The Banishment of John McAdams

Did Marquette University violate the free speech rights of a tenured professor? Or is he a cyber bully?

Perhaps the most striking thing about associate professor John McAdams’ home is its plainness. The house, a narrow, stucco bungalow with brown trim, sits on a quiet street in Shorewood, where it seems to stand apart from its neighbors.

In that respect, it may resemble its owner, who made a name for himself on the Marquette University campus for the blunt force of his conservative opinions.

When the owner appears, he, too, is striking. Tall and broad of beam, McAdams was born and raised in Alabama. And in the light-colored summer pants he wears with suspenders, along with his strong features and triangular shock of graying hair, he looks as though he just stepped off the veranda with a mint julep in his hand. However, it is Southern-style sweetened iced tea and not a mint julep that McAdams graciously offers a visitor on a hot day.

Like most professors, John McAdams was at home this summer afternoon. But unlike other tenured, full-time faculty members who are not on sabbatical, he was also at home during spring semester. And if Marquette’s administration has its way, he will not return to teach there at all.

Marquette suspended one of its most vocal and well-known campus conservatives in December 2014. It’s also in the process of revoking McAdams’ tenure because of posts on his “Marquette Warrior” blog, where he’s been an outspoken critic of what he sees as leftist tendencies at the Jesuit university. Although banned from both teaching and the campus, the 69-year-old political science professor is keeping himself busy – with his blog, where he writes about a variety of issues from a conservative perspective. However, McAdams does allow that “what I write about Marquette is probably more significant than what I write about national politics.”

The blog posts that got McAdams banned from Marquette’s campus concerned the topic of gay marriage. Specifically, whether it should be debated in a Theory of Ethics philosophy class taught by former MU grad student Cheryl Abbate and attended by the self-proclaimed “very conservative” Student Zero (who wishes to remain anonymous to safeguard his academic standing).

Abbate, a doctoral student in philosophy, refused to allow a discussion of gay marriage in her class because she said such a debate might offend any students who happened to be gay. McAdams, whose aversion to the generally liberal climate of higher education is well-known, took issue with Abbate’s stance and blogged about it in November 2014.

After the incident was reported on conservative student websites, the initial result was a fusillade of Internet hate directed at Abbate. In the wake of that cyber bullying, MU started the process of revoking McAdams’ tenure. When McAdams went public on local TV and talk radio with that news, the incident became part of a national debate pitting free speech advocates against those who wish to make higher education a “safe space” for alienated minorities. Along with other academic free speech and tenure debates now taking place in Wisconsin and across the country, this controversy continues to smolder, with McAdams himself all too happy to fan the flames.

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‘The Banishment of John McAdams’ appears in the September 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
The September 2015 issue is available on newsstands August 31.

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