Wisconsin High Court Hears Academic-Freedom Debate in ‘McAdams v. Marquette’

Professor John McAdams is fighting an indefinite suspension from Marquette over his blog post that alleged a graduate student-teacher stifled a student’s objection to ‘gay marriage.’

(photo: Campus photo, Wikipedia/public domain; McAdams photo, Marquette.edu)

MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Supreme Court may soon decide the fate of the acrimonious legal battle between Marquette University and Marquette political science professor John McAdams, after hearing oral arguments April 19 from both sides.

The Jesuit university suspended McAdams, a tenured professor with 40 years of teaching experience at Marquette, indefinitely without pay over a blog he wrote about a graduate student-teacher’s alleged suppression of a student’s opposition to “gay marriage” in her classroom. 

Hearing the case of John McAdams v. Marquette University, several Wisconsin justices grilled Marquette about the integrity of the process used to sanction McAdams and prohibit his return to the classroom, pending his writing a confidential apology letter admitting guilt. The justices raised questions over trying McAdams with a faculty hearing committee, without it being an explicitly-agreed-upon mechanism in the contract and faculty statutes; the faculty hearing committee process including a tenured faculty member that had already sided against McAdams; and Marquette’s tenure contract including explicit protections from dismissal for exercising U.S. constitutional rights, even though it is a private institution.

Marquette attorney Ralph Weber argued before the court that the university had a mutually-agreed-upon process that involved both the administration and tenured faculty, and its findings are subject to judicial review. He explained the faculty hearing committee’s findings met the “clear and convincing evidence standard,” with a 123-page report and 300 findings of fact behind its recommendation to sanction McAdams, who, he argued, did not enjoy the same First Amendment protections afforded at public universities.

The justices will have to confirm or reverse a circuit court ruling that sided with the university’s disciplinary judgment. In May 2017, Judge David Hansher deferred to Marquette, ruling 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.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s upcoming decision may hinge on Marquette’s faculty statutes, which state, “Dismissal will not be used to restrain faculty members in their exercise of academic freedom or other rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution.”

Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, represented McAdams before the high court. He told the Register that Marquette freely chose to go beyond academic freedom to guarantee that McAdams would not be dismissed for exercising constitutionally protected free speech.

“They need to honor that commitment,” he said.

Esenberg said Marquette had overreacted by prescribing a discipline for McAdams that effectively fired him and that his client would be both looking for reinstatement and compensation for lost wages.

He added that if the justices decide to reverse the circuit court’s decision, they could grant a summary judgment in favor of McAdams or order the case to proceed to trial.


Lawsuit’s Origins

McAdams sued the university in May 2016, claiming he was de facto fired and subjected to “compelled speech.” He argued the university violated his academic freedom when President Michael Lovell made his reinstatement conditional upon writing a confidential letter accepting his blog post was “reckless and incompatible” with Marquette’s mission and values. McAdams was told he needed to accept the judgment of the faculty hearing committee and express “deep regret” for the harm done to the graduate student-teacher, Cheryl Abbate.

Back in November 2014, McAdams alleged on his personal blog, “Marquette Warrior,” that Abbate stifled a student’s attempt Oct. 28, 2014, to present an opposing view on “gay marriage” in her philosophy class — a characterization of events Abbate disputed. The student gave McAdams, his academic adviser, a secret recording of his confrontation after class with the graduate instructor. 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, reached a new audience, and Abbate found her inbox flooded with a torrent of largely male readers sending her violent and obscene messages. She left after a month.

A seven-member faculty hearing committee selected by the academic senate ultimately recommended in January 2016 that McAdams be suspended with benefits minus pay for one-two semesters, but not dismissed, citing the “complex” nature of the case. President Lovell then added the apology letter as an added requirement for reinstatement.

McAdams told the Register that President Lovell’s demand that he sign a letter regretting his actions is akin to “the Stalinist purge trials of the 1930s.”

“I have nothing to apologize for,” he said. He viewed it as an administrative ploy to “stifle controversy” and dispose of “troublesome faculty,” regardless of tenure’s guarantees of academic freedom.

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. One particular instance involved McAdams’ blog post on Marquette’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center program called “FemSex,” a not-for-credit seminar first developed at Harvard University that involved discussions of sexuality in ways contrary to Catholic teaching.


Unclear Events

Ralph Weber, Marquette’s attorney, rejected the assertion that the university was punishing McAdams for his ideological views, but was enforcing the university’s professional conduct norms. He told the Register McAdams crossed a line beyond the scope of academic freedom when he chose to “paint a target on the back of a student teacher.”

He noted that McAdams had published 3,000 blog posts, but the only one that led to a disciplinary hearing involved Abbate, who was both an instructor and a graduate student. He said McAdams had previously been asked — and had agreed — to keep the names of students out of his blog and knew from previous incidents that naming individuals on his blog could lead to them experiencing blowback.

“Had he left her name and contact information out of this post, nothing would have happened,” Weber said. He pointed out that the faculty hearing committee, which unanimously decided to suspend McAdams for an entire academic year, included tenured professors with conservative views who were selected by the academic senate and not the administration.

Weber added the university could not take corrective action regarding Abbate’s alleged suppression of a discussion in her classroom before the blog post because the student with the complaint — named “John Doe” in the faculty hearing committee’s report — stopped pursuing it through official channels. He explained the university inferred the matter was resolved, when, in fact, the student took his recording to McAdams instead.

However, the faculty hearing committee’s final report shows that philosophy chair Nancy Snow never investigated Doe’s complaint about Abbate. She actually sent Abbate a strong message of support and put Doe on notice that she would be watching for further disrespectful incidents. In fact, the faculty hearing committee added it found “no evidence” anyone in the philosophy department disagreed with Abbate’s interactions with Doe until shortly before the hearing began.

During oral arguments, Marquette’s attorney revealed the university eventually counseled Abbate about her classroom behavior, but she had left Marquette by then.

McAdams, however, had been suspended and banned from campus by the administration.


Academics Watching

The case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court has 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.

“It is not a straightforward case,” Jennifer Frey, a Catholic and professor of ethics at the University of South Carolina, told the Register.

“I think it is a perfect storm of things, about how higher ed operates now and the way the culture wars are being played out in higher ed,” Frey said. “It is really bad for education.”

Frey, who has written for First Things on tenure being under siege at universities, said McAdams’ conflict with Marquette does not fit in every respect the general narrative about a conservative professor, even one upholding Catholic identity, suffering at the hands of the administration.

Frey said without a doubt, there is a “real concern about the loss of Catholic identity” at Marquette, particularly among the professors she knows there, who feel the environment is hostile toward them. The problem in this case, she said, is that McAdams appears to have violated the norms that govern university life, particularly the relationship between professors and graduate-student instructors, who are learning how to be professors. They need to be able to make mistakes without fear of online attacks from professors in other departments. Frey said it was “unfair for a senior professor to treat a graduate student in this way.”

At the same time, she said McAdams’s behavior would not generally be considered a firing offense and regarded the faculty hearing committee’s recommendation of suspension without pay as extreme.

Frey agreed the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision in McAdams v. Marquette will be closely watched. Justices are expected to issue their decision in June.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.