The American academy was strengthened a bit last Friday. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4 to 2 in favor of Professor John McAdams, and against Marquette University, reinstating McAdams to his role as a political science professor, with back pay. This was a victory for academic freedom, the First Amendment, intellectual diversity, and common sense.
Like me, Professor McAdams is a blogger, writing regularly about events at Marquette, where he began teaching over 40 years ago. McAdams learned about an incident in November 2014 when a graduate student, Cheryl Abbate, who also taught a philosophy course in the Theory of Ethics, in class said that gay rights was something on which everyone agrees and therefore would not be subject to discussion in her class. When a student suggested after class that gay marriage was in fact highly debatable, Abbate sharply disagreed, and, according to McAdams said, you dont have a right in this class to make homophobic comments. The perspective that the only legitimate marriage is that between a man and woman was viewed as homophobic, which is particularly ironic since Marquette itself is explicitly a Roman Catholic university, with six priests serving on its governing board, and that the church does not recognize gay marriages, not letting them be performed under its auspices. The student, who was politically conservative, was invited to drop the class, which she did.
McAdams in his blog characterized this as still another attempt by progressives to close down debate and discussion on issues of the day on college campuses, reflecting a new leftish totalitarian tendency to consider any views other than their own contemptible and unworthy of consideration. McAdams great sin, according to Marquette, was that in his blog he provided a link allowing readers to contact Abbate directly (which even McAdams himself did, asking her to comment, which she declined).
The McAdams blog was picked up and widely dispersed, leading to a spate of nasty comments sent to Ms. Abbate. She says they greatly disturbed her, ultimately leading to her move to another institution. She responded by filing a complaint against McAdams with the university administration. Marquette within weeks suspended McAdams, at first with pay. Ultimately, however, the institution fired him despite being a very long-time tenured professor (and despite a recommendation of a faculty committee that he be given a less severe penalty).
What was McAdams crime? He reported on something that happened at Marquette showing total contempt for a free and civil debate in the classroom on a significant issue of our times, gay marriage. To Abbate and so many others, there is only one legitimate position on this issue, and to challenge that is simply impermissible, academic freedom and the First Amendment be damned. Marquette said McAdams was unprofessional in naming Abbate in his blog. He said he was merely reporting a factual incident, much as a newspaper covering the incident would. He was writing his blog on his free time, not as part of his duties to Marquette.
The Supreme Court said the tenure provision guaranteed by the Marquette faculty handbook was a contract, and Marquette violated the contract. It rejected the weak Marquette assertion that it was an internal matter, not one in which the court was allowed to intervene. Several organizations such as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the National Association of Scholars (full disclosure: I serve on its board) filed amicus briefs supporting McAdams.
Again, the McAdams case reiterates the bad news that American higher education is increasingly rejecting a very core academic principle: a search for the discovery of the truth, aided by a free, open, civil discussion of alternative perspectives on contemporary issues. Also, if McAdams had not been conservative, would Marquette have gone after his job? I doubt it. That the president of Marquette, Michael Lovell, actually ordered the dismissal of McAdams is outrageous, as is the fact that the faculty advisory committee did not support reporting the truth and vigorous academic discourse. And, of course, the university governing Board of Trustees was nowhere to be seen.
But the good news is that an external forcethe courts and the rule of lawsaved a respected university from its wrongheaded attempt to place political correctness ahead of academic freedom, the First Amendment, and unfettered debate.