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The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Student at heart of McAdams controversy shares their story

John McAdams passed away Thursday. Marquette Wire stock photo.

As suspended Associate Political Science Professor John McAdams continues to be in employment limbo after his role in a 2014 controversy, the student who set the controversy in motion and another who witnessed it are telling their sides of what happened.

The class incident: Fall 2014

A student, who will remain anonymous, disagreed with former teaching assistant Cheryl Abbate during her Theory of Ethics philosophy class Oct. 28, 2014. The 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.

As part of the discussion, the student said class members contributed to a list of modern-day social issues and Abbate wrote that list on the board. The intent was for the class to discuss each of the issues written down. Once she was done with the list, the student said Abbate erased gay marriage from it because no one disagrees with gay marriage.

Abbate has not responded for comment about whether this depiction of her behavior is true.

Jacob Balaskovits, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences, was in the class during the incident and recalled how he saw it happen.

“Gay marriage was brought up, and (Abbate) did address that,” Balaskovits said. “She did engage the issue and engage … in rational arguing.”

The anonymous student went to Abbate after class and expressed disappointment that she did not discuss the morality of gay marriage, according to a recording of the conversation that the student took without Abbate’s consent.

Abbate disagreed with the student’s objection, according to the recording. 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 their “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.”

The student then went to report what happened to the College of Arts & Sciences administration. While later reflecting on that process, the student said the controversy’s later events could have been avoided if the complaint was handled by the college immediately and smoothly.

The student was directed to report the incident to former Philosophy Professor Nancy Snow, who advised the student to remain enrolled in the class, which the student was considering. The student said that Snow said she would closely monitor the student’s relationship with Abbate for the rest of the semester. When the student asked what that meant, she told the student to “read between the lines.”

The student interpreted that as Snow saying any further screw ups would be viewed as the student’s problem and not Abbate’s.

The Wire obtained a copy of an email, from Snow to Associate Faculty Dean for College of Arts & Sciences and Associate Philosophy Professor James South, in which Snow referred to the student as “an insulin (sic.) little twerp” after two meetings Snow had with the student.

Snow declined to comment on whether these depictions of her behavior are true. She left Marquette for the University of Oklahoma in fall 2015.

The student decided to drop the class in November 2014. The student’s course withdrawal form, which was obtained by the Wire, says the class was dropped because of concern about grades. However, the student said the incident with Abbate was the true reason for dropping.

In order to drop the class, the student had to meet with McAdams, the student’s academic advisor. McAdams didn’t make the student explain the request to withdraw, rather, the student wanted to share the incident’s details.

Once McAdams heard the story, he asked the student if he could write about it on his blog, Marquette Warrior. The student had seen the blog before and said it seemed like it didn’t get many views since there weren’t a lot of comments on the posts.

“I thought I’d just give (McAdams) a little story,” the student said. The student did not expect it to gain as much attention as it did. McAdams said he reached out to Abbate via email nine hours before publishing the blog to tell her what he was doing. She did not respond to him.

The post, published Nov. 9, 2014, criticized the way the student said Abbate handled the disagreement.

“Abbate, of course, was just using a tactic typical among liberals now,” McAdams wrote in the post. “Opinions with which they disagree are not merely wrong, and are not to be argued against on their merits, but are deemed ‘offensive’ and need to be shut up.”

National attention and misconceptions: Winter 2014

McAdams’ post was picked up by various news outlets and eventually gained national attention. The student said the incident became about gay marriage when it shouldn’t have, especially when it caused the Westboro Baptist Church, known for its strong anti-gay marriage views, to picket campus in December 2014.

The student said the incident was about concern that academic freedom was limited, and gay marriage happened to be the vessel for this.

“I was mad at (Abbate) about suppressing the conversation about the issue,” the student said. “I was just as pissed as any other Marquette student that Westboro came to town. No one was more pissed than me.”

Marquette said in a press release that it doesn’t think the incident is about academic freedom but about the way Abbate was treated. McAdams’ blog post caused Abbate to receive threats and criticism for her actions, leading her to transfer to the University of Colorado Boulder. McAdams has since said he wouldn’t have used Abbate’s name if he knew about the abuse she would receive.

“This issue is about the professor’s conduct toward a graduate student,” the university said in the release. “Where McAdams crossed the line is when he launched a personal attack against a student, subjecting her to threats and hateful messages.”

McAdams said he is Protestant and against gay marriage. However, he said the controversy resulted from him pushing for free speech and 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.”

There is disagreement over whether Abbate should be treated as an instructor or student in this situation. Rick Esenberg, one of McAdams’ lawyers and adjunct law professor at Marquette Law School, said Abbate is being viewed as an instructor when it comes to the legalities of the situation. The university said in the press release that it is viewing her as a student first.

After the post gained national attention, the student had a meeting about the incident with College of Arts & Sciences Dean Richard Holz and South. The student said it was later found out that South recorded the conversation without getting consent to do so. Cameron Sholty, communications director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which McAdams’ lawyers work for, also said the recording happened.

Parts of the recording’s transcript are inaudible due to the recorder being muffled while it was hidden under South’s clothes.

The student never felt unsafe following the incident but did experience a change in mood for a period of time, which involved refraining from being social or doing extra-curricular activities.

“I lost nights of sleep over this – it was depressing to an extent,” the student said.

Deciding McAdams’ punishment: Winter 2014 – Present

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 incident took place. Shortly after, McAdams was notified that Marquette was starting the process of possibly firing him and revoking his tenure.

This process included private Faculty Hearing Committee meetings last fall where a 123-page report was written and presented to University President Michael Lovell to aid him in deciding McAdams’ punishment.

The report is private, but the university said McAdams is free to share it. McAdams said he will share it if his lawyers allow him to, which they have not yet.

Lovell told Marquette faculty, staff and McAdams March 24 that he would allow McAdams to resume teaching after a suspension without pay, but with benefits, through the fall 2016 semester. However, Lovell said McAdams needed to submit a letter by April 4 to apologize for his previous conduct, admitting he was wrong and promising he won’t act similarly again.

McAdams sent his response in a five-page letter to Lovell April 5. In it he rejected the punishments and asked Lovell to rescind them by April 14. Lovell responded to McAdams’ letter April 13, saying he wouldn’t rescind the punishment.

“Your status with the university is unchanged and you remain in a suspended status,” Lovell said in his letter to McAdams. “Before returning to the faculty, you must provide an assurance that you will not continue behaviors that harm others within the Marquette community.”

Esenberg and McAdams said there is no update on what will happen going forward. McAdams has said previously that he will sue Marquette if there is an attempt to fire him.

The student hopes the case doesn’t go to court because it could take years to resolve.

“I think it’s in Marquette’s best interest to reverse the whole thing,” the student said. “This entire story is one big hypocritical nightmare. I think Lovell’s having difficulty looking himself in the mirror. He needs to realize that a lot of things are going to happen because of this decision.”

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  • D

    David PatrickApr 29, 2016 at 1:18 am

    How interesting that they’re still leaving out McAdams’ numerous violations of FERPA and his pattern of harassing female students.

  • P

    Paul QuirkApr 28, 2016 at 6:06 pm

    Although the second student in the class is undoubtedly reporting in good faith what he remembers, it is unlikely that Abbate “did engage the issue and engage … in rational arguing.” In her own blog addressing the controversy at the time, she did not claim to have discussed same sex marriage substantively in class. She may or may not have given good reasons for not discussing it.

    In the recorded conversation after class, however, her conduct was egregious: She called the student’s opinion “homophobic” (read: “bigoted”) and pronounced them not appropriate for discussion. Upon hearing of this, the Philosophy Department should have given her some guidance.

    But even the reality of that serious offense doesn’t matter. Although McAdams was clearly correct in his criticism, he does not have to be correct in order to be entitled to express it.

  • G

    Golden Eagle BloggerApr 28, 2016 at 9:59 am

    Wow. We continue to award the level of anonymity to the student who caused this entire mess that should have been given to the graduate student, Cheryl Abbate, in McAdams blog to begin with. Thank you Jacob Balaskovits for sharing the truth and letting everyone know that this entire situation has been blown out of proportion and based on a one-sided, narrow, bias, and incorrect story by the student quoted in this article. In regards to Abbate’s response with the “anonymous student” approached her after class, I would venture a guess that the student had made homophobic and/or racists comments in the past so her comments were most likely justified. Probably one of the most telling aspects of this story was that McAdams only gave Cheryl Abbate NINE HOURS to respond. Are you kidding me?! Did he send her an email at 11pm at night and post the blog at 8am? Nine hours is not an appropriate amount of time for someone to give a response. Another example of unprofessional behavior in my opinion. Although I must admit to laughing a little while reading this quote “I was just as pissed as any other Marquette student that Westboro came to town. No one was more pissed than me.” Sounds like a certain real estate billionaire that we are all aware of right?

  • S

    Shirley Phelps-RoperApr 28, 2016 at 5:54 am

    “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”
    ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭12:37‬ ‭

    All of the souls involved in the universities silly saga, whereby you have exulted notions surrounding academia, and diminished God Almighty and his standards, are in great peril. God Almighty, who alone searches hearts and minds, and gives to everyone according to their deeds, has blinded you to your eternal shame and everlasting punishment. If any soul has capacity to understand these words, it is time to repent. Be crystal clear about this main event, God will never have same-sex marriage. It is the issue! All the rest of this nonsense equals the deck chairs on your academic Titanic. The duty of all mankind, first and foremost, is to fear God and keep his commandments.