Beware of the Pedagogy Police: Cheryl Abbate v. John McAdams at Marquette: Graphic E-mail in Appendix

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.

Holz continues:
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.

19 thoughts on “Beware of the Pedagogy Police: Cheryl Abbate v. John McAdams at Marquette: Graphic E-mail in Appendix

  1. Kirstein claims that there is a “right of professors to teach without hindrance…without fear of being policed by a professor on the Internet. Professor McAdams’s actions are disruptive to the academic freedom of an institution.”

    This is completely wrong. There is no such thing as an academic freedom right not to be criticized. Kirstein’s theory has no basis in any conception of academic freedom promulgated by the AAUP. There is no conundrum here. To suggest that professors are violating academic freedom by merely criticizing the pedagogy of their colleagues is itself a threat to actual academic freedom.

    • The tone here is rather brusque, but I will respond in my usual manner. I might be “completely wrong” but I maintain that I did not assert that academic freedom prohibits the criticism of a colleague. I think that is an exaggeration to put it mildly.

      Yet in the world of the Internet I believe self-censorship is more likely if there is a fear of being harangued by a colleague in a public manner. It is instinctual, as many of his colleagues apparently feel, based on the dean’s reporting, for one to hedge, to play it safe out of fear of being publicly criticised.

      I think that Professor McAdams’s posts are disruptive of academic freedom, even though in the case of faculty as I noted above, it is protected. I think I raised an issue that merits further discussion. I am not sure what the answer is but I am concerned about faculty whose teaching might be suppressed due to a legitimate fear of being attacked by a professor on the Internet. Perhaps Professor McAdams might consider the impact of his posts on the academic freedom of his targets. Perhaps he might have considered dealing with his complaints in a professional manner, face-to-face with others and not in an unseemly manner through his blog. One can threaten academic freedom even if protected by it. That places a greater responsibility, in my opinion, for one not to abuse the concept even though protected by it.

      • Peter, I agree that there probably should be discipline for the unprofessional treatment of the student, but I do not agree that the hate mail sent to her is the starting point for determining what discipline is appropriate. As I have also indicated several times, I also have not seen any clear evidence that anyone has formally disciplined McAdams in the past–or that he has received due process hearings in this instance or in the past. If there has been a pattern of escalating behavior that has warranted discipline, why has there been no formal record of escalating discipline?

        Although John and I have disagreed over elements of this case, I completely agree with him on one point he has made in his reply to this post: I think that we are on extraordinarily dangerous ground when criticism of a colleague can be framed as an attack on that colleague’s academic freedom simply because it makes him or her less inclined to exercise that freedom.

        McAdams seems to be kind of a classic bully, and the way to neutralize a bully is to stand up to him or her. Other faculty may have felt that they simply didn’t want to engage in potentially endless discussion of the sort of political issues that he seems to have been very eager to identify, if not create–or, more precisely, to “make local.” And there are many substantive and obvious reasons for taking that attitude. Given his personality, it may have been perceived as an unwinnable argument–indeed, the Hotel California of arguments in the sense that once one has entered into it, one can never leave it behind. Moreover, engaging in this sort of online debate is undoubtedly a distraction from the teaching, scholarship, and service that should be our main focus. But if no one chooses to respond forcefully to this kind of crap, that inaction insures that it will go on unabated until it produces some sort of crisis.

        I believe, however, that there are always ways, as a group, to counter this sort of bullying that do not require any individual’s becoming a constant critic or constant target. Literally as well as proverbially, there is strength in numbers. If McAdams has appointed himself to police his colleagues, those faculty should have returned the favor. If his characterizations of people and incidents have been ridiculous, then they should have been subjected to ridicule. Other faculty could have defended what is worth defending and ignored what was extraneous to their values. That sort of response could have been measured and would not necessarily have required being as obnoxious as McAdams clearly has been. Nor would it have required any abdication of the defense of academic freedom.

        Just to be clear, I am not saying that this sort of response is appropriate for most situations in which colleagues disagree or in which a colleague becomes “difficult.” But this has clearly been a long-festering issue with McAdams, and I think that it could have benefited from some sort of concerted response.

        As a sort of postscript, let me add that I am not at all underestimating the impact of verbal abuse on those who are the targets of it. I have joked with colleagues that the opportunity to contribute to this blog has been very timely for me: I am now an old guy with no shortage of opinions. But another element of my contributing is that I finally seem to have developed a thick enough skin to take the abuse (or at least most of it) that comes with expressing an opinion and putting my name on it. Earlier in my career, I tried to act as if I had a thick skin, but in the privacy of my own thoughts, I was a mass of bruises.

  2. If we all accepted the proposition that it is unacceptable to “police” academic issues on the internet, sites like this one would shut down. Should it be made illegal to criticize colleagues in public? That’s a pretty dangerous proposition in my opinion. Aren’t you guilty of policing McAdams on the internet?

    You frame this as an issue of criticizing a student in public, but the issue is not that clear cut. From what I understand, Abbate was the instructor of record in the course, not simply a TA. McAdams criticized her in her role as an instructor, not as a student. He didn’t criticize her dissertation, or her performance on comps, or her coursework. I agree that he did so in a rude, disrespectful way, but should rudeness be a criteria for firing? If so, there should be a whole lot of tenured professors nationwide quaking in their boots.

    Finally, the inclusion of the vile emails sent to Abbate does not bolster your case against McAdams. Nowhere did McAdams ask or encourage people to contact Abbate, let alone write her hate mail. If McAdams is held responsible for hate mail sent by third parties, should you be held responsible for any hate mail McAdams receives?

    • I think I addressed some of your concerns, Anonymous, in my reply above. Kindly consult my post when I state with regard to Professor McAdams’s responsibility for the e-mail attack on the graduate student: “While he may not have anticipated this, his reckless indifference to her welfare enabled this cyber-assault.”

  3. Welcome to the world of activism. Everyone does what they think is right, eventually a new normal will emerge, may the most balanced voices prevail in favor of freedom won through lessons learned. To the students: welcome to the real world; my daughter handled more in the 3rd grade.

  4. I thank Marty Kich for his helpful, clear and collegial comments. While I did not intend to suggest that Internet critique of a colleague’s pedagogy is not fair game, I do think one might reflect on the implications of such an action in that it could constrain the pedagogy of others. Whether Professor McAdams wishes to reflect on that is his choice.

    I was influenced by your earlier comment that the absence of a prior sanction would suggest that Professor McAdams was not fully aware of the potential consequences of his actions. That is why I cited documentation from both the university and Professor McAdams that the provost had warned him to desist from attacking Marquette students on the Internet. Whether that satisfies your sensible suggestion that some prior indication of severe consequences might occur, I don’t know. It more than satisfies mine. Again thanks for your comment.

  5. Funny how there’s concern for teachers chilling effect, yet students are ignored from the chilling effects from the professors mono
    ithic ideology. . This is a subject that needed PUBLIC airing, given the general ideological slant of academe. The mail she received is pretty standard in our contemporary crass society and more akin to FB trolling than “threats” , grow a spine for chrissakes, yes my third grader has it rougher. The subject is MUCH larger than Abbatte.

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  7. I’ve just rotated out of a six year gig as grievance officer for my faculty union local, and I’ve been thinking about this case from that perspective (although obviously Marquette isn’t unionized); what would I do if McAdams came to to file a grievance?

    As much as I’m thoroughly disgusted by McAdams’ treatment of the student (and I agree with Peter K that McAdams very well should have recognized the likely consequences of what he said publicly about her), I also think Martin K is right to ask whether the standard of progressive discipline has been met. Without knowing Marquette’s discipline policy but knowing some about labor law, it’s hard to imagine that the move to fire him is warranted under the law. While campus management has told him in the past that he shouldn’t name students, there’s no evidence that he’s actually received discipline before–no formal sanction letter, no suspension (except the one he served for this very same case), etc. From my perspective, that’s a failure of management to have disciplined him any sooner; nonetheless, that’s their failure, not his.

    And by making that mistake, Marquette is likely both to lose a lawsuit and to create another martyr for the canon of right-wing double-think about academic freedom. Not helpful.

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  14. I’m curious… How do you rationalize the difference between you posting emails (and specifically the email addresses) here and McAdams stating names in his opinion pieces?
    Is this not “reckless indifference” to their welfare? Does it not enable a “cyber-assault” on them? Seems a bit hypocritical to me. There is no difference to what you are accusing McAdams of doing and what you do with this article.

    You also miss the most important part of this story; McAdams was defending the academic rigor of the institution by renouncing Abbate’s actions in stifling student opinions that did not agree with hers. He may not have done this in the most professional manner, but to me it appears that Abbate was not professional either. She continually suppressed opinions and arguments that she did not agree with.

    Do we not go to college to expand our horizons and opinions? Should we not value hearing a valid argument of differing opinions? (Before you go off on the word “valid”, every argument is valid if it has a logical argument, whether it is politically correct or not. There is no reason to ignore differing opinions, unless the presentation is passion instead of logic.) One of my favorite professors in college had vastly differing opinions than me, yet he was willing to have an open and logical debate with me in all topics. We both learned a lot from each other. That is why we go to college; to learn from others, not to be indoctrinated

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