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.
If McAdams is intimidated by exile, he hides it well. Judging by the Marquette Warrior’s ability to roil the campus and generate negative publicity for Marquette, he is in fine form. In fact, it could be argued that, in the most recent controversy caused by his blog, McAdams is directly responsible for Susannah Bartlow being out of a job.
Bartlow is the former director of Marquette’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, housed on the fourth floor of the Alumni Memorial Union. The center is a regular target of McAdams’ ire. The latest round of McAdams’ blogs about the GSRC began after the spring 2015 semester ended, when the professor was already suspended and banned from campus. McAdams has often stated his belief that the GSRC “was set up as a sop to the campus gay lobby in the wake of Marquette’s refusal to hire aggressively lesbian College of Arts & Sciences dean candidate Jodi O’Brien” (a 2010 controversy on campus and on the Warrior blog).
On May 16 of this year, he provided another example of what he calls the GSRC’s “extreme leftist agenda”: a screenshot of the center’s March 24 Facebook post celebrating the completion of a mural by MU’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, an African-American sorority. The mural, which includes two lengthy quotes calling for political activism, featured a portrait of a young Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther imprisoned for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. Shakur escaped from prison in 1979 and is believed to reside in Cuba. Today, her image can be seen on T-shirts during Black Lives Matter protests.
“It looks absolutely beautiful,” gushes the Facebook post, inviting the center’s friends to “Check it out at AMU 425.”
Although the mural had been around since late March, it had failed to cause a stir. But within hours of McAdams’ May 16 blog post, WTMJ-AM 620 conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes began firing off tweets about the mural, including this one: “@MarquetteU fires conservative professor for blog post. Celebrates cop killer on Most Wanted Terrorist List.” Conservative talk show guest and syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin also weighed in, but Sykes’ posts were by far the most incendiary.
On May 17, the offending mural was painted over. On May 19, Marquette issued a statement that Bartlow, who also taught a class on gender and sexuality, was no longer employed by the university.
This was not the first time the Marquette Warrior had caused a change of course at the GSRC. The 2013 FemSex workshop sponsored by the center is an earlier example of McAdams’ power and reach as a blogger. The workshop was held at the GSRC and modeled on a number of other similar workshops held at universities across the country. Among its goals was to teach undergraduate women how to orgasm. McAdams quotes an article about FemSex from a UC-Berkeley student newspaper that says the workshop is a place for “free discussion of power and privilege related to gender.” Therefore, he writes, FemSex is trying to “help women have better sex by telling them that men are evil exploiters.”
One of McAdams’ favorite techniques as a blogger is to reproduce material he takes from other sources and augment the posted material with his own remarks. He posted a link to the syllabus for Marquette’s workshop, along with bullet points about specific exercises listed on the syllabus. The first bullet point dealt with an assignment in The C**t Coloring Book.
In a Feb. 14, 2013, blog post, McAdams concluded that the FemSex workshop was “way beyond questionable at a Catholic university – and even at a university that pretends to be Catholic.” McAdams is Protestant, but, he says, “If I were at Yeshiva University, and they were constantly trashing Judaism, I would be blogging about that.”
A week after his blog about FemSex, McAdams posted “kudos” to Marquette alum Ethan Hollenberger – a former College Republicans chairman and field director for Wisconsin state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald’s 2012 re-election campaign – “for demanding some response from Marquette about the FemSex workshop.” Hollenberger’s letter referred to the Catholic Church’s anti-birth control and pro-abstinence teachings, and also referenced The C**t Coloring Book assignment. In a reply from MU’s provost (also posted on the Marquette Warrior), Hollenberger was informed that the GSRC is “no longer sponsoring the program.”
McAdams wasted no time bragging about having, essentially, killed FemSex at Marquette (the workshop continued at an off-campus location). He gave credit to local conservative talk radio for publicizing the FemSex workshop “in the wake of our blog post.” He admits that he does not wait for people to stumble across his blog posts, but emails them to interested parties, like Charlie Sykes, local TV news outlets and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
On June 14 of this year, McAdams blogged about a fundraising effort on behalf of the former GSRC director, the now-unemployed Bartlow, on gofundme.com. The fundraising site’s pitch said Bartlow was “fired seemingly for doing her job: providing a safe space for students to express themselves and engage in thoughtful dialogue.” McAdams found that to be just plain “silly.” The purpose of the GSRC, he wrote, is to “promote a gay lifestyle, and push leftist political causes.”
But in some ways, the Bartlow incident is unique in the annals of the Marquette Warrior. Although he says he’s not backpeddling, McAdams allows that as far as Bartlow is concerned, “I don’t so much blame her as I blame the higher administration, who should have known who they were hiring.” Bartlow had been director of the GSRC since 2012, and McAdams says Marquette owes her “a reasonable severance package.” Marquette psychology professor Stephen Franzoi circulated an email soliciting donations for Bartlow that said she “received no severance from Marquette and they pro-rated her May salary to reflect only payment through the day they fired her.” Marquette would not comment on whether Bartlow received severance pay.
[quote align=’left’]He takes conservative positions, including on climate change, which he says is a “corruption of science.”[/quote]Marquette Warrior has also published remarks by theology professor Dan Maguire on Bartlow’s firing. In previous blog posts, McAdams has referred to Maguire, a “laicized” Catholic priest, as the “heretical Dan Maguire,” among other things. As Maguire, the famously liberal 84-year-old critic of the Catholic church, cheerfully points out, McAdams frequently “excoriates me on his blog.” Maguire has had his share of run-ins with Marquette’s administration. “They would love to get rid of me,” he says. But Maguire, like McAdams, and unlike Susannah Bartlow, has tenure.
The Bartlow firing is a rare occasion in which these two old soldiers find themselves battling on more or less the same side. On his blog, McAdams quoted Maguire’s comments that Bartlow’s abrupt termination is “another … example of the lack of appropriate faculty participation in [Marquette] university governance as recommended by the AAUP [American Association of University Professors] and other academic agencies.”
When Maguire says “another” example, he refers to what he considers a primary example of such “heavy-handed non-collegial” tactics on the part of Marquette’s administration: the suspension of John McAdams.
John McAdams had taught in the political science department at Marquette University since 1977, even before being awarded his doctorate from Harvard in 1981. Until spring semester 2015, he taught American politics, including a popular class on John F. Kennedy’s assassination in which he debunked conspiracy theories. McAdams has consulted on a History Channel program and been interviewed by CNN about the assassination. Judging by his blog and his own remarks, he’s a fan of Gov. Scott Walker and takes conservative positions on most issues, including climate change, which he says is a “corruption of science.” He started the Marquette Warrior blog in 2005, so naming it to “tweak Marquette for dropping the ‘Warrior’” mascot from its sports teams and rebranding them as Golden Eagles because the original name was deemed insensitive to Native Americans.
Marquette, and American higher education in general, underwent a sea change in the years since McAdams began teaching there. MU English professor Thomas Jeffers, who wrote an article for Commentary about the McAdams controversy, says that in the early 1980s, “when I first showed up at Marquette, the imperiled parties were liberals.” Today, most of Marquette’s faculty, “as at other schools,” skews left, says Jeffers.
However, Marquette is known primarily for educating health care professionals, businesspeople, engineers and lawyers. There may be a disconnect between left-leaning faculty members and some Marquette students, one that is experienced by overtly conservative students as a kind of suppression.
But the tenured position of McAdams, a professor popular with conservative students, didn’t become tenuous until Marquette’s December investigation. This despite his tendency to raise the hackles of many of his fellow Marquette faculty. Angela Sorby, MU’s director of First Year English, exemplifies their position. McAdams, she says, operates on the principle “that there are two polar opposite points of view – either A or B,” which she calls “thinking in binaries,” a way of approaching issues that does not allow for the acknowledgment of complexity and which, Sorby says, is “an impoverished way to see ideas.” Sorby emphasizes that she takes no stand on McAdams’ actual opinions. “I refuse to disagree with John McAdams. I don’t want to be in a polar relationship with my colleagues. It’s demeaning to another person to reduce them to a sound bite.” (Disclosure: The author of this article teaches First Year English courses at Marquette.)
On the topic of McAdams’ suspension, Sorby says, “I really don’t know why it got to this extreme point. But it appears that, in this case, [the need for] a safe and respectful workplace outweighed free speech.”
Marquette’s reasons for taking action against McAdams are detailed in a Jan. 30, 2015, letter from Klinger College of Arts and Sciences Dean Richard Holz. It advises McAdams that MU was “commencing the process to revoke” his tenure and “dismiss” him from the faculty for failing to meet “the standards of personal and professional excellence that generally characterizes University faculties.”
The letter describes events that occurred on Oct. 28, 2014, in a Theory of Ethics class taught by Cheryl Abbate and attended by Student Zero. All parties to the dispute agree that the subject under discussion was the philosopher John Rawls and his “Liberty Principle,” which is used to justify the extension of equal rights to groups within a society that had previously been denied those rights. Abbate had asked students to propose examples of minority points of view to which the principle could be applied. One student proposed gay marriage.
From there, accounts of what happened in the classroom differ. McAdams’ blog post says that Abbate (who declined to be interviewed for this article) “airily” proclaimed that no discussion of the topic was necessary since “everybody agrees on this.” Holz’s account (based on interviews with two students in addition to Student Zero) says she offered to discuss the
matter after class with anyone who was interested.
Student Zero’s rendition differs slightly from both of the above, at least as he related it for this article. He says Abbate entertained discussion of gun rights, but that she wiped gay marriage off the board and moved on.
After class, Student Zero decided to confront Abbate about the fact that she had disallowed discussion about this one issue. He secretly taped his conversation with his instructor, a practice he says is “customary in the political world” and, evidently, also applicable to the politicized world of American higher education.
Transcripts of the taped conversation between Abbate and Student Zero show that the student began by telling Abbate “I don’t agree with gay marriage,” and that he was “disappointed” with her for not allowing a debate on the topic “based off her personal views.”
Abbate makes the crucial, and controversial, point when she says that “some opinions … are not appropriate … are harmful, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions and, quite honestly, do you know if anyone in the class is homosexual?” Student Zero says he doesn’t. She continues, “And don’t you think that that would be offensive to them if you were to raise your hand and challenge this?”
The student replies, “If I choose to challenge this, it’s my right as an American citizen.”
Abbate responds that the student doesn’t have that right in her class, a position that would be supported by most professors, who maintain the right to determine the content of their classes.
According to Anuj Desai, a constitutional law professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Marquette is a private university and not a government entity, [so] the First Amendment,” which guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, “does not come into play.” As for Abbate’s determining what can be discussed in her class, Desai says “in her capacity as an instructor, she would have been exercising her freedom to teach,” a basic “tenet of academic freedom, [and] she would … be given wide latitude to determine the appropriateness of discussion within a class.”
When Abbate then tells the student that he also doesn’t “have a right in this class … to make homophobic comments,” she is entirely in line with MU’s anti-harassment policy. But her equating objections to gay marriage with homophobia offended Student Zero, who demanded to know whether Abbate was saying “that if I don’t agree with gays … being allowed to get married, I am homophobic.” Abbate responded that “it would come off as a homophobic comment.” She also told the student, “You can have whatever opinions you want, but I can tell you right now, in this class, homophobic comments, racist comments and sexist comments will not be tolerated.”
She added, “If you don’t like that, you are more than free to drop this class.”
When Abbate finally realized the student was taping their conversation and confronted him, he said, “I’m going to be showing it [the tape] to your superiors.”
After a meeting with then-chair of the philosophy department, Nancy Snow, and assistant chair Sebastian Luft, Student Zero initially decided to remain enrolled in Theory of Ethics. But after Abbate showed a film on the ethics of animal rights (her primary academic focus), Student Zero became convinced that he would have to write about the topic “from a liberal position,” he says.
Believing his situation in the class to be hopeless, Student Zero took his drop form to John McAdams, his adviser.
McAdams has a reputation at Marquette for, as one professor put it, having “minions” all over campus who bring him juicy tidbits for his blog. But Student Zero says he just wanted to get McAdams’ signature before the Nov. 14 drop deadline.
“So,” Student Zero says, “I told him the whole story.” McAdams asked if he could write about the incident, and Student Zero assented.
McAdams seems quite sincere when he says that, if he could have anticipated the abuse directed at Abbate, he would not have blogged about her. “If she had simply told the student, ‘I don’t think that would be a good use of class time,’ that would have been fine,” he says. It was Abbate’s playing the “offended” card that got to McAdams, who on his blog called this “a tactic typical among liberals now. Opinions with which they disagree are not merely wrong, and are not to be argued against on their merits, but are deemed ‘offensive’ and need to be shut up.”
On Nov. 17, the College Fix (which labels itself a student-reported, “right-minded” website) ran a story based on McAdams’ blog post about Abbate’s teaching, as well as College Fix’s own interview with Student Zero. Commenters described Snow and Abbate with such phrases as “pathetically fascist excuses for human beings” and “treasonous homonazi harlots.”
Abbate, writing on her own blog, said her email inbox was “flooded with abusive messages from men.” She issues a “trigger warning” before listing some of the comments, which included: “intolerant,” “tyrant,” “first-class collectivist,” “faux educator in an artificial bubble,” “intolerant chauvinist,” “insecure lefty,” “fag enabler,” “bigoted,” “EVIL,” “dope,” “ignorant, liberal frump,” “immature,” “asshole,” “anti-intellectual bigot,” “liberal freak,” “unamerican [sic] fascist,” “a fascist who has no brain,” and “a seditious cultural Marxist.”
Other comments were more anatomical in nature. One advised Abbate to “abort” herself. According to Dean Holz’s Jan. 30 letter detailing the case against McAdams, Abbate also received death threats, requiring Marquette to post a Department of Public Safety officer outside her class.
On Nov. 25 of last year, a group of Klinger College department chairs, including Lowell Barrington, chair of the political science department, signed a “reader submission” to the Marquette Wire, the school’s student-run online news site. McAdams’ “actions,” said the group, had “negatively affected campus climate, especially as it relates to gender and sexual orientation. And they have led members of the Marquette community to alter their behavior out of fear of becoming the subject of one of his attacks.” Two weeks after the publication of this submission, McAdams received an initial letter informing him of his suspension and declaring Marquette’s intention to review “his conduct.”
The suspension ignited protests from students. In December, members of the conservative student group Turning Point USA picketed on Marquette’s campus in support of McAdams. Meanwhile, a block away, a pro-Abbate group demonstrated on Wisconsin Avenue.
By spring semester, Abbate had left Marquette. She transferred to the University of Colorado, where she is continuing her doctoral studies.
McAdams has drawn his full salary with benefits since his suspension began. And he has retained not just an attorney, Rick Esenberg, but an entire organization, WILL (Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty). Esenberg describes WILL as “like the ACLU with the politics flipped just a little bit, but not entirely.” WILL is representing McAdams gratis. Marquette, meanwhile, has retained an experienced litigator, Ralph Weber of Gass Weber Mullins.
The entry of Esenberg and WILL seems to have slowed down a process that Marquette President Michael Lovell declared “complete” in a February 2015 campus-wide email. According to Lovell’s email, Marquette’s decisions in the McAdams matter “have everything to do with our … Guiding Values and expectations of conduct toward each other, and nothing to do with academic freedom, freedom of speech or same-sex marriage.”
However, there have been a number of significant objections to Marquette’s view, including that of Donald Downs, a right-leaning UW-Madison political science professor who writes about academic freedom issues. In a letter to MU’s administration that was published on the Marquette Warrior, Downs claimed that McAdams’ suspension is contrary “to generally understood standards governing discipline in higher education,” including “Marquette’s own rules.”
According to attorney Esenberg, a faculty review of McAdams’ suspension is expected to take place in September. This may be the result of WILL’s efforts on the professor’s behalf, as well as his refusal to go quietly. And while the administration’s adamant stance regarding him makes it unlikely McAdams will ever again teach
at Marquette, he says he has no regrets.
“I don’t mind a good fight,” he says without rancor while sitting in a straight-backed chair in his living room.
Inside the McAdams home, brown is the dominant color, and an indifference to decorative flourishes is evident. Apart from an unframed country landscape that hangs above the sofa, the only pictures on display are photos of McAdams’ loved ones, including his wife, Lynda, and the families of their three grown children, only one of whom still lives in Milwaukee. Early on a Monday afternoon, the long dining room table is already set for a family dinner that will host children and grandchildren, and Mrs. McAdams is hard at work in the kitchen, while Dr. McAdams conducts an interview, a professor banned from teaching, but perhaps as influential as ever.
RT Both is a Milwaukee-area freelance writer. Write back to her at email@example.com.
Tune in to WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Sept. 2 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the McAdams story.
‘The Banishment of John McAdams’ appears in the September 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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