Defending John McAdams
Conor Friedersdorf defends the Marquette professor sacked for grinching on the Internet about a graduate student lecturer’s attempt to silence criticism of same-sex marriage in the ethics course she taught. Conor’s opinions on these matters mean a lot to me. He is a pro-SSM social liberal who is a fierce defender of civil liberties. To refresh your memory, John McAdams is the offending professor, Cheryl Abbate is the graduate instructor, and Richard Holtz is the college dean whose letter informed McAdams that his tenure was being revoked. From the Holtz letter:
As a result of 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, that student received a series of hate-filled and despicable emails, including one suggesting that she had committed “treason and sedition” and as a result faced penalties such as “drawing, hanging, beheading, and quartering.” Another note, delivered to her campus mailbox, told the student, “You must undo the terrible wrong committed when you were born. Your mother failed to make the right choice. You must abort yourself for the glory of inclusiveness and tolerance.” Accordingly, and understandably, the student feared for her personal safety, and we posted a Public Safety Officer outside her classroom. In addition, as a result of your conduct and its consequences, Ms. Cheryl Abbate now has withdrawn from our graduate program and moved to another University to continue her academic career.
As I noted above, Abbate did receive a lot of threats and hate email after her exchange with an undergraduate was publicized. She deserved none of it, whatever one thinks of how she handled their after-class exchange. She’s correct to argue that her online antagonists were engaged in an effort to intimidate and harass. And perhaps nothing of value was gained by including her name in the blog post.
But Holtz’s decision to hold McAdams responsible for her harassment sets an alarming precedent: that faculty members will be held accountable not only for their words, but for any efforts to intimidate or harass those they publicly criticize. By this logic, a professor who criticized a college football player accused of rape, or a fraternity member who chanted “No means yes, yes means anal,” or a college Republican running an “affirmative-action bake sale” could be stripped of tenure based partly on whether that student got nasty emails. Only myopia can account for failure to see the threat to academic freedom.
I cannot for the life of me see where Friedersdorf is wrong here. I say that as someone who has for years received truly vile e-mails from strangers based on things I have written, or that others have written criticizing me. As I said the other day in talking about this, my newspaper once had to pay for off-duty Dallas police protection after someone making threats sent homeless people with criminal records to my house, and after the troll was seen by neighbors driving through the neighborhood distributing flyers accusing me of being a child molester. This is not fun to endure. But the thought that a colleague of mine at the newspaper should have to fear for his job for fiercely and publicly criticizing a position I took in public, and that may have fed obnoxious reactions by strangers — well, that is unacceptable to me.
I can’t see where Friedersdorf is wrong here in the principle he discerns. Had McAdams called for concerted action against Abbate, or in any way egged on her antagonists, that would be quite different. That would, in fact, be incitement. But the principle that any professor can be made to suffer a loss of tenure because others send nasty, harassing e-mails to the target of his complaint, is chilling.
Friedersdorf does not mention something from Holz’s letter that I also found chilling. Holz quotes the taped encounter between the unnamed undergraduate and Abbate, because he appears to accept it as fact. I say “appears” because Holz says in the e-mail that the recorded conversation “is transcribed as follows”; it is not clear that he listened to the tape recording. It is significant, I think, that he does not deny its accuracy in his letter. Notice this part of the transcript Holz entered into the record in his official letter:
Abbate: Ok, well, actually you don’t have a right in this class, as –especially as an ethics professor to make homophobic comments, racist comments, sexist comments …
Student: Homophobic comments? They’re not. I’m not saying that gays, that one guy can’t like another girl or something like that. Or, one guy can’t like another guy.
Abbate: This is about restricting rights and liberties of individuals. Um and just as I would take offense if women can’t serve in XYZ positions because that is a sexist comment.
Student: I don’t have any problem with women saying that. I don’t have any problem with women joining anything like that.
Abbate: No, I’m saying that if you are going to make a comment like that, it would be similar to making a ….
Abbate: How I would experience would be similar to how someone who is in this room and who is homosexual who would experience someone criticizing this.
Student: Ok, so because they are homosexual I can’t have my opinions? And it’s not being offensive towards them because I am just having my opinions on a very broad subject.
Abbate: 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. If you don’t like that you are more than free to drop this class.
Student: So, are you saying that not agreeing with gay marriage is homophobic?
Abbate: To argue about that individuals should not have rights is going to be offensive to someone in this class.
Student: I’m not saying rights, I’m saying one single right. Ok? So is that what you’re saying? Are you saying that if I don’t agree with gays not being allowed to get married, that I am homophobic?
Abbate: I’m saying that it would come off as a homophobic comment in this class.
And therefore an opinion that may not be expressed. In a university that professes to be Catholic. Understand: Pope Francis would not be permitted to offer his opinion on same-sex marriage in Abbate’s class at the Catholic university called Marquette.
Now, read from the account of this exchange that Abbate gave to the university’s investigators. The emphasis below is mine:
[A]fter I spoke with the student on October 28th, I considered that other students might share similar concerns and, keeping this in mind, I addressed the issue with my class the following class meeting (on October 30). I began the class by mentioning that a student (whose name I never mentioned) had expressed a concern that I did not allow for a discussion on whether or not gay marriage would violate Rawls’ Equal Liberty Principle. I explicitly referenced the student’s objection, which he had presented to me after class on October 28th, and I explained to the entire class why this objection was problematic. The student had argued that gay marriage would violate Rawls’ principle because, according to him, children who are raised by homosexuals are more deficient than children raised by heterosexuals. I explained to the class that this objection was not appropriate given the context of the discussion, because what was under discussion was whether Rawls’ principle would support the right for gays to marry which is considerably different than discussing the right of homosexuals to adopt. I then, furthermore, explained that decades of research has concluded that there is little (and arguably no convincing) empirical evidence that children who are raised by homosexuals turn out worse than children who are raised by heterosexuals. I also explained that those who, despite the enormous amount of empirical research that demonstrates this, continue to argue the opposite are appealing to one very flawed research study, known as the New Family Structures Study, conducted by Mark Regnerus. I explained to the class that this study has been rejected by the American Sociological Association, American Psychoanalytic Association, American Psychological Association, Regnerus’ own academic department, and so forth. I explained that appealing to this one research study, which is methodologically flawed, is not appropriate for an academic conversation or paper.
I explained to the class that, keeping this in mind, I made the judgment that our limited class time should not be devoted to arguing about the application of Rawls’ principle to gay marriage. I also encouraged my students to look into Regnerus’ study for themselves to see the obvious problems.
This is fundamentally untrue. She told the student that she would not tolerate expression of the opinion that same-sex marriage is wrong because it might offend a gay student in class. True, she did dispute the student’s claim that social science backs up his view, and I think it’s fair game for her to limit discussion in the classroom to examples that are more relevant to the point of discussion. At bottom, though, Abbate said that to hold the view that same-sex marriage ought not to be legal is bigoted, and she would not tolerate it in her class.
This long online comment from Abbate, posted on January 20 and updated yesterday in response to Friedersdorf’s piece, demonstrates that she quite clearly has the cramped, diminished view of academic freedom that McAdams says she does. Abbate is absolutely right that the kind of abuse she received over the Internet is utterly despicable, and horrifying — as Friedersdorf freely concedes, as any decent person must concede. Abbate, like the university, holds McAdams partly responsible for this cybermob, and this is grossly unfair to McAdams. Here are two key passages from Abbate’s response that deserve attention:
Evidently, the e-mails I received and the comments written about me are not instances of “free-speech advocates” expressing a criticism of or an objection to how I handled an after class discussion about the appropriateness of anti-gay marriage comments in a class about John Rawls: this is about certain men attempting to silence, scare, intimidate, and punish me, as a woman, for daring to challenge the widespread belief that men have an absolute “right” to express any opinion they might have, even if these opinions are sexist, homophobic, or racist. Furthermore, the online comments about me serve as a threat to women as a group: if a woman dares to challenge heterosexual male privilege, she will be subject to the wrath of misogyny. Best be silent, women!
**As a side note: John McAdams is clearly confused about the notion of sexism. Being sexist entails that one has institutional power over another group. Since women do not have institutional power over men, by definition, they cannot be sexist toward men.**
So, she truly believes that one cannot express in her classroom an opinion that she deems “sexist, homophobic, or racist.” And she is willing to grant women the privilege of saying things in her classroom because they are women that she is not willing to grant to men — a standard that is plainly sexist, despite Abbate’s theory granting special privileges to her preferred victim class.
Why does this not trouble Marquette University? It is plainly what John McAdams, however crudely, said it was. Abbate has long maintained that her position on the discussion of same-sex marriage in her class has been misrepresented, but this is shown by the tape recording to be a lie. Her own words about what is permitted in her classroom — no opinions that she considers racist, sexist, or homophobic, and speech restrictions on white male heterosexual students, who, in her view, are the oppressor class — reveal that she is misleading the public about her commitment to academic freedom within the classroom.
In the blog post that triggered his firing, McAdams wrote:
Of course, only certain groups have the privilege of shutting up debate. Things thought to be “offensive” to gays, blacks, women and so on must be stifled.
Cheryl Abbate agrees with this! Look at her own words, from her own blog!
Dean Holz’s letter to McAdams continues:
Your Department Chair recently detailed for the Dean of Arts & Sciences how your conduct has contributed to a culture of intolerance, threatened the practice of academic freedom, and often targeted women and those “in a lower position of power in academic standing at Marquette” than yourself. It thus is the consensus of your Department peers that you do significant damage to the University community.
While you claim simply to be ensuring the exercise of academic freedom, your irresponsible conduct has the opposite effect. The AAUP’s 1994 Statement on Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes stressed the faculty’s major role in preserving the freedom of thought and expression that is essential to any institution of higher learning: “their actions may set examples for understanding, making clear to their students that civility and tolerance are hallmarks of educated men and women.”
I think there is real merit to this complaint, and Friedersdorf does not note that McAdams has been dunned by the university in the past for conduct on his blog that it considers unprofessional. And, I agree that McAdams behaved recklessly with this blog post (no one involved in this controversy has covered himself or herself with glory). Yet the standards Dean Holz set forth regarding the conditions under which McAdams might have permissibly criticized Abbate publicly are incredibly stringent. Friedersdorf:
What say you, faculty members of America? Should the sanctity of your tenure depend partly on whether, before criticizing ideas expressed by someone on your campus, you first speak with that person (Professor McAdams reportedly emailed the graduate instructor, but didn’t hear back), their superiors, and various members of the campus administration? Again, the standard the dean asserts is a clear threat to academic freedom.
Even if McAdams’s sacking is justified — and I note that among this blog’s readers is a Catholic professor who says she likely holds all of McAdams’s opinions regarding gay marriage, but still thinks his conduct was professionally appalling — it is deeply troubling to think that Marquette doesn’t mind its classes being taught by an instructor who openly professes that students in her classroom do not enjoy the same rights to speak out as others, based on their race, gender, or sexuality. How, exactly, does that conform to the AAUP code Dean Holz cited in his letter to McAdams?
Abbate is now at the University of Colorado. If I were a white, male, and/or heterosexual student there, I would not take her class, and if I were compelled to for some reason, I would keep my mouth shut, for fear of expressing an opinion that would lead this activist instructor to identify me as a racist, sexist, or homophobe, and therefore an enemy.
What has Marquette University done to assure its students that they will not suffer restricted speech in the classroom because of their race, gender, or sexuality? What assurances is the University of Colorado giving to students taught by Abbate? Or is it okay that she’s a bigot because she’s a bigot for the Left?
Even if you think John McAdams was rightfully stripped of his tenure in this matter, there are serious questions of academic freedom here that won’t go away. Marquette’s silence on the matter of Cheryl Abbate’s publicly stated belief that white male heterosexuals must be speech-restricted in her classroom, and its apparent acceptance of the accuracy of the recorded conversation between her and her student, is a greater threat to academic freedom than the blog bloviating of a cranky conservative professor.