Tenured Professor’s Free-Speech Lawsuit Looms Over Marquette as Deadline Approaches

The university insists that John McAdams’ continued suspension is about preserving the value of collegial respect, while the Christian professor says he is fighting for academic freedom.

MILWAUKEE — After the exchange of ultimatums and expiring deadlines, a lawsuit that could be filed as early as today now looms ever closer for Marquette University, amid its ongoing suspension of tenured professor John McAdams.

For close to 17 months, McAdams has been banned from the Jesuit university’s campus and unable to function as a tenured professor and teach his political-science classes, after university officials took action — widely criticized as an egregious violation of academic freedom and due process owed to a tenured professor — over a blog post he had written in November 2014.

McAdams criticized a graduate student-teacher by name for allegedly stifling student voices against “gay marriage” in her classroom. Cheryl Abbate, the graduate student-teacher involved, ended up receiving a barrage of Internet hate mail after McAdams’ blog post went viral and ultimately decided to leave Marquette for another university’s Ph.D. program.

After receiving the recommendations of a faculty hearing committee in January, President Michael Lovell declared in a March 24 message to the university that he was implementing those recommendations.

In a follow-up statement to the university community, Lovell said that “a professor inflicting this type of personal attack on a student … is simply unacceptable.”

“Professor McAdams alone can decide whether or not he is remorseful for his actions. But if we are going to sustain our community and be true to our human values, we all need to engage in civil disagreement  —  not gleeful sabotage and destruction,” Lovell added. “I’m not asking for Professor McAdams to be responsible for all the vitriol from the lowest of the Internet. As the president of Marquette University, I am asking for common human decency toward members of our own community. Nothing more and nothing less.”

According to McAdams, Lovell sent him a letter stating that he would be suspended without pay from April 1 to the end of the year. But as an added precondition to reinstatement, Lovell also required McAdams to submit an apology by April 4, which would accept the committee’s judgment on his actions and admit the blog post on Abbate was “reckless and incompatible” with Marquette’s mission and values.

With the deadline having passed, Brian Dorrington, Marquette’s senior director of university communication, told the Register in an email that the school had nothing to add at this time, except that “Professor McAdams’ suspension is continuing.”

McAdams’ Counter-Ultimatum

However, McAdams responded by the April 4 deadline with a letter defending himself, stating that Lovell had failed to relay the faculty hearing committee’s finding that Lovell’s decision to suspend and ban McAdams from campus “violated the faculty statutes and denied me due process.”

He alleged that Lovell also did not make clear that the committee’s unanimous recommendations did not include a demand for an apology as a precondition for his return.

He stated that Lovell’s demand that he apologize for the personal attacks against Abbate from third parties over the Internet was in fact “asking me to be responsible for those attacks,” which McAdams said were “deplorable” but for which he had no responsibility. He added he could not apologize for engaging in an exercise of academic freedom, where he criticized by name Abbate in her capacity as a paid employee of the university.

“Ms. Abbate was someone imbued with the authority of the university who told a student over whom she exercised the authority of a professor that his views — views that are, after all, consistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church, whose imprimatur the university repeatedly invokes when seeking to attract students and support — were homophobic, offensive and would not be tolerated.”

McAdams added that, “had I been able to foretell the future, I might have chosen not to do so, but naming her was not wrong.”

His letter contained a counter-ultimatum that gave Lovell until April 14 to withdraw his demand.

“When people criticize the conduct of someone acting in an official capacity, they normally identify them,” McAdams stated. “As noted above, “If you fire me for failing to make the statements you demand, you will be committing yet another violation of the due-process and academic-freedom provisions of the faculty statutes.”

McAdams told the Register that Marquette had not given his attorney any indication that the school was going to back off, and at this point, “a lawsuit is probably likely.”

“The only resolution I’ll accept is a victory for academic freedom,” he said.

“They violated my contract: The faculty statutes are explicitly incorporated into faculty contracts at Marquette, and the faculty statutes explicitly protect academic freedom.”


Faculty Take Sides

McAdams, who is an evangelical Protestant, admitted that as an outspoken conservative professor, he had many times been a thorn in the administration’s side with his personal blog, particularly in calling the university to uphold its Catholic identity. One instance included his 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 and bizarre activities such as the “C*** Coloring Book.”

“When I publicized it, they canceled it,” he said.

He added that at least a “few dozen Marquette faculty and some graduate students” have protested his bloggings.  

Louise Cainkar, an assistant professor of sociology at Marquette who had been mentioned in McAdams’ blog as an example of political correctness at Marquette, chimed in her support for Lovell’s position against McAdams, but indicated that he did not go far enough.

“I must add that while it is not mentioned when this case is discussed officially, there are also fellow faculty that have endured these types of threats emitting from the same source,” she said in a comment left on the Marquette president’s message to the university. “It seems to me that those too violate a professional code of ethics. Collegiality is essential to a vibrant educational institution like Marquette.”

But Daniel Maguire, a Marquette theology professor and former priest who has clashed publicly with the U.S. bishops over his long-standing dissents against Church teaching on abortion and same-sex unions, is one of McAdams’ strongest defenders at Marquette. He told the Register that Marquette’s actions toward McAdams have not been “worthy of a university.”

“As Cardinal [Blessed John Henry] Newman said — and these are beautiful words — ‘a university is a place where many minds compete freely together,’” he said. “Every one of those words is a gem. You can be criticized like mad, but not uninhibited, while we’re together in an atmosphere of respect.”

‘A Civilized Relationship’

Maguire said that while McAdams has condemned him on his blog as a “heretic,” they personally have “always had a civilized relationship.”

But he added concern that McAdams was being “really maligned” and harshly treated, given his unpopular conservative views. Maguire contrasted Lovell’s actions with how former president and Jesuit Father John Raynor stood by him and said “he’s not for sale” after a major donor threatened to withdraw a large sum of money if Maguire were not fired.

Banning McAdams, Maguire added, not only prevented him from accessing the library for scholarly work, but also lent the “gratuitous implication” that he was some kind of threat worthy of campus security.

“The graduate student was not adequately mentored,” he said, adding that the university was blaming McAdams for its own failure to teach Abbate how to handle a situation where a student did not feel his side was adequately addressed. He said a professional response would have been to schedule a discussion to have both sides of the question aired, but “she didn’t know enough to do that.”

“The whole thing was badly handled, and even now is being badly handled by keeping the [faculty hearing committee] report secret,” he said, adding that the university should have shared it with the wider university community.

“There was no hesitancy in making John’s alleged sins public, so why is there hesitancy in making known the judgment of his colleagues?” he said.

Both Marquette and McAdams’ legal counsel have told the Register that only the other side has the authority to make the 123-page report public.

Rick Esenberg of Wisconsin Law & Liberty, the public interest firm representing McAdams, told the Register in an email that the report is the university’s document and that Marquette’s officials have “never directly authorized John [McAdams] to release it.”

However, Dorrington said Marquette’s administration would welcome the contents being made public “in the spirit of transparency,” but added, “It is in Professor McAdams’ hands, given that it is a personnel issue.”  


Catholic-Identity Concerns

Marquette’s ongoing suspension of McAdams has landed it on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list for two consecutive years.

The Cardinal Newman Society, a Virginia-based nonprofit that monitors Catholic identity at educational institutions, views McAdams’ situation as “extremely troubling.”

“I think there’s legitimate room for discussion about to what extent professors should be publicly discussing the actions of other professors or students in a public forum,” Patrick Reilly, CNS’ president, told the Register. “The problem comes in that Marquette’s actions clearly have been vindictive and not in any way commensurate to how the university would treat others of a different mindset and point of view.”

He said that McAdams’ treatment also reflects concerns in Marquette’s recent university climate study, where some faculty felt their Catholic or conservative values were being marginalized.

According to minutes of a meeting of Concerned Catholics at Marquette University, formed in response to the climate study, the top concern and action item was Marquette’s “commitment to academic freedom for Catholic scholars — protection and articulation — for staff and students too.”

The minutes recorded that some faculty felt: “Those who hold traditional Catholic values are not free to speak up.” There were comments that standing up for Catholic teaching, particularly on sexuality, could lead to marginalization, denial of promotion, or a Title IX complaint on the basis that “any student who claims to take offense at what is heard in the classroom can anonymously report the professor and cause him or her a world of problems.”

“If Marquette’s genuine concern is simply for the question about whether, particularly student teachers ought to be criticized in the form of a blog, Marquette could have focused on that,” Reilly said. “But the fact is that it veered so far away from that legitimate discussion [and] shows continued problems at Marquette, in terms of its Catholic identity.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.

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