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Today’s Attack on Academic Freedom

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Marquette has clearly far overstepped its bounds here:

A controversial professor on Wednesday revealed that Marquette University is trying to revoke his tenure and fire him for statements he made about a graduate instructor, with her name, on his blog.

The university says his behavior was unprofessional and that he misled the public about what happened in a dispute between the graduate instructor and an undergraduate student. The professor, John McAdams, says he is being punished for his free speech. He also maintains that Marquette shouldn’t be attacking him, given that he is defending an undergraduate’s views against gay marriage that are consistent with Roman Catholic teachings. (Marquette is a Jesuit university.)

The dispute over McAdams attracted national attention even before Marquette moved to fire him, with some academics backing the graduate student and others McAdams.

I, myself, would not use this forum to question the teaching of a colleague. And if he did so without getting his facts straight, as the university alleges, then his behavior was inappropriate. If you want to say that it merits, I dunno, a meeting with a dean or something, I won’t argue with you.

But revocation of tenure and firing? Not even close. The threats that Abbate received were appalling, but McAdams cannot be held responsible for the actions of third parties. John Wilson’s argument here is unanswerable. The clause that Marquette is using to justify the firing — “should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others” — would render academic freedom a nullity. It’s essentially a “civility” firing, and given the language it’s even worse than that. Any professor who ever made a mistake — even an honest mistake — in a public forum would be subject to revocation of tenure. Any remotely controversial statement could be a violation of the requirement to “exercise appropriate restraint.” Revoking McAdams’s tenure on this basis is unjustifiable in itself and would set an extremely dangerous precedent.

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