Fake Triumph: The McAdams Case Heads to the WI Supreme Court (Part 1)

March 15, 2018.  Professor John McAdams may be suspended from Marquette University without pay, his tenure revoked, but he’s still writing his Marquette Warrior blog, vigorously defending himself and grabbing headlines.  With the deep-pocketed conservative legal organization WILL fighting his battles to the end, McAdams will keep the university’s alleged infringement of his first amendment rights in court for as long as it takes.

McAdams is back because he lost in court last May.  Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge David Hansher ruled in favor of Marquette University, dismissing McAdams’s case.  However, McAdams could still have gone home and polished up his syallabi for next semester. All he had to do was apologize for getting a graduate student viciously harassed and he was back in as a full-time faculty member, despite being past what might be considered retirement age.

But McAdams is not about to apologize when he thinks he did nothing wrong. Rick Esenberg, the professor’s long-time lawyer and WILL’s director, filed a petition to by-pass the court of appeals process and take the case directly to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which agreed to hear it.

The hearing date is set for April 19th.  Though the outcome of any supreme court hearing is uncertain, Wisconsin’s high court tilts notably to the right. A flurry of amicus briefs have been filed on behalf of both sides, in addition to the mountains of testimony dating back to the incident in November 2014 that kicked off these proceedings. As the result of a McAdams blogpost based on a clandestinely recorded conversation between a young teacher and her student, the instructor began to receive vicious emails from right-wing trolls, including death threats, and made the decision to leave Marquette.

Marquette Warrior blogger John McAdams was no novice teacher when he wrote a blogpost accusing Cheryl Abbate of liberal tyrany.  McAdams is a Harvard Ph.D. with tenure who had been teaching at MU since 1980. Writing in support of McAdams, who says that whatever happened to Abbate was not his fault and who wants his tenure reinstated along with back pay – were legal community notables like Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimmel; FIRE, a group that monitors first amendment rights on campuses nationwide; The American Association of University Professors (AAUP); and the Thomas Moore Society, a “non-profit, national public interest law firm whose mission is the defense of First Amendment rights.”

As Andrew Bath, writing for the Thomas Moore Society, put it in their amicus brief:

“Marquette stripped McAdams of tenure for his blog post [italics mine], and in doing so it violated its contract with McAdams. . . . McAdams’ comments protested the browbeating of an undergraduate student by his teacher after the teacher stifled classroom discussion about the definition of marriage [italics mine]. Posting his comments on his personal blog, an online soapbox he erected to reach the browsing public, McAdams argued that the incident illustrated the disturbing ‘pall of orthodoxy’ that oppresses higher education today. For those comments, Marquette stripped McAdams of tenure, the only professor it has so treated in its 135-year history.”

Clearly, a stirring battle in defense of the First Amendment is underway.  If Wisconsin’s conservative establishment had Paul Revere at their disposal, they’d put him back on his horse.

In McAdams’s own words, he merely “blogged about a graduate instructor (Cheryl Abbate) who told a student who wanted to argue against gay marriage (which had come up in class) that he could not do so, since he was not allowed to say ‘homophobic’ things, and any such argument would ‘offend’ any gay students in class.”

This, says attorney Ralph Weber, who will argue Marquette University’s case on April 19, is the “McAdams narrative.”

McAdams posted this highly dressed-down version of events on his blog as recently as February 19, 2018, once again mentioning by name the graduate student/young professor who was harassed as a result of his earlier posts, in which he characterized her as a totalitarian liberal who refused to allow an appropriate discussion of conservative ideas – on an equal time basis – any space in her class.

McAdams’s November 2014 blogs about Abbate caused immediate blowback. Far-right trolls already hyped-up by talk radio, Fox News, and the conservative Interweb, who need an outlet for their political energies, targeted Abbate. Charlie Sykes was still on the radio at the time and always glad to provide a big megaphone to McAdams’s gripes about Marquette and its totalitarian-liberal faculty (so-called).  McAdams has also focused his ire on the fact that LBGTQ issues and women ‘s sexuality are openly addressed by extra-curricular and curricular campus programs.

And then Cheryl Abbate, the young Ph.D. student whose own student taped her without her knowledge, left MU and went back to her former graduate school., reportedly  because of the harassment.  McAdams was suspended and barred from MU’s campus after Cheryl Abbate left, and he became the cause celebre, a victim of the university’s careless disregard for first amendment rights, which are supposed to be enshrined by faculty statute.

Fox News covered it. So did Atlantic.com and a lot of other online versions of respectable magazines.

But how much resemblance does the McAdams Über-narrative have to what really happened?  Certainly, it’s not the Marquette university administration’s version of the facts.

Nor is it the Marquette faculty view.  As an eight-year adjunct professor at Marquette whose program is about to be eliminated, I know some things about the internal points of view within the university on the McAdams matter.  But I also have my own insights as a Marquette freshman-wrangler who has locked horns with many a conservative MU First-Year. There is another angle here that both parties are too delicate to explore because it suits neither of their cases. Right-wing students sometimes think the freshman English curriculum itself is synonymous with liberalism, even if all they’re being asked to do is gather evidence and think critically.  And they fight back against it.  The culture wars are fought in the classroom.

The View from the Trenches

In November of 2014, Cheryl Abbate was a young scholar in her twenties who’d gotten her MA in philosophy from UC-Boulder and who pursues a specialty in the cutting-edge area of animal rights. Her presence at Marquette coincided with Nancy Snow’s serving as philosophy department chair.  Snow, who was called out by name in McAdams’s blog several times, has since left Marquette for the University of Oklahoma. Snow took with her to Oklahoma a $2.6M grant she received from the Templeton Religious Trusts for her work on “The Self, Motivation, and Virtue.”

The controversy surrounding Abbate is a classic tempest in the academic teapot.  It occurred because Abbate had a student who did not see eye-to-eye with her and was repulsed by her teaching of “liberal ideas” in a class on the Theory of Ethics which included a unit on the political philosopher John Rawls.

Student Zero (what I called him in an earlier article for which I interviewed him), AKA “J.D.” in the current WI supreme court filings, was also known at Marquette as John Rourke, the only registered member of the campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, one of a broad network of Koch Brothers- funded or influenced organizations.

Unfortunately, in Fall 2014, Student Zero found himself enrolled in a class that he felt blatantly taught “liberalism.”  Abbate was conducting a class discussion on John Rawls, who first gained prominence in the 1960s, and his notion of an “equal liberty principle” by which rights within a society are extended to groups who were not previously able to exercise them – like voting rights for blacks in the South. The students had been told to read and think on this and bring their examples to class. Gay marriage was mentioned by a student and duly put on the board.  Abbate had other things to discuss that day, and since “gay marriage” is clearly covered by the principle, she moved on.

She may have said something like, “since we’re all agreed on this.”  The recording didn’t start until later, so it’s impossible to be sure. But  one thing that seems a cloudy issue to the defenders of the first amendment in their amicus briefs is that Student Zero had in fact no “right” to express his point of view on gay marriage at this point. That was not a requirement of the curriculum. Abbate may not even have known that Student Zero objected. She simply moved on with the class.

After class, the young  scholar was approached by her Student Zero, who most likely had a nervous smile plastered across his face and one hand stuck in his pocket.  “During class just now?  I didn’t get a chance to give my own views on gay marriage.  I’m against it.”  Or words to that effect.

Abbate jumps right over the curriculum question (hypothetically: “your opinion is no good here until you learn enough about Rawls to make it worthwhile”).  Instead, she says, “Well, if you bring that up, some people in class may be offended, if they happen to be gay.” She’s probably thinking in terms of classroom chemistry and logistics.  A couple of people in class might be gay, and she doesn’t want to risk the whole class being sidetracked by useless undergraduate debates when there is material to be covered.

But by saying these words, Abbate has given Student Zero what he needs. This is suppression of speech. They cannot make him stay in a class that’s this liberal.  He’s leaving.  He is out of here!

But first, he’s going to the chair of her department, to see what she has to say about the fact that his inalienable rights as an American have been compromised.

Philosophy department chair Nancy Snow, with a big grant in the wings, has no interest in fanning these flames. She never heard the recording. She simply encouraged Student Zero to make up with his teacher, stay in class, and write a nice paper. What any department chair would do. There are no disciplinary issues here. Only personal ones.

McAdams, on his blog, has repeatedly said department chair Nancy Snow, of whom he had been critical in the past for her so-called liberal totalitarianism, “blew off” Student Zero, waved aside his concerns as airily as Cheryl Abbate in her class supposedly said, “Let’s move on.  Nothing to discuss here!” after putting gay marriage – the very words – on the board and offending Student Zero’s right-wing sensibilities.

But on paper, all was serene. Student Zero wrote Nancy Snow a nice email thanking her for the meeting and saying he would go back to class and give it his all. He went back to class. The next unit was on animal rights. Take my word for it – right-wing students from prosperous, conservative Northern Illinois and Wisconsin families are offended by the very idea of animal rights. They don’t like having to consider animals somehow “equal” to themselves.

Student Zero, a junior when I first interviewed him and a political science major, groused to me about how he would have had to sit there all semester in Abbate’s class writing liberal papers, and how he just couldn’t take being that oppressed. His grade up to that point was an F, but he fully acknowledged he deserved it, since he hadn’t been able to make himself turn anything in.

The Marquette then-sophomore needed just one more thing before he got the hell out of that class – wasting part of a tuition payment since it was too late to sign up for anything else – and that was the signature of his advisor, John McAdams.

For McAdams, he played the recording of his conversation with Abbate, which is now the only direct evidence of anything she said that day.

[Coming Next:  Fake Triumph Part 2, Marquette’s Position:  All McAdams has to do is apologize.  Or: Why the faculty is always there when you need them .]



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