Firing a tenured professor for blogging: The case of John McAdams at Marquette

Kind of in the same general theme of the Steven Salaita controversy at the University of Illinois comes the case of John McAdams at Marquette University. Here’s a link to an Inside Higher Ed article from last week, “Firing a Faculty Blogger,” and here’s a link to McAdams blog, “Marquette Warrior.” This story has a lot of twists and turns and nuances that I do not have the time or interest to really understand in detail. But I think this long quote from that IHE piece kind of sums up the basic issue:

In November, McAdams, an associate professor of political science, wrote a blog post accusing a teaching assistant in philosophy of shutting down a classroom conversation on gay marriage based on her own political beliefs. His account was based on a recording secretly made by a disgruntled student who wished that the instructor, Cheryl Abbate, had spent more time in class one day on the topic of gay marriage, which the student opposed. McAdams said Abbate, in not allowing a prolonged conversation about gay marriage, was “using a tactic typical among liberals,” in which opinions they disagree with “are not merely wrong, and are not to be argued against on their merits, but are deemed ‘offensive’ and need to be shut up.”

Abbate said McAdams had distorted her actions — and that she wasn’t trying to shut down an argument she disagreed with, but simply had wanted to keep a focus on an in-class conversation about the philosopher John Rawls’s equal liberty principle. But conservative blogs spread McAdams’s take on the situation — and she found herself receiving a flood of hateful e-mail messages, some of them threatening.

McAdams on Wednesday posted a letter he received from his dean, Richard C. Holz, in which Holz told McAdams the university was starting the firing process.

“Tenure and academic freedom carry not only great privileges but also vital responsibilities and obligations,” Holz wrote. “In order to endure, a scholar-teacher’s academic freedom must be grounded on competence and integrity, including accuracy ‘at all times,’ a respect for others’ opinions, and the exercise of appropriate restraint. Without adherence to these standards, those such as yourself invested with tenure’s power can carelessly and arrogantly intimidate and silence the less-powerful and then raise the shields of academic freedom and free expression against all attempts to stop such abuse.”

Jeez.

First off, I think McAdams sounds like a real cranky piece of work. I haven’t studied this case in any great detail, but a) I have no idea why he felt compelled to write about some GA’s class discussion that went wrong in some way (as far as I can tell, McAdams has zero connection with Abbate), b) it seems pretty irresponsible and jerky to “out” a GA like that in his post, and c) the “facts” of what actually happened in Abbate’s class with this discussion about gay marriage isn’t apparently quite as clear as McAdams might be suggesting.

But as the IHE piece suggests, McAdams’ cause has been picked up by the right-wing blogosphere. So one conservative and alert EMUTalk reader sent me this link from reason.com with this pull-no-punches headline, “Marquette University Trying to Fire Prof for Criticizing Pro-Gay Instructor.”

The AAUP has also come out in support of McAdams. There was this AAUP letter of support for McAdams to Marquette, and  this post at The Academe Blog, “Marquette to Fire John McAdams for His Blog.” Here’s a quote from this piece that post I find especially interesting:

According to the letter [from Holz], McAdams is being fired because “your inaccurate, misleading and superficial Internet story lacked any measure of the due diligence we expect from beginning students.”

While there is some reason to question Holz’s critique (as McAdams does on his blog), none of that debate is relevant to the attempt to fire McAdams. Abbate was not a student of McAdams, and he was under no obligation to choose more private criticism of her teaching methods. Nor did McAdams have any obligation to contact everyone involved for comment before writing a blog post.

One can conclude that McAdams is a terrible journalist, and a terrible person, and that changes nothing about the threat of academic freedom created by this dismissal, and the lack of any basis for it under Marquette’s policies.

McAdams’ blog is a classic example of extramural utterances. McAdams’ blog is not part of his teaching or his research. It is an expression of his own opinions.

And the rest of this post goes on to explain the different ways that the AAUP thinks that Holz has distorted the AAUP’s statements on tenure and academic freedom and the like.

Anyway, two thoughts from me. First, I agree with the AAUP (and I guess the right-wingers too) that MacAdams shouldn’t be fired for this, though I have to say that I agree with that somewhat reluctantly. The problem for me here is not McAdams status as a potentially “terrible journalist, and a terrible person,” though it is frustrating how supporting free speech/the protections of tenure always comes down to supporting jerks– McAdams, Salaita, etc. No, the problem for me here is McAdams’ making public some kind of dispute that happened in class he had nothing to do with that was being taught by a graduate assistant, who (by definition) is not as empowered or as protected by tenure. So no, Abbate was not a direct underling of McAdams, but he’s clearly more empowered (and powerful) than her. It’s kind of like one of the big kids on the playground (McAdams) picking on one of the little kids (Abbate). That’s just not cool.

Second, I am once again left to wonder about the protections of tenure relative to a professor’s “extramural utterances.” I mean, this case seems in some ways a little less “extramural” than the case of Salaita. In that case, Salaita was expressing some pretty extremist political views about Israel; but here, McAdams is talking about a teacher and a course at Marquette, which doesn’t seem to me to be “extramural” at all. Needless to say, I’m interested in this fuzzy line in definitions of roles with a space like EMUTalk, which I believe is a “hobby” that has nothing to do with my day job but which also is almost entirely about the place where I work and the kind of work I do as an academic.

 

One thought on “Firing a tenured professor for blogging: The case of John McAdams at Marquette

  1. I feel for the GA in this story. Faculty will always lose in the long run when they become identified with fighting for the right to be asses.

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