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John McAdams could take legal action against Marquette

John McAdams. Wire stock photo.

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After a months-long controversy that received national attention, suspended associate political science professor John McAdams may take legal action against Marquette after refusing to take the reinstatement option the university gave him last week.

University President Michael Lovell told Marquette faculty, staff and McAdams March 24 that he would allow McAdams to resume teaching after suspending him without pay and with benefits until the end of the fall 2016 semester. In addition, Lovell said McAdams needs to submit a letter by April 4 to apologize for his previous conduct, admitting he was wrong and promising that he won’t act similarly again.

A faculty hearing committee comprised of seven of McAdams’ peers from different departments around campus met for four days last fall to discuss if Lovell should fire McAdams or not. It submitted a report to Lovell with its decision this winter.

“Today, I want you to know that after significant personal deliberation, I have decided to formally implement the faculty hearing committee’s unanimous recommendation,” Lovell said in an email. “I can assure you that my decision has been guided by Marquette’s values and is solely based on professor McAdams’ actions and not political or ideological views expressed in his blog.”

McAdams responded to Lovell’s offer in a blog post on Saturday, noting how the offer came during spring break and a few days before Easter. He said the requirement of an apology is “obviously a ploy by Marquette to give the administration an excuse to fire us. They have calculated, correctly, that (I) will do no such thing.”

Even if the university asked him to just accept the suspension, McAdams said he would reject that as well.

“I’m not going to agree to any punishment for exercising my academic freedom,” McAdams said.

Had Marquette tried to solve the incident quickly, McAdams said he may not have considered legal action. Rick Esenberg, McAdams’ lawyer, said future legal action against Marquette is “very possible.” He has not yet commented on how soon legal action could be taken.

In response to McAdams’ Saturday blog post, Chris Jenkins, associate director in the Office of Marketing and Communication, said, “We do not have further information to share given that this is a personnel matter.”

Lovell said his decision about McAdams is the same as the committee’s recommendation in its report. However, McAdams has the confidential report and said it only recommends that he be suspended without pay for one or two semesters. McAdams said the report may eventually become public.

Controversy background

The controversy started November 2014 when McAdams published a post on his blog, Marquette Warrior, detailing a disagreement between former teaching assistant Cheryl Abbate and one of her students.

Abbate’s Theory of Ethics class was discussing philosopher John Rawls’ Liberty Principle, which says every person has an equal right to the most extensive liberties compatible with similar liberties for all.

“When one student suggested that a ban on gay marriage violated the principle, Abbate quickly moved on to the next topic, as there were more nuanced examples to discuss before the end of class,” according to an article from Inside Higher Education.

Another student approached Abbate after that class and said he was “very disappointed” and “personally offended” that she had not considered his classmate’s example about gay marriage, according to the student’s recording of the conversation, which Insider Higher Education obtained. The Tribune was not able to obtain the recording.

“The student said he had seen data suggesting that children of gay parents ‘do a lot worse in life,’ and that the topic merited more conversation,” according to Inside Higher Education.

Abbate disagreed, according to the student’s recording, and the conversation ended with the student saying, “It’s still wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person’s opinion when they may have different opinions” and that it is the student’s “right as an American citizen” to challenge the idea. Abbate said the student didn’t “have the right, especially (in an ethics class,) to make homophobic comments or racist comments,” according to the recording.

Abbate received threats and criticism for her actions, leading her to transfer from Marquette to the University of Colorado-Boulder.

In December 2014, the College of Arts & Sciences announced that McAdams would be suspended with pay and banned from campus while a conduct review of the situation took place. Shortly after, McAdams was notified that Marquette was starting the process of potentially firing him and taking away his tenure. This process led to the faculty hearing committee meetings last fall.

McAdams misconceptions

McAdams said he is Protestant and against gay marriage. However, he said the controversy resulted from him pushing for academic freedom, not anti-gay marriage views.

“I would have blogged about a professor trying to suppress pro-gay marriage views,” McAdams said. “It’s a university, you should be free to face something you disagree with.”

McAdams stressed a need for classroom discussions to include people that are moderate.

“In any controversy over speech, there will be some people who only want to defend certain kinds of speech,” McAdams said. “Hopefully there will be a big middle category that will defend even speech they don’t like. If it’s only people defending only the speech they like, that means the majority in any given time and place gets to shut up the minority.”

Why McAdams hasn’t left

Despite going through the incident and reaching retirement age, McAdams said he will stay at Marquette until a solution is reached.

“As screwed up as the Marquette administration is, the students are not screwed up, so I like teaching Marquette students,” McAdams said. “I both want to make a point about academic freedom and I want to come back to teach.”

In addition to teaching, McAdams said he would like to continue his research that was stalled when he was banned from campus, which prevented his access to the materials in his office.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, John McAdams was quoted as saying “the students are screwed up.” He actually said, “The students are not screwed up.” The Wire regrets the error.

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