Marquette professor banned from campus after criticizing classroom gay marriage discussion

by Marie Rohde

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A tenured associate professor said he will take legal measures if necessary to overturn Marquette University's decision to ban him from campus after he criticized a teaching assistant in a blog post for not allowing philosophy* students in her class to discuss the ethics of gay marriage.

John McAdams, a longtime political science professor, said he is being represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), a nonprofit organization that describes its mission as dedication "to the promotion of free markets, limited government, individual liberty and a robust civil society." Its founder and general counselor, Rick Esenberg, is an adjunct member of the Marquette Law School faculty.

"They [WILL] are representing me pro bono," McAdams told NCR, noting that university policy and his rights were violated when the university failed to specify the charges being investigated. "So Marquette can't make me go broke on legal fees."

He said the action was a breach of contract for attempting to punish him for exercising his academic freedom and free speech.

According to McAdams and reports from Inside Higher Ed and other publications, doctoral student teacher Cheryl Abbate was leading a "Theory of Ethics" class discussion in late October or early November on philosopher John Rawls' equal liberty principle, which holds that every person has a right to as many basic liberties as possible as long as they do not conflict with those of others. She asked students for examples, and when one student suggested a ban on gay marriage violated the principle, she moved on to other topics. A discussion on concealed weapons bans and various drug laws dominated the debate.

After class, a second student approached Abbate and said he was disappointed and offended that the gay marriage example was given short shrift. This student was surreptitiously recording the conversation, which he denied doing until she asked to see his cellphone.

The second student provided the recorded conversation to McAdams, who passed it to Inside Higher Ed. The publication's website posted a partial transcription of the conversation and reported that the student said, "It's still wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person's opinion when they may have different opinions."

Abbate responded: "There are opinions that are not appropriate, that are harmful, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions, and quite honestly, do you know if someone in the class is homosexual? And do you not think it would be offensive to them if you were to raise your hand and challenge this?"

Abbate did not respond to an email request for an interview.

McAdams said the student involved in the confrontation had previously taken one of his classes and that they had maintained a connection. McAdams said after learning of the incident, he attempted to contact Abbate but said she did not respond to an email. After waiting about 10 hours, he posted a blog item at Marquette Warrior, an independent site.

The student first went to the dean to file a grievance and was referred to the interim philosophy* department chair, Nancy Snow.

The student has not been named publicly. McAdams said the student told him that Snow pressed him to name a faculty member who had advised him to file the complaint.

"She blew off his complaint," McAdams said. "He got no redress."

Eventually, the complaining student was allowed to drop the class.

Meanwhile, blog posts from McAdams were picked up by a number of conservative media. In early December, a half-dozen members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas group known for protests particularly involving gay issues, protested on campus. That brought out a larger number of counterprotestors.

McAdams, a self-described libertarian-leaning conservative, continued to blog. He said he was surprised when he received a letter Dec. 16 from Marquette University Dean Richard Holz that told him he was relieved of all duties and activities that would involve interaction with Marquette students, faculty and staff. He has been allowed on campus to work on a manuscript, he said.

"The controversy had pretty much died down," McAdams said.

Brian Dorrington, a spokesman for the university, wrote in an email to NCR that the action was an outgrowth of a concern raised by a student regarding a graduate. "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."

McAdams noted that the fall semester has ended, and he is scheduled to teach two classes in the spring semester.

Dorrington continued: "Our president (Michael Lovell) 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."

Lovell said in that letter: "This is a matter of official policy, but is also a matter of our values. Respect is at the heart of our commitment to the Jesuit tradition and Catholic social teaching."

Lovell also cited the university harassment policy, saying personal attacks or harassment of or by students, faculty and staff will not be tolerated. "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."

McAdams characterized the episode as an "archetype of political correctness" that is pervasive on campus that is inconsistent with both academic freedom and free speech. He acknowledges that he has been a thorn in the side of some university officials, particularly on his blog.

He said if Abbate had restricted the discussion for reasons of time or because other materials had to be covered, there would be no controversy.

By not allowing a discussion of both sides of gay marriage, the university is doing a disservice to all in the community, including those who are gay, he said.

"Rather than argue the issues, they want to shut up the arguments," McAdams said, noting that the Catholic church position is opposed to gay marriage. "Students and faculty should be allowed support the Catholic position on the subject."

*An earlier version of this story named the incorrect department involved.

[Marie Rohde is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee.]

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