MADISON, Wisconsin — Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has come down firmly on the side of political science professor John McAdams in his dispute against Marquette University, ending a nearly four-year absence from the Jesuit campus and an acrimonious battle over academic freedom and tenure rights. 

The justices ruled 4-2 in McAdams v. Marquette that Marquette violated McAdams’ academic freedom by suspending him indefinitely, without pay, over a blog he wrote about a graduate student-teacher’s alleged suppression of a student’s opinion against “gay marriage” in a classroom discussion. The court overturned an appellate court ruling and ordered McAdams reinstated immediately and awarded damages, including back pay.

“The undisputed facts show that the university breached its contract with Dr. McAdams when it suspended him for engaging in activity protected by the contract’s guarantee of academic freedom,” concluded the decision written by Justice Daniel Kelly.

The ruling stated that Marquette violated McAdams’ academic freedom by suspending him for the Nov. 9, 2014, blog post he wrote about then-graduate student-teacher Cheryl Abbate. The court stated the blog was an “extramural comment” protected under the tenure contract.

McAdams had alleged on his personal blog, “Marquette Warrior,” that Abbate stifled a student’s attempt Oct. 28, 2014, to present a view opposing “gay marriage” in her philosophy class — a characterization of events Abbate later disputed.

The student secretly recorded his confrontation of Abbate after class and then gave the recording to McAdams, his academic adviser. When McAdams wrote about the account, he linked to Abbate’s blog, where her contact information was two page clicks away. The post went viral and reached a new audience, and Abbate found her inbox flooded with a torrent of largely male readers sending her violent and obscene messages.

By December 2014, Abbate had left Marquette, and McAdams was suspended from campus.

A seven-member faculty hearing committee selected by the academic senate investigated and ultimately recommended in January 2016 that McAdams be suspended with benefits minus pay for one to two semesters. It stopped short of recommending McAdams’ dismissal, citing the “complex” nature of the case. Marquette President Michael Lovell adopted the recommendation, but then added the requirement that McAdams admit fault and apologize to Abbate by April 4, 2016.

McAdams refused and sued. McAdams, who is an evangelical Protestant, has described himself as a professor whose conservative views run afoul of political correctness on Marquette’s campus. He has used his personal blog particularly in calling the university to uphold its Catholic identity. In a prior interview with the Register, he described the demand to write the letter as akin to “the Stalinist purge trials of the 1930s.”

The high court refused to defer to Marquette’s disciplinary process, stating it was “structurally flawed” as a legal arbitration process and found that McAdams had a right to sue in Wisconsin courts. The justices stated the Faculty Hearing Committee was neither a universally agreed-upon arbiter, nor an impartial one, because it included a professor, Lynn Turner, who was openly hostile to McAdams. The ruling maintained the committee did not have an arbitration-style authority they could defer to: It just made recommendations, but the one who had the authority to prescribe and impose discipline on McAdams was Marquette’s president.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, writing for the dissent, objected that the majority had violated Marquette’s academic freedom by siding with McAdams, whom she noted actively pushed the story about Abbate beyond his blog to other local and national news outlets. “In determining who may teach at its university, Marquette has academic freedom to uphold its values and principles,” she said. “It has academic freedom to provide an educational environment that is consistent with its mission as a university.” 

She added the decision erodes the shared governance principles of universities and the rights of tenured faculty to judge their peers. 

 

McAdams told the Register that he felt a “combination of elation and relief,” now that the four-year battle to return to his post at Marquette was finally over, and he said that he would be returning to campus in the fall.

“I’ll be back to be an ordinary professor, which is where I want to be,” he said.

 

Aftermath of the Decision

The university had unsuccessfully argued the high court should defer to the university’s disciplinary judgment and affirm a circuit court ruling that held that “Dr. McAdams’ actions are in direct conflict with Marquette’s foundational values as a Jesuit university of cura personalis  — care for the whole person.”

Ralph Weber, Marquette’s legal counsel in this case, told the Register that the university administration was disappointed with the ruling, maintaining it violated the university tradition of shared governance. Nevertheless, he said, Marquette University “proved to have stood up for its Catholic and Jesuit values.”

Weber said the case had nothing to do with McAdams’ conservative politics, but was about McAdams’ violating the responsibility tenured professors have toward students, including graduate student-teachers.

He maintained that had McAdams not singled out Abbate for criticism by name in his blog post, and made it easy for “the unstable in our community” to use the internet to intimidate her, McAdams would not have faced discipline.

Weber indicated the university will be taking steps to make sure the situation with McAdams is not repeated.

“Going forward, the university faculty and administration will work together to make sure that standards of professionalism are enforced and students are protected,” he said.

McAdams, for his part, said he would continue blogging about the goings-on at Marquette. However, McAdams said he will take into consideration whether a person mentioned in his blog might suffer harassment as a consequence.

Rick Esenberg, the president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty who represented McAdams, told the Register that the high court’s decision will provide helpful guidance for other courts about the kind of deference that is owed to universities in contractual disputes.

He added the high court made the right call that Marquette did not have an explicitly agreed-upon arbitration process and was subject to judicial review.

Esenberg said the high court was making Marquette abide by its contractual guarantee of academic freedom. In this case, he added, the court made Marquette follow a lesson he learned from the nuns in Catholic school: “When you make a promise, you have to keep it.”

 

Effects of McAdams Case

McAdams said he did not regret standing his ground. Other professors had relented to administrative pressure, he said, and walked away rather than endure a protracted struggle. McAdams said his victory over Marquette should signal to other such tenured professors that this was a battle they could win.

The case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court had generated national attention, with approximately a dozen supporting briefs from outside parties on both sides and the interest of tenured faculty around the U.S.

Matthew Franck, the director of the Witherspoon Institute’s Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution, told the Register that he believed McAdams had not acted professionally with respect to how a tenured professor should correct a graduate student who makes mistakes while learning the craft of teaching.

Franck maintained McAdams should have approached the philosophy department or the graduate teacher first with his concerns, rather than blog about her, or at the very least kept her name out of his blog.

At the same time, Franck said, the Wisconsin Supreme Court confirmed his view that Marquette had “behaved rather foolishly, and will pay a large price now,” by suspending McAdams without pay and letting the dispute go to litigation.

“With respect to academic freedom and his blog, the court came to a pretty unassailable conclusion,” Franck said. Marquette’s lack of a conciliating or contrite attitude after the verdict, he added, may harm the university when the lower court assesses the damages owed to McAdams.

At the same time, Franck did not believe the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision would have a “very wide fallout.” The case had “fairly unusual” elements, and the high court did not address any First Amendment claims, but, rather, just dealt with the violation of academic freedom guaranteed by the contract.

Still, the high court’s decision, Franck said, sends a warning to private, religious and Catholic colleges and universities that they cannot preclude judicial review of the terms of their tenure contracts by making a religious-liberty claim.

Franck explained a Catholic academic institution, faced with the tension between its core beliefs and academic freedom, would have to explicitly commit itself internally to “norms of the faith that override other countervailing claims of freedom by the individual” — similar to the requirement at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian institution, that a professor’s continued employment is dependent on the administration’s belief that he or she adheres to the college’s statement of faith.

If Catholic colleges like Marquette institute similar requirements, Franck said, “Then they can win these cases.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.

This story was updated after posting.