Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Campus Free Speech Advocate On Marquette’s Attack on Warrior Blog

Donald Downs, a Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is one of the most important academics (and perhaps the most important academic) defending freedom of speech and expression on the university campus. Thus it’s no surprise when he weighs in on Marquette’s attempt to punish The Marquette Warrior for a blog post.
Donald A. Downs
Department of Political Science
303 North Hall
University of Wisconsin
Madison, WI 53706

January 27, 2015

Dr. Michael R. Lovell
President, Marquette University
1250 West Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53233

Dear President Lovell:

I am writing to express my concern about how Marquette University has handled the case of Professor John McAdams. As of this writing, Professor McAdams remains suspended, which entails being barred from campus and prohibited from interacting with any students. These are substantial penalties that typically are reserved for the most severe cases.

My main concern in the case is very straightforward. As others around the country have publicly expressed, the due process aspects of the case have been very problematic from the start. In mid-December, when the University took its first actions in the case, Professor McAdams was not adequately informed of the charges against him, as the letter from his attorneys (made public) makes evident. Contrary to Marquette’s own rules, the letter addressed to Professor McAdams did not provide notice of what conduct had been violated, nor did it specify what procedures would be followed.

When the University finally made the offending conduct known, it stated the problem was Professor McAdams’ blog commentary criticizing an instructor’s comments to a student, in particular the teacher’s decision to not allow discussion regarding the pros and cons of gay marriage in class on the grounds that such discussion could constitute a form of homophobic harassment. A tape the student made of his post-class conversation with the teacher supports the interpretation of the teacher’s reasoning that Professor McAdams posted on his blog. But it was not until later that Dean Holz finally wrote a letter to Professor McAdams articulating this basis for the University’s action.

More importantly, the severe temporary sanction applied to Professor McAdams—being banned from campus and not allowed to teach—was issued even before an adequate review of the case was carried through. According to generally understood standards governing discipline in higher education (standards that are reflected in Marquette’s own rules), such “severe” sanctions are allowable, but only after the fundamental norms of due process have been conscientiously been adhered to. The Policy Statements and Reports of the American Association of University Professors constitute the most authoritative standards regarding what could be called “common law” for the profession of higher education. The following AAUP statement on suspensions captures the essence of my present concern in respect to due process in this case:
If the administration believes that the conduct of a faculty member, although not constituting adequate cause for dismissal, is sufficiently grave to justify imposition of a severe sanction, such as suspension from service for a stated period, the administration may institute a proceeding to impose such a severe sanction; the procedures outlined in regulation 5 will govern such a proceeding. (AAUP: Policy Documents & Reports, 1990 Edition, p. 27)
Based on my own observations and research germane to the practices of higher educational institutions, the sanction Marquette has imposed upon Professor McAdams is remarkable in this context. Suspension based on the facts in Professor McAdams’ case is exceptionally severe under the circumstances, especially given the lack of due process that appears to have accompanied the decision. The AAUP’s position is similar to this assessment:
an administration also may suspend a faculty member pending a dismissal hearing, but only if immediate harm to the faculty member or others is threatened by continuance. Before suspending a faculty member, pending an ultimate determination of the faculty member’s status through the institution’s hearing procedures, the administration will consult with the Faculty Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure [or whatever other title it may have] concerning the propriety, the length, and the other conditions of the suspension. A suspension that is intended to be final is a dismissal and will be treated as such. (AAUP, 1958 Statement on Procedural Standards in Faculty Dismissal Proceedings)
Some critics have disapproved of the manner in which the student surreptitiously recorded his conversation with the teacher. And, of course, genuine and strong disapproval is merited regarding the threatening emails some very misguided individuals have sent to the instructor in the wake of Professor McAdams’ disclosure of the conversation. I share such disapproval. But three facts should be noted in relation to these critiques. First, Professor McAdams had no hand in making this recording. Second, to my knowledge he has made no threats of any kind to the instructor or to anyone else. Third, the topic addressed in Professor McAdams’ blog commentary addresses an important issue in higher education today: the status of intellectual diversity and free thought on campus. Numerous supporters and practitioners of higher education have expressed serious misgivings about the way in which improperly expansive harassment policies can stifle free discussion of sensitive intellectual and moral topics. Professor McAdams’ critique in this case dealt with this important concern.

I sincerely hope that the suspension of Professor McAdams is in no way related to the fact that he has publicly criticized the way the University has dealt with harassment training and free thought on campus. Unfortunately, the severity of the punishment, in conjunction with the due process problems associated with the infliction of this sanction, raise questions in this regard.

With all due respect, I urge you and the University to take the concerns others and I have raised into genuine consideration.


Donald A. Downs
Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science
University of Wisconsin, Madison

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