The post created a firestorm of controversy. First, people appalled that an instructor’s actions weighed in, and then leftist academics who felt we had been unfair to the instructor (one Cheryl Abbate) mobilized to attack us.
Marquette’s administration (most prominently Arts & Sciences Dean Richard Holz) sided with our attackers, and suspended us in December. So it was no particular surprise when, last Friday, our lawyer received a letter from Holz – addressed to us – saying:
Therefore, in accord with Section 307.03, we are commencing as of this date the procedures for revoking your tenure and dismissing you from the faculty.Hotz’ irate letter, which can be found here, is full of poor arguments and factual misstatements.
Inaccurate?First, Holz claimed our blog post was “inaccurate.” He rested this claim on two arguments.
. . . by leaving out any reference to Ms. Abbate’s follow-up class discussion in which she acknowledged and addressed the student’s objection to gay marriage, you created a false impression of her conduct and an inaccurate account of what occurred.According to Holz, in the follow–up discussion she attacked a study claiming that children of gay parents do poorly, and claimed that she declined to discuss the subject because of a lack of class time. Unfortunately, that’s not what she said to the student in the original after class confrontation.
What Abbate said in the class after the after-class confrontation with the student can’t make what she said to the student go away.
Holz includes a complete transcript of that exchange, and it shows Abbate saying exactly what we represented her as saying.
Holz also accuses us of “inaccurate” reporting of the student’s interaction with Philosophy Department Chair Nancy Snow. He recounts two meetings with Snow, and considerable back and forth as to whether the student could transfer to another section or drop the course. Thus Holz claims we were “inaccurate” when we said the student was essentially “blown off.”
But the student wanted something else. The College Fix, which interviewed him explained:
The student said he only wants Marquette to acknowledge the instructor was wrong to tell him he couldn’t bring up gay marriage, and ensure that students in the future will be allowed to speak in similar classroom situations. The student got no such assurances, and no admission from Marquette that the instructor should have handled the issue differently.Holz implies the student actually dropped the class because he was making a poor grade. But in fact, before he came to us or anybody else, the student went to a personal adviser and complained about the after-class exchange with Abbate. He also complained about it to Nancy Snow and to Sebastian Luft (Assistant Chair in Philosophy). The exchange with Abbate was indeed what provoked him to want to drop the class.
Other Avenues?Holtz continued:
Multiple internal avenues of review were available to you if you believed a situation had occurred between a graduate student instructor and an undergraduate student that called for a corrective response.The assumption here seems to be that we should have kept the whole thing quiet, and sought redress for the student from the Marquette administration.
In the first place, the student had tried that, and got no redress (other than being allowed to drop the class).
Secondly, blogging is journalism, and it’s simply not standard journalistic practice to quietly try to right a wrong by appealing to officials to fix the situation. If an issue is of public interest, it is reported.
Holz attacks us for not asking for comment from Nancy Snow, or from the Dean’s office. But both would have doubtless invoked “confidentiality.” When The College Fix asked Snow for comment, she failed to respond.
We did write Abbate, asking for her account of the after-class confrontation. She failed to respond. (Holz includes our e-mail in his letter.) But given that the student had made recording of the exchange, there was never any doubt as to what occurred.
Holz and JournalismHolz makes an argument that would strike any journalist and quite odd.
While you left the undergraduate student’s name out of your post, and later insisted that his anonymity be protected, you posted without permission the graduate student instructor’s name, Ms. Cheryl Abbate.. . . and:
You posted this story on the Internet . . . without speaking with Ms. Abbate or getting her permission to use her name. . . .We left the undergraduate’s name out of the post because he was our source, and gave us the information on the condition that we keep his name confidential. That’s Journalism 101.
Somehow, Holz thinks that when a journalist reports questionable conduct on the part of an individual, that individual has the right to veto being identified. That notion would flunk Journalism 101.
Picking on a Student?Holz attacks us for blogging about a graduate student instructor, saying:
As applied in the current case, it is vital for our university and our profession that graduate student instructors learn their craft as teachers of sometimes challenging and difficult students. Great teachers develop over time; many benefit from experienced mentors who share hard-earned insights. Thus, graduate student instructors should expect appropriate and constructive feedback in order to improve their teaching skills.The problem with this argument is that we had no opportunity to “mentor” the instructor, who was in the Philosophy Department. We had no teacher/student relationship. The people who should have mentored her (the Philosophy faculty) apparently failed to do so.
Further, she was not functioning as a “student,” but as a faculty member. As one of our colleagues (who doubtless would not want to be identified) observed:
[D]id Ms. Abbate have full authority of a faculty member to lecture, assign readings, moderate class discussion, assign and grade papers, write and grade tests, and assign final grades? If so, why would a graduate student instructor be insulated from all criticism for anything they may do as an instructor with full faculty authority? Yes, the graduate student instructor is a student, but if they are given full faculty authority, then they should be open to criticism of their conduct as a faculty instructor. In short, I don’t think the university can have it both ways.
“Gloating?”Holz claimed that our blog post impedes Abbate’s ability to find an academic job, and even said “you gloated that your conduct would negatively impact Ms. Abbate’s opportunities in the future:”
The quote he describes as “gloating” is as follows:
Does our blog post harm Abbate, for example making it harder for her to get an academic job?Holz, however, failed to quote our next sentence:
If there are some colleges out there who don’t want instructors who tell students that opposition to gay marriage is homophobic, Abbate might not get hired there. That is appropriate. We feel no obligation to suppress information to help her get a job.
But of course, in an increasingly politically correct philosophy profession, hiring in a lot of departments is dominated by people who think pretty much as Abbate does.Further, Abbate hasn’t concealed her political opinions. On her blog, Thoughts from a Vegan-Feminist-Philosopher, she posted an essay about how “All Men Contribute to the Prevalence of Rape.”
Holz blames us for nasty e-mails that Abbate received after our post went viral and was picked up by several other outlets. We, in the wake of the post, got a variety of nasty e-mails too. All this is deplorable. But never before, in our ten years of blogging, have we gotten reports of offensive e-mails received by people whom we blogged about. It may have happened, but we never heard of it.
But Holz, instead of blaming the people who actually sent the nasty e-mails, blames us.
Abbate has apparently now left Marquette to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Colorado. Colorado ranks among the top 40 Philosophy Ph.D. Departments in the country. Where does Marquette rank? Barely in the top 100.
Publishing Student NamesHolz continues:
You have been asked, advised, and warned on multiple prior occasions not to publicize students’ names in connection with your blog posts.This is simply untrue. Only once did any university official (Provost John Pauly) tell us not to make any blog posts about students. (Actually, he said it was fine to commend students, but we should not criticize student activities – essentially demanding biased journalism.)
We blogged about this, and made it clear to Pauly that he had no right to tell us what to blog about. This was in 2011, and we continued to blog about student activities. Pauly let us alone, which we interpreted as meaning that he knew he had no authority to censor our blog.
Holz cited another case, but mangled the details:
In March 2008, you published the name of a student who worked in advertising for the Marquette Tribune after she had declined to run an advertisement highlighting alleged risks from the “morning after” pill. Only after that student contacted you to advise of the impacts upon her and to request you to cease and desist did you delete her name.In fact, if we recall correctly, it was a faculty member who contacted us, soon after the post went up (nobody in the Communications School or at the Tribune responded to our earlier inquiries). She convinced us that the student in question was not in fact responsible for the failure of the Tribune to run the ad (contrary to what we had been told by Wisconsin Right to Life), and we were happy to delete the student’s name.
But the issue was not “mentioning students’ names,” it was the actions of this particular student. Nobody told us we could “not mention student names” in this case.
Interestingly, this past fall, Holz explicitly told us that one of our posts that mentioned two students’ names was not an issue. We had been summoned to his office on the basis of a student complaint which he would not explain. (It turned out that the president of the Palestinian Student Association claimed to feel “intimidated” when we tried to interview him about “Israeli Apartheid Week” which his organization, and three offices at Marquette, sponsored.)
We asked Holz whether the meeting was about a post we had made regarding a meeting between Marquette officials and a student group who wanted to boycott Palermo’s Pizza. We sent him the link to the post. He replied that it was “not the issue.”
So a post where we named two student activists was not an “issue.” But then all of a sudden a post naming a student instructor becomes the issue when Marquette wants to get rid of a professor who causes controversy.
Value to MarquetteIn the first paragraph, Holz asserted:
As detailed below and in my letter of January 2, 2015, your conduct clearly and substantially fails to meet the standards of personal and professional excellence that generally characterizes University faculties. As a result, your value to this academic institution is substantially impaired.If academic freedom is dependent on administrators’ judgments of the “value” of a faculty member, notions of academic freedom are meaningless.
Campus bureaucrats hate controversy, since it makes trouble for them. Thus the most “valuable” faculty members are the ones who avoid controversy, and especially avoid criticizing administrators.
In real universities, administrators understand (or more likely grudgingly accept) that faculty will say controversial things, will criticize them and each other, and that people will complain about it. They understand that putting up with the complaints is part of the job, and assuaging those who complain the loudest is not the best policy.
That sort of university is becoming rarer and rarer. Based on Holz’ actions, Marquette is certainly not such a place.
[Update — in response to some questions: we will indeed fight this. We have excellent legal counsel, and most certainly will not go quietly.]