Thursday, April 14, 2016

Nobody's Right If Everybody's Wrong**

There's an interesting contretemps bubbling at Marquette University over one professor's criticism of another instructor, and it seems in this case it's hard to find anyone who has behaved quite as they should have. Here's the story:
In November 2014 an undergraduate approached philosophy instructor and PhD candidate Cheryl Abbate, after a class on John Rawls’ theory of equal liberty. The student said he objected to her suggestions during the class that same-sex marriage isn’t open for debate and that “everyone agrees on this.”

Unknown to Ms. Abbate, the student recorded the exchange on his cell phone. During the conversation, she told him “there are some opinions that are not appropriate, that are harmful, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions” and if someone in the class was homosexual, “don’t you think that that would be offensive to them if you were to raise your hand and challenge this?”

When the student replied that he has a right to argue his opinion, Ms. Abbate responded that “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.” The student reported the exchange to Marquette professor John McAdams, who teaches political science. Mr. McAdams also writes a blog called the Marquette Warrior, which often criticizes the Milwaukee school for failing to act in accordance with its Catholic mission.
If the facts are as this Wall Street Journal article reports them then in my opinion both the instructor and the student behaved improperly, but the instructor's offense was much the worse. She teaches a philosophy class, for heaven sakes. To rule opinions out of bounds, provided they're courteously expressed, is professionally inexcusable. College is a place where students should be exposed to all sorts of viewpoints and be free to express their own. To treat people like fragile snowflakes which melt at the slightest touch of an unpleasant opinion, is to do students a serious disservice. If Ms. Abbate really did prohibit certain opinions to be voiced in her class then she needs to receive some lessons from the administration on the value of the free exchange of ideas in a college setting.

The student (perhaps) also acted improperly by secretly recording what seems to have been a private conversation between himself and Ms. Abbate.

But there's more.
Mr. McAdams wrote on his blog that Ms. Abbate was “using a tactic typical among liberals now. 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.” His blog went viral, and Ms. Abbate received vicious emails. She has since left Marquette.
Needless to say, the students who sent the vicious emails were acting abominably. This is not the way to react to what Ms. Abbate did. Students could certainly have registered their displeasure without being mean-spirited, rude, or disrespectful. By acting this way they tacitly provide justification for Ms. Abbate's fear that allowing dissenting opinions in class would generate an uncomfortable classroom environment.

Mr. McAdams, too, is not without fault in this matter. He may have been correct in what he said, but throughout the almost fifty years I've been teaching it has always been my conviction that it's unprofessional for one colleague to criticize another to students. I'm not so naive as to think it isn't done, I know all too well that it is, but it's not only an egregious breach of professional ethics, it's often also very juvenile.

But we're not done.
[N]ow Marquette is going after Mr. McAdams. In December 2014, the school sent him a letter suspending his teaching duties and banning him from campus while it reviewed his “conduct” related to the blog post. “You are to remain off campus during this time, and should you need to come to campus, you are to contact me in writing beforehand to explain the purpose of your visit, to obtain my consent and to make appropriate arrangements for that visit,” Dean Richard Holz wrote.

Marquette President Michael Lovell told the tenured professor that he would be suspended without pay and would not be reinstated unless he admitted his conduct was “reckless” and apologized for the unpleasant emails Ms. Abbate received.
This seems to be a gross over-reaction. Mr. McAdams was wrong to stoke the hostility to this instructor - although it's not clear that he did so intentionally - and I have no problem with insisting that he accept responsibility in some fashion, but to deprive him of his livelihood for his offense seems draconian. Moreover, his punishment seems to violate the guidelines set forth in Marquette's Faculty Handbook which says professors may be terminated at the university’s discretion,
only for “serious instances of illegal, immoral, dishonorable, irresponsible, or incompetent conduct.” The handbook says that “in no case” may just cause for dismissal be interpreted “to impair the full and free enjoyment of legitimate personal or academic freedoms of thought, doctrine, discourse, association, advocacy, or action.”
So, Marquette seems to have a mess on its hands, one in which nobody looks particularly good. What do you think?

** Buffalo Springfield 1967, For What It's Worth: