According to a recent article, Marquette University is on the verge of stripping Professor John C. McAdams of his tenure and then relieving him of his job. This prospect should strike fear in every professor in the country, but it will not. Instead, I am concerned that many academics will attempt to find ways to justify this firing because they do not approve of the political policies of Dr. McAdams. I am certain that he has political stances that I disagree with as well. But to merely use those disagreements to justify the actions of the administration of Marquette is a short-sighted way of looking at this situation and one I will vigorously fight against.
Before going into my concern about those who have no problems with Dr. McAdams being dismissed, I need to outline the events that led to this situation. You can use the link above to check my recounting of this situation and to gain more details than I want to discuss at this time. An undergraduate student in a philosophy class came to Dr. McAdams and complained about a graduate student teacher. He had recorded a conversation with her in which she told him that he would not be allowed to disagree with same-sex marriage. After a heated exchange, she told him that if he did not like that request, then he could drop the course. Dr. McAdams discussed this confrontation in a blog and included the name of the graduate student. The student started receiving hate mail, and she eventually left the campus. Marquette University administrators suspended professor McAdams, and now it appears that they are seeking to make that suspension permanent by taking away his tenure.
Tenure is a precious commodity in academia. It is part of what makes this a great occupation for me. Given how many years of schooling I have, it is fair to say that I am quite underpaid in our society. No one should feel sorry for me as I am not poor. But others who have as much post-graduate schooling as I – physicians, lawyers – make a great deal more money. But where I am well compensated is ideological freedom. A business person saying the wrong thing can get fired merely for that statement. A lawyer is not completely free to argue for any cause he or she wants, especially if that cause contradicts the interests of the clients in the firm. But academics who have proven themselves to be reliable scholars have earned the right to go wherever their ideas will take them. That is the beauty of tenure. It is a beauty that the administrators of Marquette University want to spoil.
Are there people misusing their tenure to chase foolish ideas? Of course that will occur. But what is considered foolish yesterday is often accepted today. At one point of our history, it was considered foolish to think that women were as smart as men, but fortunately today it is foolish to think otherwise. We have to allow people to explore “foolish” ideas if tenure is going to mean anything. Our own assessment of the wisdom of a given idea at a given time cannot be the rubric by which we decide which academic gets to keep their job and who does not. Perhaps I feel especially vexed by this because I am one who is not afraid of exploring what some call foolish ideas. Hello? Have you seen what happens when I write about Christianophobia? But as a professor who has shown the ability to do peer-reviewed research in my discipline, I have earned the right to be critiqued for my foolish ideas, but not fired. So this situation with Dr. McAdams resonates with me in ways it may not if I were more conformist.
What are some of the excuses individuals use to justify the actions of Marquette University? Looking through some of the comments in articles on this subject reveals a few such arguments. One argument is that this is a situation of abuse of power since it is a professor against a graduate student. Yet Dr. McAdams is a professor of Political Science and the student was in Philosophy. He had no direct power over her. I have no power over an English graduate student at the University of North Texas unless I happen to be asked to be on his/her dissertation or thesis committee. I do not think this student would put Dr. McAdams on her dissertation committee and so he has no power over her.
Another argument given is that Dr. McAdams is not being fired for his ideas but for providing the name of the graduate student and setting her up for abuse. This may be a way of differentiating the actions of Dr. McAdams and that of other professors. However, he is not the first academic to discuss a controversial situation and name a student. I found a couple of them here and here online.
By the way, I find it curious that those complaining about McAdam’s abuse of power have nothing to say about the graduate student teacher’s power over her student. She had direct power over him and appears to drive him from the course. If anything she had more power over the student than Dr. McAdams had over her. I would not want to see her fired from her job either, but clearly she is not creating a classroom atmosphere that allows for the exploration of ideas. If I were her graduate advisor, you better believe that I would have sat her down to discuss how she can better handle her confrontation with the student and how she can make changes to improve her presentation as a teacher.
Some may complain that this sacking is justified since he used information from an unethical tape recording. I too am uncomfortable with a student recording a conversation without the instructor knowing that she is being recorded. I understand why the student felt motivated since the administration attempted to argue that the student dropped the course due to his academic failure. The recording suggests that this is not entirely the case. Nevertheless, I am concerned about our decreasing levels of privacy in our society and this student’s actions do not help lessen my concern. In this new age of electronic surveillance, we need to carefully think about how we can protect our privacy.
But I wonder if those who complain about the recording were just as concerned when Donald Sterling was recorded without his knowledge. I was. If privacy is an important concern then one should not protect the privacy of only those one agrees with. I think Sterling is a racist bigot, but I fear that this recording set a bad precedent, and I wrote as much. My suspicion is that those who are okay with catching someone like Sterling but not okay with the graduate student tripping herself up in a recording have a tribal notion of privacy whereby that is a right only for those who support the issues they support.
Unfortunately, I do not think that a true desire for justice for the graduate student is driving the effort to fire Dr. McAdams. Those who use the above excuses to justify firing Dr. McAdams are often silent when those principles apply to other professors. Dr. McAdam’s mistake is not misusing his power, naming the student, or using taped material. His “mistake” was not toeing the proper political line on a controversial issue. At Marquette University there is not true tenure protection unless you are willing to sufficiently agree with the political and social goals of the university’s administrators. Of course everyone realizes that this is not real intellectual protection and thus individuals offer up other excuses for firing Dr. McAdams. But those excuses strain any sense of credibility.
Pretend for an instant that the situation above was the same with one key difference. Instead of the graduate student stating that those who oppose same-sex marriage were not allowed to express their opposition that those who supported same-sex marriage were not allowed to express their support. Imagine everything else to be the same in that a student records the graduate instructor, and Dr. McAdams provides her name in a blog which results in her reception of hate mail. That hate mail then drives her away from the program. Can anyone with a straight face really say that the administration would be trying to fire Dr. McAdams? What is more plausible is that the administration would have fired the graduate student or let the hate mail drive her away and then washed their hands of this situation. Our inability to imagine that the Marquette administration would act with any similarity to the current situation when we alter the political substance of the situation indicates that this is not about how Dr. McAdams acted as much as it is about the political issues he is addressing. They want to get rid of him because he has taken a political stance on what they envision as wrong. That is the opposite of what tenure is supposed to be about. A professor’s political viewpoint, no matter how much we find it disagreeable, should never be used to strip that professor of tenure or tenure is just another way to ensure ideological purity.
Before I came into academia, I had an idealized vision of what science was supposed to be about. In my mind it was an open search for truth. Part of that search for truth was that scientists are free to test a wide variety of possible answers. They would not be limited in the possible answers they could argue, but would be limited by the results of disinterested experiments. I quickly learned that this is a fantasy. Science is an institution run by subjective humans with their own social and political biases. Some scholars do an excellent job controlling their biases while other do a miserable job. But even this difference does not eliminate the reality that we all have biases that can shape how we treat ideas we disagree with and those who hold them. It is one thing to allow those biases to run amok in one’s own work, but it is understandable that this may happen. It takes things to an entirely new level when academics’ and administrators’ biases lead them to quasi-witch hunts whereby those who do not agree with their presuppositions are to be driven from the field. My naïve perceptions are now gone, and I realize that academia is not the open search for truth as I once envisioned it to be. I wish I could say that I was surprised by what happened at Marquette University, but I am afraid I have become too jaded to have such surprise today.
So that future professors are not mistaken by what tenure means at Marquette University, we need to make their tenure expectations clear to them. At Marquette University, an incoming professor has every right to earn tenure. But at Marquette University, tenure means that they are allowed to retain their position as long as they do not differ too much from the social and political values of the administration. If they do differ, then they may only keep their tenure if they are perfect. Imprudent actions excused by those that agree with the administration will not be tolerated by those that the administrators disagree with. Professors who disagree sufficiently with the administration of Marquette must live out their career with a double standard whereby they do not have the protection of professors who conform to the ideological beliefs of the administrators. When those who disagree with the administration commit any errors, then they can expect to have their tenure taken away from them and to be summarily fired.
If the policy in the last paragraph only belonged to Marquette then I could live with it. We could write them off as a rogue university. I fear that unless academics of good will speak up, then Marquette will be the norm and not the exception. You do not have to agree with Dr. McAdams to be willing to call out the dysfunctional actions of the Marquette administration. However, unless academics are prepared to be ideologically subservient to their current administration, then they need to understand that fighting for Dr. McAdams is also fighting for themselves.