note that it is not officially representative of the organization, this is a rhetorical reality that it would be naive to deny. I stand by my characterization.

  3. I am grateful to the editors of the Academe Blog for posting this piece by a guest blogger, which reconfirms that the blog is designed as an open forum for scholarly discussion and debate of the sorts of issues and controversies that concern the AAUP. It also illustrates the maxim posted at the top of each page, that “Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.”

    As the Chair of AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and an elected officer of the Association, I want to stress that the AAUP has not yet taken, or been asked to take, a position on this case. In that light it should be reemphasized that neither the views of John Wilson nor those of Martin Kich or Professor Allen represent an official AAUP position.

    Professor Allen is correct, of course, that Gregory Scholtz, Director of AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance, did write in an official capacity objecting to McAdams’s suspension. But that letter took no position on the issue of whether or not Professor McAdams’s academic freedom was violated or whether or not his blog post was strictly a matter of extramural expression. It focused solely on the violations of AAUP-recommended principles and procedures involving suspensions and due process.

    The AAUP Executive Director is charged with authorizing investigations, and it remains possible that she may be asked in future to authorize an investigation of this case and that Committee A may then be asked to weigh in on the substantive issues being debated on this blog. In that light, it would be inappropriate for me to express any further opinion on the matter. However, I am sure we will all learn from an informed and thoughtful discussion of the issues raised, like the conversation that has begun here.

    • If the AAUP does decide to take a position in this case, I think it is important to carefully consider Ms. Abbate’s role as an employee of the university for the events relevant to the case. Specifically, since Ms. Abbate’s academic record or progress are not (to the best of my knowledge) relevant to this case, I would be skeptical of a claim against Prof. McAdams that relied on a violation of Ms. Abbate’s FERPA rights.

      I’m not pointing this out to defend Prof. McAdams, but rather to keep clear the distinction between a graduate employee’s academic affairs and employment affairs. As a union representing graduate employee locals, AAUP must certainly be aware that the denial of the employment status of graduate teachers and researchers is a common tactic employed by universities to deny those workers fair labor conditions.

      It sounds to me as though Prof. McAdams may have violated other policies at Marquette, including their anti-harassment policy, the undergraduate’s FERPA rights, or other confidentiality policies that may be in place.

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