[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.