When I arrived at Marquette University in the 1980s, a lively topic around the copy machine was when, and in what company, a teacher at this Catholic institution in Milwaukee might discuss the L word—liberal. I was mildly anxious about how I could explicate frankly the religious humanism of George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Samuel Butler, and other writers in my field, but many new faculty members were worried about whether, at a school that had been espousing the Jesuit tradition since 1881, they could discuss homosexuality, birth control, or abortion, often euphemized as “a woman’s control over her own body”—issues that the most eminent left-leaning theologian on staff, Daniel C. McGuire, called “pelvic theology.”
His pro-choice arguments briskly made, McGuire urged the Church to focus on what to him seemed the more pressing problems of war, peace, and social justice. Theologians at Catholic University and elsewhere, not to mention Marquette alumni and trustees, frequently called for McGuire’s head, but our Jesuit dean of arts and sciences was firm about a heterodox professor’s freedom to think, speak, and write according to his own intellectual lights.
In the three decades since, campus factions have switched places. Not only is the majority of the faculty on the left, as at other schools, but so, either supinely or aggressively, is the administration. The beleaguered minority is on the right, and one of the few open conservatives at Marquette has now been made to pay.
In October of last year, a professor of political science named John McAdams posted a tale on his blog about a teaching assistant in philosophy named Cheryl Abbate. She had been conducting a discussion of John Rawls’s “equal liberty principle,” according to which people should be free to do whatever they wish as long as doing so won’t hurt, or restrict the freedom of, others. Abbate asked students to suggest behaviors—possessing a firearm, smoking dope, not wearing a seat belt—that, not thus hurting or restricting, shouldn’t be illegal.
When someone mentioned same-sex marriage, Abbate affirmed that it would be covered by Rawls’s principle and should therefore be legalized. “Does anyone not agree with this?” she rhetorically asked. If so, she would talk with them after class.
At least one student did dissent. He approached Abbate to complain that she had disallowed discussion of the topic in class. She explained that she was concerned that gay students, if present, could have felt uncomfortable during a debate about their right to marry. Abbate’s student inferred that, if he disagreed with her endorsement of same-sex marriage, she would consider him not just benighted but wicked. “Are you saying,” he asked, that opposition to same-sex marriage means “that I am homophobic?”
“I’m saying that it would come off as a homophobic comment in this class,” she replied.
We know about this exchange (the transcript goes on for several pages), because the student used his phone to tape it. When Marquette’s arts-and-sciences college and also its philosophy department refused to acknowledge that Abbate’s prohibition was pedagogically unwarranted and promise that such prohibitions in her class and in others would stop, the student approached McAdams, his academic adviser. Sensing an interference with the free play of the mind and securing the student’s permission to quote the exchange with Abbate, McAdams wrote the blog entry that brought him into conflict with a majority of his departmental colleagues, the faculty at large, and the administration.
Besides providing the transcript of the exchange, McAdams argued that the affair was illustrative of leftist censorship: Abbate was using “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.” He quoted Charles Krauthammer’s remark: “The newest closing of the leftist mind is on gay marriage…To oppose it is nothing but bigotry, akin to racism. Opponents are to be similarly marginalized and shunned, destroyed personally and professionally.”
Which, in McAdams’s case, is exactly what has happened.
He was pilloried for naming Abbate—for when the posting went viral, she received some nasty emails that made her feel she was in physical danger. The administration put a security officer at the door of her classroom. Faculty petitioned for redress for injuries done to a teaching assistant, and for punishment of McAdams, who had allegedly been too harsh with a teacher-in-training by questioning her overprotective attitude toward the feelings of gay students.
First, McAdams was sanctioned. His spring classes were canceled and his very presence on campus was forbidden without prior permission from the dean. This happened before he was told what the charges against him were.
Then came a letter stipulating the charges: “your unilateral, dishonorable, and irresponsible decision to publicize the name of our graduate student, and your decision to publish information that was false and materially misleading about her and your University colleagues.” The arts-and-sciences dean, Richard C. Holz, then told McAdams in an email that his tenure was being revoked and that he was being fired.
On February 4, Marquette’s president, Michael Lovell, wrote McAdams another digitally served letter (the administration has shunned face-to-face conversation with him):
The decisions here 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….Debate and intense discussion are at the heart of who we are as a university, but they must be balanced with respect—our Catholic faith and Jesuit tradition demand nothing less….We must always remember that academic freedom must be grounded in integrity, be accurate at all times, and show respect for others’ opinions.
So, to ensure “the safety and well-being of our students,” McAdams would be let go; he would no longer have “the power…[to] abuse and silence our students.”
The “Guiding Values” that Lovell mentions are mostly mission-statement boilerplate. The tenets relevant to the McAdams case are the ones that promise to “nurture an inclusive, diverse community” and live up to “Catholic social teaching for all people”—people in this case under the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender umbrella. This is an interesting reading of Catholic social teaching, for while it certainly maintains LGBT people are children of God who deserve compassion and respect, it is also firm on the fact that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman. This principle, according to the Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2003, rules out same-sex unions “because they do not express full human complementarity and because they are inherently nonprocreative.”
Cardinals and bishops under Pope Francis might have softened their language about same-sex couples, but their commitment to traditional marriage as entered into by heterosexual and (ideally) procreative couples hasn’t wavered, nor has the faith tradition’s loving-the-sinner-but-hating-the-sin assertion that homosexuality is a “moral disorder” whose practices are “contrary to the natural law.” This makes it odd that at a Catholic university a student in a theory-of-ethics class who wishes to defend the Church’s position should be muzzled, and that a professor defending his right to be heard should be sacked.
The current Vatican efforts toward welcoming or “providing for” gay and lesbian believers is encouraging, insofar as it shows religious leaders accommodating themselves to modernity—that is, to secular Western civilization’s toleration of differences, its insistence that conservative and liberal views debate one another, forcefully but politely, in the public square. In the debate about marriage, for instance, everyone—hetero-, homo-, bi-, or transsexual—may participate. They won’t reach unanimity, one may safely hazard, and will have to agree to disagree, knowing that over time judgments will shift a little but that no one will ever get closer to the “truth”—perhaps some grand-bargain compromise or synthesis—unless all participants are free to contribute their views.
McAdams also fell afoul of recent Marquette history. Five years ago, in a search for a new dean of arts and sciences, the university rescinded a contract it had offered to Jodi O’Brien, an openly lesbian professor of sociology at Seattle University (a Jesuit school). She was denied on the grounds that she would have needed to spend so much time defending the nontraditional dimensions of her scholarship—which she describes on the Web as “social psychology, sexuality, inequality” and “the cultural politics of transgressive identities and communities”—that she wouldn’t be fully able to address her administrative responsibilities.
A handful of faculty supported the administration: “The most public face of Arts and Sciences,” noted philosophy professor Owen Goldin, “would have been one whose scholarship encourages Catholics to invent their own sexual identity and accept fluid family arrangements for children.” But squads of faculty and students were dismayed. There were demonstrations and protest letters both before and after Marquette and O’Brien reached a settlement involving some undisclosed financial compensation. When, in 2014, Holz became dean of arts and sciences and Lovell became Marquette’s first non-Jesuit president shortly thereafter, they were certainly aware of the bad taste left by the O’Brien volte-face and might have wanted to gargle it away.
To cashier McAdams for words posted on his “extramural” blog, however, seems less like purification by Listerine and more like swallowing fire. It’s an act of administrative over-correction that, for all the attempts to separate the “decisions” from a professed allegiance to academic freedom, is an obvious violation of such freedom. Gregory F. Scholtz, of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), has written the Marquette administration that while his organization recognizes a university’s right to severely sanction or even terminate a professor, it must first “demonstrate adequate cause,” to wit, that the professor’s continued presence in the classroom or on campus constitutes a “threat of immediate harm” to himself or others.
Holz’s statement that McAdams’s “inaccurate, misleading, and superficial Internet story lacked any measure of the due diligence we expect from beginning students” itself smacks of a lack of due diligence. But as Rod Dreher has argued in the American Conservative, Holz’s claim here is irrelevant to the firing of McAdams. He was not responsible for “mentoring” Abbate, who was a teaching assistant in another department. Nor, after asking her for comment in an email query (to which she did not reply), was McAdams under any “obligation to contact” anyone else for comment before posting his story.
“One can conclude that McAdams is a terrible journalist, and a terrible person,” Dreher remarks, but “that changes nothing about the threat of academic freedom created by this dismissal.”
Dreher’s point is crucial. Being a professor does not oblige one to be blandly sensitive or charitable in contexts where those traits dictate silence—that is, where one perceives a rationally defensible position (here, that same-sex marriage is contrary to Catholic teaching) being suppressed, and where one feels impelled, as McAdams did, not to keep mum but to protest. And the way he did so, by blogospheric standards, was civil.
The liberal majority of faculty at Marquette disagreed, and Holz, following their petitionary lead, appealed to AAUP’s condemnation of “serious breaches of civility.” But this reference ignores the AAUP’s raison d’être, which is that a professor’s freedom to express his opinions is sacrosanct. Thus, a university may censure a professor for incivility—a squishy, eye-of-the-beholder term, after all—but it cannot and should not fire him. Nor should a university protect teacher A from criticism by teacher B—for though Abbate was a graduate student, she was acting as a teaching assistant in this case and not as a pupil. To cite what was all but universally accepted back when liberals truly believed in the First Amendment and academic freedom: B’s liberty to speak and A’s liberty to be offended are indivisible. The proper response to offensive speech is more speech.
As the leftist theologian McGuire has written to Lovell, in half a century of university experience, “I have never seen a similar punishment imposed on a professor in this ‘blunt instrument’ fashion.” To ban McAdams “from campus unless he gets permission from the dean strikes me as bizarre, demeaning, and unjust,” suggesting that the professor “is some sort of threat to the persons in this academic community,” without specifying the nature of that threat. Is he a sexual predator? “Over the years Professor McAdams and I have disagreed on many issues—and he has excoriated me on his blog—but all my personal interactions with him have been uniformly civil and urbane. Again, as Cardinal Newman said, in a university many minds are free to compete. That’s the glory of it.”
The give-and-take of ideas is, or was, the glory of academe, just as it was and still is the glory of our democracy. The Founders’ project for defending political liberty was based on the convictions of 18th-century philosophes defending religious liberty. “If there were only one religion in England,” Voltaire wrote in his Philosophical Letters, “one would have to fear despotism; if there were two, they would cut each other’s throats; but they have thirty, and they live happy and in peace.” During the ratification debate on the United States Constitution, both Federalists and Anti-Federalists concurred that, as one of the latter remarked, “public liberty depends” on “the preservation of parties,” which is to say the conflict of ideas. “Whenever men are unanimous on great public questions, whenever there is but one party, freedom ceases and despotism commences.”
Once ratified, the Constitution secured the free market for ideas, and for the parties that backed them, through its ingenious machinery of checks, balances, and a Bill of Rights, starting with the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. The principles of academic freedom that derive from the First Amendment have for nearly a century been successfully defended by AAUP and others. But as the recent dust-up at Marquette demonstrates—a dust-up that will probably be settled in court—vigilance must be constant and unyielding.
John Stuart Mill, grateful heir of the arguments of the 18th-century champions of free thinking, knew that the left and the right, granted liberty, would nourish each other: “‘Lord enlighten thou our enemies,’ should be the prayer of every true Reformer; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers: We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.”
The alternative—persecution—is a doubleheaded ax. If it swings from the left in one period of history, it will swing from the right in another. Sheath the ax, and hang it up.