John McAdams Punished With Longer Suspension, Forced Apology

Marquette University yesterday announced the punishment of John McAdams for his crime of publicly criticizing a graduate student teacher’s pedagogy on his blog: He will be suspended (and banned) from campus until January 2017 (without pay but with benefits), and apparently will be forced to apologize for his actions as a condition of reinstatement.

According to President Michael Lovell, the university is following the unanimous recommendation of a seven-member faculty committee, whose 123-page report and precise recommendations have not been publicly disclosed.

McAdams promises to fight the penalty, and claims that the requirement for a letter of apology by April 4 does not appear in the faculty recommendations.

The AAUP wrote Marquette more than a year ago to protest the arbitrary suspension of McAdams, and I have previously written about the McAdams caseas did Daniel Maguireand Martin Kich (twice), and the debate also led some to defend a penalty for McAdams.

Let me summarize: John McAdams is being punished because a lot of assholes read his right-wing blog, and some of those assholes responded to his post attacking graduate student Cheryl Abbate by making horrible threats that she felt forced her to leave the institution. It is difficult to imagine McAdams being suspended and banned from campus for his blog if Abbate had not been threatened. That explains, but it does not justify, the punishment of McAdams. What happened to Abbate was a terrible injustice. But no one is legally responsible for the actions of those who read our opinions. Publicizing something (such as a teacher’s pedagogy) is not an academic crime.

I disagree with McAdams’ virulent right-wing opinions. That does not matter.

I disagree with McAdams’ belief that Abbate was acting unprofessionally in her teaching and violating the rights of her students by failing to have a discussion on gay marriage at the time that a student wanted to speak. That does not matter.

We protect academic freedom even when the victim is imperfect, even when we think the victim deserves criticism, even if the victim does not himself fully believe in academic freedom. We protect academic freedom as a principle because it defends all of us. When we allow exceptions, when we compromise with our principles because we dislike the person who benefits from these principles, then we begin the destruction of those principles.

I worry that the faculty committee’s decision, even if they were under strong pressure from the administration to punish an unpopular professor, and even if they were trying to forge a compromise to save McAdams’ job and avoid the worst attacks on academic freedom, will be taken as authoritative.

Too often, the AAUP has failed to protect academic freedom when faculty members acquiesce in the violation. The AAUP has too often viewed academic freedom as a question of procedural due process (receiving a faculty hearing) rather than a substantive right (not being punished for extramural utterances, in this case). The AAUP in practice has embraced the influential (but deeply misguided) theory that academic freedom is a collective right of the faculty rather than an individual right of the professor.

The fact is, academic freedom is not merely the power of the faculty to do whatever it wants to other professors without the interference of the administration. It is the freedom of the individual. The faculty are the group best empowered to make the necessary judgments on faculty abilities and misconduct. But if campus liberty is our religion, then academic freedom is what we worship, not collective faculty judgment. They are the priests, not the gods, and sometimes the priests are wrong.

And if the faculty committee agreed with the administration, as the president claims, the collective faculty judgment is wrong. There is no justification for a forced apology. There is no justification for banning McAdams from campus. There is no justification for a suspension without a hearing that has already lasted more than a year. If the faculty committee failed to make these points, they are derelict in their duty to protect academic freedom.

While the question of whether McAdams deserves some penalty for his blog may have more defenders, I see very little evidence that can justify any formal penalty against McAdams. Even though Abbate was not a student of McAdams or even in his department, some have argued that professors have an obligation not to publicly criticize any student. Such a position is untenable: Should a professor be suspended or fired for publicly denouncing a rape or a hate crime on campus, if the accused is a student?

The correct response to McAdams is for the faculty and the administration to speak out against him, to defend Abbate, and to demand prosecution of those who committed a crime against Abbate by threatening her.

Forced apologies are not an appropriate tool of punishment. They are the tactics of Maoist China, not of a free university. (I am not saying that Marquette is as repressive as Maoist China; I am saying that they are adopting a terrible tactic of a repressive regime.) The reason is that forced apologies deal with attitudes rather than actions; compelled speech is never an appropriate punishment at a university. And a forced apology represents an ongoing violation of academic freedom, because presumably McAdams will be forced to repeat his apology and never retract it, or else he will face additional penalties.

McAdams says that he will not submit, and he should not. As a result, the injustice at Marquette will continue. I hope there will be a campus discussion at Marquette about these academic freedom issues, even if McAdams is still banned from participating in it.

4 thoughts on “John McAdams Punished With Longer Suspension, Forced Apology

  1. I’ve not seen the finding of the faculty committee, of course. But were I in a position to be responsible for the well-functioning of Marquette, I would be concerned about public dissemination of a highly critical piece of writing naming a graduate student, undertaken by a faculty member, in a manner that should have been foreseen as leading to intense and possibly unbearable social pressure being brought to bear on the student.

    I am something close to an absolutist on academic freedom and have protested as unjust and indefensible the punishment of faculty for statements and actions that I personally find wholly repugnant. But I draw the line at statements and actions that result in tangible and substantive harm to actual students. It should be left to a faculty body to determine if, in this particular case, the harm was, in fact, substantive; that the harm was, in fact, enabled by the statements and actions; and that the author of those statements and actions should, in fact, have realized that such harm was the likely consequence of those statements and actions.

    “Publicizing something (such as a teacher’s pedagogy) is not an academic crime.” I disagree: Publicizing something in a manner and place that amounts to deliberate incitement to bring substantial threats upon a student’s head is, indeed, an academic crime. Determining whether McAdam’s actions amounted to such incitement and were either deliberate in that incitement or ought to have been known to constitute incitement, is the province of a faculty judicial body.

    “professors have an obligation not to publicly criticize any student. Such a position is untenable: Should a professor be suspended or fired for publicly denouncing a rape or a hate crime on campus, if the accused is a student?” Not at all untenable. I don’t know about suspension or firing; but it is highly improper for a professor to bring publicity to a student in the form of denunciation. Students are in our care–even those who may stand accused of rape or other crime; it is a betrayal of our role to bring public disrepute on a student, not convicted of any crime.

    That said, I agree that the punishment meted out to McAdams seems seriously out of whack.

    • Students, especially graduate students, and especially graduate student instructors, are not children. Part of being an academic is learning how to accept public criticism about your work. I believe that it is unprofessional to infantilize students, to protect them from bad ideas, or to refuse to criticize them.

      Criticism is what McAdams did. That’s all McAdams did. I’m very alarmed at the idea of expanding the concept of “incitement” to include anyone who criticizes another person or who reveals information. If you read what McAdams wrote, it’s impossible to call it incitement. Abbate argued ( that McAdams is guilty of incitement because he wrote false statements about her (her student’s claim of being silenced in class when he wanted to debate homosexuality) and because he accused her of “sexist antipathy toward males” in her blog post.

      The fact that McAdams might be wrong in what he wrote does not turn it into incitement to violence. Nothing about what McAdams wrote is incitement to violence. It just isn’t. If that’s incitement to violence, then lots of things I write, or anyone with a strong opinion, is guilty of incitement. When I accuse Rush Limbaugh of being sexist, am I guilty of incitement and deserving of punishment if someone reads my work and writes something threatening about Rush? I think every feminist like myself should worry if accusing people of sexism is deemed incitement to violence. Some conservatives have argued that the Duke “gang of 88” professors who denounced the alleged sexual assault by lacrosse players should be punished because they publicly spoke out against students about charges that were unsubstantiated.

      This is why we need absolutist principles (that is to say, principles) of academic freedom. When we make exceptions for people whose views we don’t like, or whose opinions lead others to cause harm, we undermine the principles for everyone.

      • The issue is not criticism, false or otherwise; the issue is publicly naming a student in a venue that is known–or ought to be known–as one that tends to encourage intense critical social pressure being brought to bear on anyone accused of certain attitudes. That is highly unprofessional and a betrayal of the duty of faculty to mentor students, as mentoring includes not subjecting students to intense outside pressures (“first, do no harm” sort of thing).

        The nature of the venue is what determines if publicizing there is tantamount to incitement to intense social pressure. In the age of social media, you’d best be on your mettle before putting someone’s name out there; and that is a positive requirement for faculty with respect to students, graduate or otherwise.

        “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” And my right to critique a student ends where outside pressures of an ill-informed and ugly nature are likely to become engaged. It is the issue of harm being done and of an action that ought to have been known as likely to lead to that harm, that is the determining factor in whether or not McAdams is culpable. I’m not in a position to weigh in on either of those questions, but a faculty body, duly appointed, is.

  2. If anyone knows the name of the unidentified student with whom McAdams conspired, they should post it here — with information about how to contact him and find where he lives.

    No? That would be imprudent? Threatening to him?

    The different way the two students involved have been treated and are being treated is TEXTBOOK HYPOCRISY.

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