A university professor who beat his school in a fight over free speech says it’s essential that students hear more than one side of an issue.
If they can’t, warns John McAdams, “then it becomes not education, but indoctrination.”
His comments came in an interview with Foundation for Individual Rights in Education only a few weeks after the state Supreme Court rebuked Marquette University in Milwaukee for its politically correct code of conduct for tenured professors that succumbs “to the dominant academic culture of micro-aggressions, trigger warnings and safe spaces.”
The dispute centered on McAdams’ criticism of a graduate teaching assistant in a blog post for telling a student that the concept of “gay rights” is undisputed and anyone who thinks otherwise is “homophobic.”
The university suspended McAdams for his criticism, and he was not reinstated because he refused to write an apology. The university insisted the courts should have nothing to do with the dispute.
Officials at the private Roman Catholic institution learned otherwise.
The court ruled in favor of McAdams, concluding he had a right to sue and must be reinstated immediately, with all back pay and other benefits to which he may have been entitled.
McAdams’ position has been restored, but he is on an academic leave that had been due to him. He is scheduled to resume teaching classes in the spring.
He told FIRE that everything looks familiar.
“That includes his office,” FIRE said, “which he found last month exactly as he left it in 2014 when Marquette, the private, Jesuit university in Milwaukee, forced McAdams into professorial purgatory, indefinitely suspending him from campus for writings on Marquette Warrior, his personal blog.”
“McAdams, a longtime critic of ‘politically correct Leftists,’ complained on the platform about a graduate student instructor who refused to allow classroom debate over the propriety of gay marriage. (She told a student that debate was settled.) After McAdams’ post garnered national attention, the instructor got harassing and threatening messages. Marquette blamed McAdams,” FIRE said.
The state Supreme Court concluded 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.”
McAdams told FIRE the biggest continuing threat to academic freedom at most universities comes from the “small cadre” of students and faculty – “supported by top-heavy, bureaucratic administrations – who don’t want certain ideas discussed.”
Marquette still insisted, when it lost the court case, that McAdams’ behavior was inappropriate and said it would review its policies.
“It sounds to me like they’re simply going to try to come up with a rule to shut me or anyone else who might be like me up,” McAdams responded. “I don’t know to what extent they could get away with that.”
He noted “a lot of faculty just keep their heads down and would keep their heads down no matter how secure their guarantee of academic freedom was simply because they just don’t want to be in the middle of controversy.”
He also isn’t backing down from his opinions.
“Only a very few students think I say offensive things. You may run across a few here or there, but for the most part, students don’t think that,” he said. “There have been a lot more students who’ve rallied to my side than have attacked me.”
The court’s ruling blasted the university, charging it “denies Dr. McAdams’ right to litigate his breach of contract claim in our courts. Instead, it says, we must defer to its procedure for suspending and dismissing tenured faculty members. It claims we may not question its decision so long as it did not abuse its discretion, infringe any constitutional rights, act in bad faith, or engage in fraud.”
The state high court said the university “is mistaken.”
“We may question, and we do not defer. The university’s internal dispute resolution process is not a substitute for Dr. McAdams’ right to sue in our courts. The university’s internal process may serve it well as an informal means of resolving disputes, but as a replacement for litigation in our courts, it is structurally flawed.”
It ordered the university to determine damages, including back pay, and reinstate him “with unimpaired rank, tenure, compensation, and benefits.”
In a special concurrence written by Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley, the case was characterized as putting “academic freedom” on trial.
“Would the sacred ‘right of faculty members to speak as citizens – that is, ‘to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic or other interest without institutional discipline or restraint” – succumb to the dominant academic culture of micro-aggressions, trigger warnings and safe spaces that seeks to silence unpopular speech by deceptively recasting it as violence?
“In this battle, only one could prevail, for academic freedom cannot coexist with Orwellian speech police. Academic freedom means nothing if faculty is forced to self-censor in fear of offending the unforeseen and ever-evolving sensitivities of adversaries demanding retribution,” she wrote.
The dispute began when McAdams commented on graduate teaching assistant Cheryl Abbate’s treatment of a student in a Philosophy of Ethics class in 2014.
“The student explained that he did not favor same-sex marriage and was dismayed that the teacher had not allowed discussion of a viewpoint questioning same-sex marriage during class. The instructor told the student that she considered his opinion homophobic and therefore out of bounds.”
McAdams’ response was: “Like the rest of academia, Marquette is less and less a real university. And when gay marriage cannot be discussed, certainly not a Catholic university.”
His comments were posted on his personal blog, Marquette Warrior.