Monday, July 9, 2018

The Wisconsin Supreme Court decision about the battle of the Marquette University professors, and what it says about where we are as a culture

Margot Cleveland at The Federalist has been comprehensively and incisively covering the case of Marquette University Associate Professor John McAdams. It appears her interest in the matter was piqued by the fact that she is a Marquette graduate, although she never had McAdams or the other instructor in question, philosophy professor Cheryl Abbate, as teachers. It's also an interesting situation from a legal standpoint, and Cleveland has had a career in the field of law, clerking for a federal judge. She's also presumably a Catholic; she's taught at Notre Dame for many years.

The basics of the case are these:

McAdams’ November 9, 2014 post at his Marquette Warrior blog condemned philosophy instructor Cheryl Abbate for announcing to her Theory of Ethics class that “everybody agrees” on “gay rights,” and later telling a student who believed gay marriage deserved classroom discussion that “[i]n this class, homophobic comments, racist comments, will not be tolerated.”
McAdams’ blog post identified Abbate by name and linked to her webpage. Later, after national outlets picked up the story, Abbate began receiving emails and letters, some positive, some negative, and a few vile and threatening. Marquette held McAdams responsible for the third-party threats and suspended him.
A faculty hearing ensued. The resulting recommendation to Marquette's president was a suspension for one or two semesters for McAdams. McAdams, in turn, sued for breach of contract.

In Cleveland's post from January about the matter, she outlined the ten relevant points about it:

  • Marquette promised not to fire faculty members for free speech 
  • McAdams' blog post advocated academic freedom
  •  McAdams did not 'harass,' 'attack' or 'shame' Abbate
  •  McAdams violated no university rule by blogging about the incident
  • There was name calling, but not from McAdams ( A few days after the blog post, Abbate called McAdams a “bigoted moron,” an “uncritical, creepy homophobic person with bad argumentation skills,” “a flaming bigot, sexist and homophobic idiot,” and for good measure added he had an “ugly face.”The chair of Marquette’s Philosophy Department also had some choice words, referring to McAdams in writing as a “right wing lunatic.” The chair also called the student who had complained about Abbate—identified in court proceedings only as JD—a “insulin [sic] little twerp,” a “little twit,” and a “jackass.”)
  •  It is disingenuous to call Abbate a student (Yes, she was a graduate student, but like many graduate students she also teaches at the university.
    McAdams’ blog post focused on Abbate’s conduct solely as an instructor. He never once called her a student. )
  •  Abbate attempted to get McAdams fired
  • McAdams’ right to “full and free enjoyment” of academic freedom cannot be disregarded because third parties heckled Abbate.
  • Abbate's transfer wasn't over this incident
  • Marquette's hearing committee was a sham

 The matter made its way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which found in McAdams' favor.

Interestingly, as Cleveland points out, even the dissent makes one of the most obvious points about the whole thing: by making a certain kind of choice regarding its institutional academic freedom - namely, jettisoning adherence to Catholic doctrine in its hiring decisions - it forfeited the right to punish McAdams on grounds of violating any kind of speech code:

Many wrongly believe academic freedom rests solely with faculty members, but the dissent, authored by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, highlights that academic freedom includes two components: academic freedom of the faculty and academic freedom of the institution. Marquette’s “institutional academic freedom is inclusive of four ‘essential freedoms’: ‘to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.’”
As a Catholic, Jesuit institution, Marquette possesses the right to exercise these four “essential freedoms” consistent with its guiding values, described by the dissent as the “holistic development of students” and a “commitment to the Jesuit tradition and Catholic social teaching.” Marquette could, then, have hired only faculty members willing to instruct students consistent with the university’s professed Catholic mission, in which case it could fire faculty members who do not live up to that commitment.
But it didn’t, as is obvious from the university’s decision to employ an instructor who, in contradiction of clear church teaching, taught students that “everybody agrees” on “gay rights.” Marquette instead promised faculty members the right to individual academic freedom, without regard to the university’s Catholic character. By committing itself “not to impair the full and free enjoyment of legitimate personal or academic freedoms,” Marquette forfeited its right to reign in McAdams’ speech as purportedly contrary to the university’s mission.
In its news release, Marquette hinted that it intends to reassert its institutional right to academic freedom, explaining that “in light of today’s decision, Marquette will work with its faculty to re-examine its policies, with the goal of providing every assurance possible that this never happens again” (emphasis added). Of course, by “this,” Marquette means public criticism of an instructor. If only the Jesuit university meant assuring faculty members do not silence student speech, especially speech defending Catholic teaching against a professor’s heresy. That is something I could get behind.
Further up in her most recent essay, she makes another large point that applies to so much coming across our radar screen today: Our culture is so toxic that an avalanche of vitriol out of anyone's control is likely to be catalyzed by anyone who speaks up for God's natural order.


  1. Isn't our culture of laws, not men? If so, the culture as embodied in the Wisconsin. Supreme Court decision upheld academic freedom. And bravissimo for that! (except a whole lot of money went to lawyers and it takes too long a time for issues to wind their way through our clogged courts.

  2. Bravo for the way the decision went, but it ought to dismay us all that Marquette has abandon hiring criteria based on its Catholic identity

  3. Not enough priests, brothers, monks and nuns around to maintain the Catholic identity in hiring and to keep tuition costs down, even down at the elementary level.

  4. They could start with definitely not hiring the likes of this Abbate person.

  5. Would you like a return to loyalty oaths? It's pretty much settled law that they are verboten. But, then again, you're a 50s kind of guy I guess.

    "In the end, the loyalty oaths of the 1950's probably did more harm than good. Most of them got knocked down by The Supreme Court or other federal courts in the 1960's. The courts ruled that if the state suspected a citizen of breaking the law, the burden of proof lay with the state to prove that, not with the citizen to have to proclaim his or her loyalty by an oath. The courts also shot down many of the loyalty oaths because of the vagueness or undue breadth of the language written into the oaths. I have only once been confronted with a loyalty oath in the church. When I was preparing to be ordained in 1967, I was expected to sign the infamous "Oath Against Modernism" initiated by Pius X in 1910. Until late 1967 (after my ordination) it was mandated that every professor in a seminary and every priest take the oath against modernism. I and another Jesuit seminarian had serious objections against taking that loyalty oath. We had read enough history about the grave evils which fell on innocent people and on the church because of its overwrought anti-modernism crusade. Spies listened in on professors' lectures and denounced them to the authorities. People were afraid to write any pastorally bold and innovative works of theology. A cloud of suspicion hung over the church. I have always been a fan of Benedict XV who succeeded Pius X because he opposed the anti-modernist crusades ( or better said, vindictive witch hunts!). The anti-modernists had insisted on an adjective, integral, to accompany the noun, Catholicism. Benedict retorted that Catholicism in its universality did not need any accompanied adjectives. I refused, therefore, to sign the oath against modernism since it violated my conscience."

  6. Stop it. You attempt to conflate where McAdams is coming from with these 1950s loyalty oaths is beyond ridiculous. For one thing, no one - no one - in Catholicism, Christianity generally or America generally ever considered in their wildest imaginings that anyone might seriously put forth the notion that homosexuals could be “married,” let alone consider that it might be defensible for a professor to ban stating basic common sense on the matter in her classroom.

  7. I did not think I was conflating where McAdams is coming from, just where you want Marquette to come from.

  8. Well, okay. What I'd like to see happen at Marquette, and more generally in Western civilization, is a Holy Spirit-inspired turning of the heart, so that coldly contractual oaths and such are not even a consideration.

  9. The Paraclete whispers in that still small voice. Sometimes it takes a long time for that turning of the heart. Don't you know?

  10. Look to your hero Saul of Tarsus.