The decision of Marquette University to seek the revocation of the continuous tenure, an increasingly common oxymoron, of Associate Professor John McAdams merits academic freedom scrutiny. Whenever an administration seeks dismissal of a tenured faculty member, there is a categorical imperative to examine if academic freedom protection should prevail. An academic freedom inquiry, of course, can lead to the determination that the voidance of a tenured faculty member’s appointment does not constitute an offense against the cherished principle.
I believe that Marquette could not ignore a professor’s abusive attack on a graduate student who was caught in a vicious triangle: An unnamed student who lied to the Department of Philosophy teaching assistant, Cheryl Abbate, and, reportedly, to Associate Chair Sebastian Luft about an unauthorized taping of a conversation, and Dr. McAdams who was eager to condemn Ms. Abbate. There is a victim here. There is injury here. There is prima facie evidence of career disruption, and an attempt to stymie her chances of securing academic employment. When a professor engages in extramural utterances that harm a student, cause great emotional distress, precipitate egregious mob action e-mail insults and death threats,* and a quick exodus to the University of Colorado, it would be wholly inappropriate for administration officials to ignore such consequences.
Professor McAdams was a repeat offender according to Dean Richard C. Holz, Klingler College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, when the professor attacked by name Marquette students on the Internet. Dean Holz claims there were prior student-naming events in his January 30, 2015 letter of intent to terminate Professor McAdams’s appointment:
Your Prior Similar Reckless and Irresponsible Acts, Together With Your Taking Pride from the Impacts of Your Current Conduct, Preclude the Lesser Sanctions of Reprimand or Suspension
You have been asked, advised, and warned on multiple prior occasions not to publicize students’ names in connection with your blog posts. In March 2008, you published the name of a student who worked in advertising for the Marquette Tribune after she had declined to run an advertisement highlighting alleged risks from the “morning after” pill. Only after that student contacted you to advise of the impacts upon her and to request you to cease and desist did you delete her name. In March 2011, you published blog posts regarding a student who was helping to organize a campus performance of The Vagina Monologues. Again, the harmful consequences of your unilateral naming of students were pointed out. You acknowledged at that time that publishing student names on the Internet was a matter of concern, but given your naming of Ms. Abbate that acknowledgment from 2011 appears to be without meaning or effect. (p.14)
Whether the professor was previously sanctioned is unknown, but unlikely given the voluble nature of Professor McAdams. Yet he was keenly aware that the university disapproved of condemning students by name on his blog. Professor McAdams’s denial of multiple prior administrative warnings actually confirms at least one prior intervention that emanated from the senior academic officer on the Milwaukee campus: the Marquette provost.
You have been asked, advised, and warned on multiple prior occasions not to publicize students’ names in connection with your blog posts.
This is simply untrue. Only once did any university official (Provost John Pauly) tell us not to make any blog posts about students. (Actually, he said it was fine to commend students, but we should not criticize student activities – essentially demanding biased journalism.)
While my chief concern is the inappropriate treatment of a graduate student on the Internet, I am also concerned about Professor McAdams’s policing alleged pedagogical bias by at least one other faculty member in the Department of Philosophy. On his blog he excoriates Chairperson Nancy Snow. Claiming once again in a wildly speculative manner that Professor Snow was not amenable to considering the student’s complaint against Ms. Abbate, Professor McAdams blogs on January 19, 2015:
Snow, of course, could hardly be expected to be sympathetic. In 2008, Snow was talking about “racial profiling” in her class and a student chimed in with a police perspective on the issue. Snow not only tried to shut him up in class, but after class she insisted he write an e-mail of apology to two black students in the class, whom she presumed were offended.
There are two competing claims to academic freedom here. One is the right of a professor to engage in institutional criticism of practices and outcomes that may include naming names of administrators and faculty members. The other is the right of professors to teach without hindrance, within a climate conducive to disparate pedagogies without fear of being policed by a professor on the Internet. Professor McAdams’s actions are disruptive to the academic freedom of an institution.
NOTE: I am drawing a redline when professors attack students in a public forum such as the Internet. I am not concluding Professor McAdams’s attacks on faculty members’ pedagogy merits sanctioning. However, I think we need to have a conversation when the assertion of academic freedom in one instance could simultaneously attenuate it in another. Pedagogy police should not hide under the penumbra of academic freedom! It is a conundrum.
Yet I am troubled by one of the dean’s arguments for tenure revocation in an otherwise clear, thorough and impressive documentation of demonstrable professional misconduct. Professor McAdams is an associate professor of political science. Dean Holz alleges that his department determined that their colleague had caused “significant damage to the University community.” The examples given are cursorily addressed in a single sentence, and suggest an absence of a thoroughness of documentation concerning departmental misdeeds. Certainly, the emphasis in the decision to fire Professor McAdams is his attack against the graduate teaching assistant. If a professor is subject to dismissal from a tenured position for actions unrelated to his or her departmental affairs, it is unnecessary and gratuitous for a dean to seek support in this manner:
Your Department Chair recently detailed for the Dean of Arts & Sciences how your conduct has contributed to a culture of intolerance, threatened the practice of academic freedom, and often targeted women and those “in a lower position of power in academic standing at Marquette” than yourself. It thus is the consensus of your Department peers that you do significant damage to the University community.(p. 13)
He may not be popular in his department. At times that might be a virtue. There is a process and nowhere could I find in Marquette’s statutes any reference to a required or suggested departmental consensus prior to the dismissal of a tenured professor. What if the department lacked a consensus? Would this action have ended? Hardly. The chair, Lowell Barrington, of the Department of Political Science, should have declined this intervention that appears to be a gratuitous piling on. Although curiously not named in the Holz letter, I presume he served in that capacity a few months ago when this intervention occurred. He is welcome to respond to this opinion.
*Appendix: After Professor McAdams used the Internet to police Ms. Abbate’s pedagogy on Sunday, November 9, 2014, she began receiving very provocative e-mail. While he may not have anticipated this, his reckless indifference to her welfare enabled this cyber-assault. I have been there, big time, and it is no fun!
I am alerting readers that the following e-mail sent to Ms. Abbate contains highly graphic, homophobic, misogynist, threatening and vulgar language. I am repeating the warning: The following e-mail contains graphic language.
I encountered these e-mail, which are a sample, from Cheryl Abbate’s website.