In November, Prof. John McAdams (Marquette political science) — who blogs at Marquette Warrior — wrote a post critical of a philosophy instructor, Cheryl Abbate. (Abbate is a graduate student but was apparently the sole instructor for the particular section of the Theory of Ethics class, as is not uncommon for undergraduate courses at research universities.) The post faulted Abbate for allegedly not allowing criticism of homosexuality in class discussions (the quotes appear to be from the student who had approached McAdams to complain about Abbate):

Abbate explained that “some opinions are not appropriate, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions” and then went on to ask “do you know if anyone in your class is homosexual?” And further “don’t you think it would be offensive to them” if some student raised his hand and challenged gay marriage? The point being, apparently that any gay classmates should not be subjected to hearing any disagreement with their presumed policy views.

Then things deteriorated further as the student said that it was his right as an American citizen to make arguments against gay marriage. Abbate replied that “you don’t have a right in this class to make homophobic comments.”

She further said she would “take offense” if the student said that women can’t serve in particular roles. And she added that somebody who is homosexual would experience similar offense if somebody opposed gay marriage in class.

She went on “In this class, homophobic comments, racist comments, will not be tolerated.” She then invited the student to drop the class.

Which the student is doing.

The post also claimed that the administration wasn’t taking the student’s complaints seriously. The story got some media attention, and harsh public criticism for Abbate (including some anonymous comments that appeared to be threatening); Inside Higher Ed has a detailed story on the subject.

Now, McAdams has gotten this letter from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences:

Dear John:

The university is continuing to review your conduct and during this period — and until further notice — you are relieved of all teaching duties and all other faculty activities, including, but not limited to, advising, committee work, faculty meetings and any activity that would involve your interaction with Marquette students, faculty and staff. Should any academic appeals arise from Fall 2014 semester, however, you are expected to fulfill your obligations in that specific matter.

Your salary and benefits will continue at their current level during this time.

You are to remain off campus during this time, and should you need to come to campus, you are to contact me in writing beforehand to explain the purpose of your visit, to obtain my consent and to make appropriate arrangements for that visit. I am enclosing with this letter Marquette’s harassment policy, its guiding values statement, the University mission statement, and sections from the Faculty Handbook, which outline faculty rights and responsibilities; these documents will inform our review of your conduct.

Sincerely,

Dean

The letter doesn’t specifically indicate what McAdams is being investigated for; and no passages in the documents that the dean attached were highlighted in a way that suggests specific details on this. But McAdams believes that this suspension and removal from campus must have been caused by the earlier post: “Since we have done nothing particularly controversial lately besides blog about the Philosophy instructor (one Cheryl Abbate), we have to assume that’s what it is about.” And Marquette seems to support this; I wrote them last night saying, “Prof. McAdams’ Dec. 16 post suggests that the paid suspension and the exclusion from campus was triggered entirely by his Nov. 9 post. But of course if there’s more to the story, I’d love to know.” Marquette responded by saying:

Given that professor John McAdams has shared his personnel information on his public blog, we are sharing the following information:

Last month, Marquette University began reviewing both a concern raised by a student and a concern raised by a graduate student teaching assistant. While this review continues, professor John McAdams has been relieved of his teaching duties and other faculty duties. His salary and benefits will continue during the course of the review.

Our president has been very clear, including in a recent campus-wide letter, about university expectations and Guiding Values to which all faculty and staff are required to adhere, and in which the dignity and worth of each member of our community is respected, especially students.

“This is a matter of official policy, but it is also a matter of our values,” President Michael R. Lovell said in his letter to the campus community. “Respect is at the heart of our commitment to the Jesuit tradition and Catholic social teaching.”

Lovell noted that Marquette listens to any member of the campus community who expresses concerns alleging inappropriate behavior. As stated in our harassment policy, the university will not tolerate personal attacks or harassment of or by students, faculty and staff.

“To be clear, we will take action to address those concerns.” he said. “We deplore hatred and abuse directed at a member of our community in any format.”

The university has protocols in place for students who have concerns related to academic matters or any other issues. Faculty members who express concerns alleging harassment may also refer concerns through standard channels of authority – an associate dean, dean of the college or the provost.

Given that the university’s actions seem to be based just on McAdams’s criticism of another instructor (though I’d love to hear more from readers who know any further facts on all this) those actions strikes me as quite improper. Marquette is a private university, and thus not bound by the First Amendment; and Wisconsin is not one of the states that generally restricts private employer retaliation based on an employee’s speech. Still, Marquette frames itself as a university that respects academic freedom and free speech rights. Acting this way towards a faculty member who publicly expresses his opinions on an important issue, including when the issue involves what he sees as improper suppression of student views by a colleague, stifles that freedom.

It not only deters faculty speech critical of colleagues, but it also tends to suppress student speech critical of faculty, and student and faculty speech on controversial subjects more broadly. If you knew that criticizing a teacher this way could lead even a senior tenured faculty member to be suspended from teaching and ordered off campus, would you as a junior faculty member feel comfortable criticizing homosexuality or gay rights? Would you as a student feel comfortable criticizing homosexuality or gay rights, or criticizing instructors who you think are intolerant of certain student views on ethics and politics?

Marquette, I stress again, is legally free to impose such speech restrictions, though of course subject to any contractual obligations it may have accepted as part of its tenure system and university policies. But it shouldn’t be free from criticism when it imposes such restrictions. If the facts are as reported — and the report is apparently confirmed, at least in large part, by the Marquette e-mail (though please let me know if there are other facts I should know here) — Marquette seems to be behaving quite badly here.

UPDATE: This post was published just a minute or two before I got a response from Marquette to an earlier e-mail I sent them, asking for comment. I’ve revised the post to include that e-mail, and reflect that it seems to confirm McAdams’s claim that the university’s actions is based on his e-mail.

FURTHER UPDATE: Colleen Flaherty (Inside Higher Ed) has more. Here’s an excerpt:

Roberta Coles, a professor of sociology at Marquette who has been critical of McAdams, said, “it has been a series of incidents […] not just this one with Ms. Abbate. She’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.”

Coles didn’t elaborate, but McAdams often discusses controversial issues on his blog, including how he faced a complaint last year after discussing “bogus” rape statistics in his class.

“We point out that feminists insist that if a woman consents to sex under the influence of alcohol, she has been raped,” McAdams wrote. “We typically add ‘if you wake up in the morning and ask, ‘what in the world did I do?’ ” you haven’t been raped. If you’ve been raped you feel violated. If it requires a feminist political activist to explain to you how what happened was rape, you weren’t raped.’”

Coles said she’d told McAdams via email that since Abbate “is a student and we are teachers/mentors, a more appropriate way would have been to talk to her directly about how she could incorporate various views into the classroom in a non-offensive way.”

Brandon Buck, a doctoral fellow in philosophy and education at Teachers College at Columbia University who received a master’s degree in education policy and foundations at Marquette, but who has never met McAdams or Abbate, also has been publicly critical of the professor’s approach with a student at his institution.

“McAdams’s position and Abbate’s status imply a kind of sacred relationship between the two,” Buck said via email. Yet “McAdams did nothing to help Abbate grow as a person, [and] instead he did everything to stomp her down as a person. He didn’t just violate the trust implied in the special relationship, he made a public mockery of it.”

Justin Weinberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, has defended Abbate on his blog, Daily Nous. He also said there were better ways for McAdams to address the classroom discussion with Abbate.
“If he had sincere concerns about her teaching decisions, I believe an email expressing such concerns to her and seeking further details, copying her adviser or chair, would have been appropriate,” Weinberg said. “Apparently, he thought it was more important to score political points with his blog readers than to fulfill his duties as a member of the Marquette faculty.”
Weinberg said he thought Marquette’s disciplinary action seemed an “appropriate first step,” as the university continues its investigation.

I’m skeptical about the argument that McAdams could be disciplined for criticizing a graduate student, especially since he wasn’t actually a supervisor of hers (she’s in a different department), and the student’s complaints about the student — which did go through the normal chain of command — apparently yielded no result. A faculty member’s right to publicly comment on important issues, including arguing about whether student discussion of certain subjects is being improperly suppressed, doesn’t exclude the right to criticize incidents at one’s own university, even when the incidents involve instructors who are graduate students. And certainly it’s hard for me to see how such public criticism of a graduate student in another department should lead to a cancellation of the professor’s teaching and an order that the professor not even come to campus.