Though an article in September’s Milwaukee Magazine, written by a freelance writer who is also an English instructor at Marquette University, sheds not much new light on the “banishment” of the tenured political science professor and conservative blogger John McAdams, it does bring the topic to the fore again, and as McAdams’ fate is being decided, it’s time to weigh in.
For while Marquette is a private, Catholic university, the democratic principles of free speech and academic freedom remain the foundation of all professing; it is to Marquette’s credit that it has long been the home of the ultra-liberal (McAdams has called him “heretical”) theology scholar Dr. Daniel Maguire. Maguire seems to be the lone liberal at Marquette speaking publicly against the administration’s harsh punishment of McAdams, and he is right to do so.
Given the sometimes oppressive political history of our nation, professors and administrators ought to be leery of any professor being suspended and possibly fired for speaking his or her mind either in class or in any other forum, but that does not seem to be the general faculty/administration response at Marquette.
Besides Maguire’s comments in the Milwaukee Magazine article, in the piece we hear only briefly from two English professors, one of whom, Thomas Jeffers, wrote an astute and convincing opinion piece (“The Defenestration of a Conservative Professor”) in May defending McAdams that was published in the mightily conservative Commentary. Jeffers, by the way, has written a biography of the former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, a book that Library Journal calls “a sympathetic life of a neo-conservative icon.” Let’s put Jeffers in the conservative column. The other Marquette professor interviewed, Angela Sorby, criticizes McAdams for “thinking in binaries”, that is, politically, yet tells the interviewer that she will not debate McAdams’ ideas: “I refuse to disagree with John McAdams. I don’t want to be in a polar relationship with my colleagues.” I would argue that clear and public disagreement is part of what a university is about and professors, whatever their area of expertise, do need to engage with students, colleagues and administration on institutional and public issues.
It has become common in higher education for professors who teach the social sciences and humanities to avoid certain ideas and even some words, to issue “trigger warnings” that are meant to alert their students to potentially painful topics of discussion. Avoiding all perceived and unintentional “microaggressions” limits college lectures and debates to what is thought to be “safe” for general consumption, and this seems to have been what prompted the philosophy teaching assistant at Marquette to squelch a discussion of same-sex marriage in her classroom. But a discussion of the merits of same-sex marriage within a philosophy class held at a Catholic university is academically appropriate, and the teaching assistant, despite her personal feelings and at the risk of offending someone, should have let the conservative student and the rest of the class discuss it– as long as the discussion did not degenerate into personal abuse of the sort the female teaching assistant had to endure once McAdams’ post on the incident reached a conservative audience.(Men, for some reason, are particularly susceptible to inflicting anonymous, online verbal abuse on women, especially feminists. Perhaps McAdams can address this phenomenon.)
We cannot, however, blame McAdams for the crude, misogynistic and threatening comments the teaching assistant received via email. We can fault McAdams for publishing the grad student’s name, for writing the post based only on one student’s perspective, for publicly chastising a young teacher. But McAdams, a political scientist, had not been banned from personal blogging (journalism) and, based on all reports, did not speak crudely or threateningly to the teaching assistant. To permanently remove him from the university for a blog post seems, to this bleeding-heart liberal, needlessly punitive and academically intolerant.
While it is true that conservatives often hide behind accusations of “political correctness” to excuse all sorts of social discrimination, it is also true that some liberal academics are trying to over-compensate for discrimination and victimization by avoiding generally controversial or personally painful subjects in their classrooms. Neither stance is good for education or democracy. A student ought to understand that entering a college or university is entering a realm of intellectual truth-seeking and personal challenge; no student has a right to insist on being protected from anything in a classroom but criminal or intentionally abusive/harassing behavior or speech.
Rather than banning and/or firing a tenured professor for professing his political mind, however tactlessly, Marquette should allow McAdams, the professor and the blogger, back to the fold in the spirit of Christian forgiveness and free speech. Marquette is the home of the papers of the most prominently liberal of American Catholics– the activist and radical journalist Dorothy Day. In Day’s honor, Marquette’s faculty (beyond Maguire) should, if the conservative professor is allowed to return, counter McAdams with some hard-nosed, trigger-warning-free digital/print public intellectualism of their own.