There are no heroes in this story, only knaves and fools. Oh yes, and some victims of others’ bad behavior. But let us not, as the trendy academic word is nowadays, “valorize” anyone in the tale.
Some time during this fall semester, a graduate teaching assistant in philosophy at Marquette University, who was teaching “Theory of Ethics” as the instructor of record, was approached by a student after a class in which “gay rights” had come up in the context (it seems) of Rawlsian liberalism. The student wanted to know why opposition to same-sex marriage was off-limits for a class evidently devoted to liberal valuesincluding free speech. But the student chose to use his smartphone to record this conversation with the instructorand did so (it seems) without her permission. (I use the expression “it seems” where matters are not fully established to my satisfactionbut there is much in this tale that is established.)
That was the first mistakethe recording of another’s remarks without her permission. The student shouldn’t have done it. In light of what she said, I can understand the impulse to get the instructor’s illiberal views on the record beyond dispute. But it was still wrong.
What the instructor told the student was that opposition to same-sex marriage was “offensive” and “homophobic” and that “as an ethics professor” she was informing him that “you don’t have a right in this class” to utter such views, which were equivalent in her view to (equally forbidden) “racist” and “sexist” opinions.
This was the second mistake. At any university, providing an opportunity for a full airing of opposing views on the subject of same-sex marriagewherever such a discussion might fit, given the subject matter of a courseis an ethical responsibility of instructors. This should especially be so in an ethics course, since the definition of marriage is, at present, a much-discussed ethical question. Again, it won’t be appropriate every day, depending on the topics discussedbut some latitude should be given the students who want to discuss it. It is certainly wrong of an instructor to rule out one view of the matter by use of the unsupported epithet “homophobic.” And at a Catholic university in particular, declaring the view of the Catholic Church off-limits in an ethics class is a decidedly strange use of an instructor’s control of classroom discourse.
The student then sought out a sympathetic ear elsewhere on the Marquette faculty. No problem thereanyone who has taught has had students in his office complaining about other teachers. He found such an ear attached to John McAdams, in the political science department. (Full disclosure: twenty-eight years ago, fresh out of grad school but with Ph.D. not yet complete, I worked for a year at Marquette, and McAdams was a senior colleague of mine. But I have hardly seen him since, apart from random sightings at large academic conferences.)
McAdams listened to the student and his recording, and decided to write about it at his personal blog “Marquette Warrior” (a nice touch, that title, which refers to the former name of the university’s athletic teams, now renamed the more politically correct Golden Eagles). He wrote up the incident in early November, in a characteristically opinionated blog post which rightly criticized the close-mindedness of the teaching assistant, and which made the incident an object lesson regarding the illiberalism of today’s academic left.
So far so good. But McAdams named the teaching assistant, and that was the third mistake in this business. It seems he contacted her before publishing his blog post, but when he didn’t receive a reply over the course of a Sunday, he published it with her name and a link to her website. This might have been appropriate in the case of a notorious, irreformable, blowhard ideologue in the tenured faculty ranks (haven’t we all known those guys?), but not, I think, in the case of a young grad student still learning how to teach. He should instead have reacted to the undergrad student’s story by approaching the philosophy department chairman, or the director of graduate studies, or the teaching assistant’s mentor if known to him, or (very gently) the teaching assistant herself. The point is to make poor teachers better ones, not to throw others on the defensive about matters they feel strongly about. If the urge to blog about the incident was irresistible, McAdams should have left her name out of it, which was unnecessary to making his point.
But now things began to spin out of control. A clutch of Marquette department chairmen published an open letter supporting the teaching assistant, and attacking McAdams for violating “the broader ethical principles that guide Marquette’s mission as a Jesuit, Catholic institution.” Not a word here about whether the teaching assistant had acted badly toward her undergrad student, by ruling a view opposed to her ownand a Catholic view at thatout of order in her classroom.
This display of high dudgeon was bad, a ramping up of an ideological struggle. And two of the signatories to the letter were . . . the chairman of the philosophy department that employs the teaching assistant ethics instructor, and the chairman of the political science department that employs McAdams.
Thus the fourth mistake. Shrill denunciations of this kind, with some faculty screaming “J’accuse!” at others, are rarely a good idea. They are never a good idea for the department chairmen who supervise parties already in conflict. Is the ethics instructor getting some quiet remedial advice from her chairman on how to deal ethically with students who espouse conservative, Catholic ethical views? Possible, but doubtful, and after this letter why should she bother to heed it? Is McAdams getting a quiet scolding from his chairman, who might urge him to make amends for “outing” a vulnerable young grad assistant? Also possible, but still more doubtful, and why should McAdams listen? Signing this letter? Dumb, dumb, dumb.
But the nadir of stupidity has now been plumbed by the Dean of Arts and Sciences, who has suspended McAdams (with pay) from all his faculty duties and forbidden him access to the campus without special permissionbut without due process, without providing a plain statement for the grounds of the suspension, and apparently contrary to the internal policies of Marquette University. Yes, the fifth mistake. And the higher we go in the university hierarchyyou can count on thisthe more crashingly stupid the mistake will always be. McAdams laughs off the suspension because it is Christmas break already, and meanwhile has retained legal counsel. It’s lawsuit time!
Good grief. It should be time for someone at Marquette to remember that the university is not Hobbes’s state of nature, the war of all against all where grasping for power over others is all that matters. Time for someone to remember what a Catholic university (yes, even a Jesuit one) actually stands for. Time for someonea provost, a president? (I know, now we’re in the stratosphere of stupidity)to break the cycle, to say “stand down” to everyone involved, to un-suspend McAdams, to recommend remedial pedagogical advising for teaching assistants, and to reassert the freedom of Catholic opinions at a Catholic university, even on the part of lowly undergraduates. That would be a start.