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.”


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 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.


“Snow Day Milestones”

From Inside Higher Ed/Confessions of a Community College Dean comes “Snow Day Milestones,” by the once anonymous “Dean Dad” and now the named Matt Reed, who is the VP for Academic Affairs at Holyoke Community College. I thought this was a nice read. As the parent of a high school senior, I can’t quite relate nowadays to the taking the kids outside to play in the snow. But I do relate to the ways that technology has changed snow days:

A few years ago, a snow day meant that no “work” got done, and we probably either watched tv or read. By late afternoon, the cabin fever would get pretty bad. Depending on how severe the weather was, sometimes we could play outside, and sometimes not.

Snow days aren’t like that now.

Technology has changed, for one thing. As more “work” has moved online, I find myself spending more of each snow day dealing with emails and the like. Whether that’s progress or backsliding depends on your angle to the universe.

Indeed, this thing called “the Internets” means much of the work of teaching and learning can be done easily from the comfort of one’s home.  Classes that normally meet at 10 am on Mondays and Wednesday in Pray-Harrold Hall can potentially “meet” in an online space, particularly when the snow makes it a whole lot easier than coming to campus. Heck, I regularly teach entire classes online.

But I have to say that even when it is possible to hold a version of classes online and even when I’m teaching a class where (in theory) snow days should be irrelevant, there is something about an institutionally declared snow day that makes that tough to do. Sure, catch up on some emails and the like, but actually interact with people? It’s too cold and snowy for that.

Speaking of banning laptops….

Since the whole role of laptops and cell phones in class has been a part of the discussion lately, I thought I’d post this.  From CHE (though this was published last week) comes “Students Are Welcome to Shop Online During My Lectures” by David von Schlichten. He begins the article by explaining that he started to draft this piece while he was in a meeting; a bit later, there’s this:

Frankly, students’ being on their computers or texting does not faze me. This may be because, before I was a professor, I was a parish pastor for 17 years. Sunday after Sunday, I preached while people nodded off or babies screamed (and screamed, and screamed). Who knows how many parishioners were actually paying attention and how many were texting, making grocery lists, or passing notes? I could not monitor all that. I did my best to prepare engaging, relevant sermons. If people chose not to pay attention, I could not help that.

I have the same attitude in the classroom. I am an excellent lecturer. If students opt not to pay attention during my lectures, I am disappointed but not angry. I do my part; it is up to them to do theirs. From what I have heard from my colleagues, the policing of students is more aggravating than worthwhile, and with 173 students in five classes, I simply do not have the time and energy to be disciplining students for not giving me their undivided attention. Besides, just as I was able to start this essay during a meeting and am able to work at home while the TV is on (although it is hard to multitask during The Good Wife), at least some students can probably pay attention to me while doing something else (one student used to knit during class.).


“Cost of Attendance, EMU Athletics, and You”

In the realm of “sport,” there’s a good post by our friend Jeremy over at the site Eagle Totem, “Cost of Attendance, EMU Athletics, and You.” It’s about some rule changes for student athlete scholarships and also about how that is likely connected to EMU getting out of the game at home versus Michigan State. It’s a good read so follow that link. A couple of quotes here:

After years of dragging their feet, the NCAA finally approved cost of attendance increases for student athletes. It was the Power 5 conferences that finally moved on this, as they seemingly control all aspects of college athletics. The ripple effect will eventually hit us here in Ypsilanti, and how the increased costs will be dealt with is uncertain.

The MAC released a statement claiming “the Mid-American Conference’s Council of Presidents has reaffirmed its support of the NCAA’s autonomous legislation that allows for cost of attendance to be included in a grant-in-aid.” In layman’s terms the notion is this — student-athletes will see a bump in their overall scholarship allotment, money to cover food/books/rent etc. The Power 5 masters have pulled the leash, and the Group of 5 subjects have been forced to follow. The ante for admission at the adult table has been raised.

and this:

… for the sake of argument we claim that EMU will be paying $3,000 to each student-athlete [in these additional scholarship expenses], the cost will be enormous. EMU has approximately 500 student-athletes, at the cost of $3,000 per we are looking at approximately $1.5 million dollars added to the already stressed EMU athletic budget.

The EMU athletic budget currently runs an annual deficit of $10-11 million dollars. It is clear that any money used to pay student-athletes will have to come from the larger budget, as athletics cannot simply raise ticket prices to add meaningful revenue. Perhaps they can persuade Pepsi or another corporate sponsor to cover the cost. These solutions are doubtful. Odds are the only way the Athletic Department can pay for this is by either cutting expenses or drawing more money from the student population.

So far, it looks like what is likely to happen is a bit of both: that is, the department is trying to cut expenses so that they are drawing not quite as much money from the general fund, but we’re still going to end up throwing more money at athletics.

And then there’s this:

The first step toward, pardon the phrase, closing the gap in expenditures fell yesterday, when it was announced that EMU has dropped a home game with Michigan State because, in Heather Lyke’s words, “We couldn’t afford to play that game without a guarantee exchange.”

This means that EMU has to miss out on a golden opportunity to party with our Spartan amigos, amidst a full Rynearson Stadium, if only for one weekend. Have you ever noticed that almost all photos of Rynearson Stadium seem to be an aerial shot of an empty stadium? The MSU game was a chance to rectify that! Finally, a stadium full of green and white clad fans! EMU is missing out on fifteen years of useable stock photos.

I’m assuming that when Lyke says we can’t afford the guarantee exchange, she’s talking about how much money we’d have to pay MSU to come here to beat us up. I guess I can kind of understand that, but I have to say that I’m not so sure that Jeremy kind of has a point, even if he’s being a bit sarcastic here. It would be the first time that stadium has been full since… well, maybe the first time ever. Even if EMU had to pay MSU $1 million to come here, it seems possible they’d make that back in ticket sales (especially if they bumped them up for the game) and it would definitely help the attendance figures.


“The Writing on the Wall,” a podcast about Yik Yak at Colgate

“sometimes sports fan” posted this to the comments section, but it’s definitely worth sharing in its own post: “The Writing on the Wall” is a podcast about Yik Yak at Colgate University, where a particularly ugly series of Yaks “brought out a particularly vicious strain of racism that shook the school.” Completely worth listening to in all sorts of ways, but a few highlights/quasi-spoilers:

  • The issue here was among student on student racism at the very small and very white private liberal arts school. And it sounds like a lot of the Yik Yak users are pretty freakin’ racist.
  • At about the 7:10 mark, the story explains that a) Yik Yak has honored requests to restrict access at high schools but not colleges, and b) besides, all users have to do is not use the college network and use their smart phones’ networks. In other words, what the EMU-AAUP was asking for from the administration isn’t technically possible.
  • At about the 12:30 mark, we get into a bit about how the legal ramifications of compelling Yik Yak to give up information on some of its users. This story says that request was essentially denied, though I’m a little fuzzy on the details of that denial.
  • Keep in mind that this was a situation where students were being mean/racists/threatening to other students, and the faculty at Colgate were quite upset about all this. So they decided to fight back by more or less “taking back” Yik Yak. At about the 15:45 moment, that part of the story begins. The professors basically offered naively positive and upbeat statements on Yik Yak, and those faculty signed their Yaks. That seemed to have two effects: first, it sent the message to students “we know what’s going on here,” and second, “we care.”
  • It wasn’t perfect; there were still problems, as the podcast says toward the end. But it helped.
  • And at the end of the story, there’s an important message, I think: Yik Yak made visible to the students and faculty at Colgate what people were saying only to people who thought like them. It exposed a level of racism and overall nastiness that before this whole incident was there but just not visible.

Anyway, super-duper smart stuff here, and I sincerely hope that the folks at the EMU-AAUP and the faculty who wanted to ban Yik Yak in the first place take a listen to it.

Two MLK Day Links

I’m a little late on the uptake for a couple of different reasons on Martin Luther King Day news, but two things I thought I’d share:

First, EMU’s MLK Day schedule of events. Technically, EMU isn’t closed today– it’s just that there aren’t classes– and there are indeed a variety of different events happening on campus. The keynote speaker for today’s event is Dick Gregory, and I have kind of mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, he is of course a giant of the civil rights movement. On the other hand, when I did a search just now of “Dick Gregory,” I came across this YouTube video (which is really 47 minutes of rambling audio from some kind of Internet radio show), “Dick Gregory speaks on Ebola Hoax, Obama’s Secret Service Debacle, and ISIS (CIA Agents).” I only listened to about 10 or 12 minutes of it, but as far as I can tell, Gregory has a lot of kind of crazy conspiracy theories. A LOT. So the open to the public 10 AM keynote in the student center auditorium could be a wild ride.

Second, from the blog Gin and Tacos, “Here Comes Santa Claus.” The guy who writes that blog is a poli sci prof who blogs quite a bit about a variety of things, and I think his point here– that Martin Luther King’s legacy and even the whole civil rights movement is being softened and misinterpreted as it becomes more historically distant– is probably accurate. And that’s a problem, especially given the last year or two and some rather high profile. A quote:

As I watched what happened in Ferguson, NYC, Cleveland, and too many other places to count last year – and particularly watched how white people reacted in many cases with an amount of bile and racist invective that would have made a 1920s Klansman blush – I wonder if America’s race problem is actually worse today than it was when Martin Luther King lived. Sure, we no longer have segregated theater seating and public bathrooms. But back in the days of Jim Crow, society didn’t even bother to pretend that black people were equal or treated equally. Somehow the widespread perception among whites today that black people (and other people of color) are treated equally despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary has made things worse. We’ve traded brutal, immoral honesty for a delusion that has made us more bitter by the day.

I don’t think I completely agree with this– I do think that there has been progress since the 1960s– but I definitely see GT’s point.

Rarely is this site about Emus….

A friend of the site sent me this Emu-related bit of news, “Watch This Runaway Emu Sprint Through Israeli Traffic In The Rain.” Besides this little video and Emu story, this line caught me: “This is the second exotic animal to make a break for it in Israel in the past week. On Thursday, three rhinoceros from the Ramat Gan zoo took a leisurely stroll out of their enclosure upon realizing the gate had not been locked.”