So Will admits he tried to bait me into writing about this prof at Marquette U. who’s been blogging about the school, which has now announced they’re revoking his tenure and firing him, which has him claiming they’re violating his academic freedom. Here‘s the prof’s side of the story. In a nutshell, an undergraduate student complained about a graduate student instructor, this prof (from a different department) blogged about it, and the solid waste struck the spinning blades. Will asked my thoughts, a subtle hint that went right over my head as I replied to him via email. Here’s what I wrote.

Well, he’s a political science prof, so I say fire him.

More seriously, this looks like a case of everyone behaving badly.

1. The graduate student instructor didn’t handle the discussion well. Although despite her being a feminist vegan philosopher, which means I’d probably have extensive disagreements with her, I’m sympathetic because it takes time to learn how to manage students well–after about 14 years I still feel like I’m learning that.

2. The undergrad student is badly mistaken if he thinks he has a right to class discussion on his pet issue.

3. I think the blogger prof is incorrect to call his blog an issue of academic freedom. Not everything we say comes under academic freedom just because we’re academics. For some people that becomes a nice coverall for everything they want to do, without restraint. That doesn’t mean I think there’s necessarily anything wrong with the prof blogging about these things.

4. The Arts & Sciences Dean is probably violating the University’s own policy, as seen in point c here:

“When he/she speaks or writes as a citizen, he/she should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”

But if the prof is not speaking as a citizen, but as a member of the University, then academic freedom probably does apply.

Marquette is of course private, so it has greater freedom of action here than a public university might, and I don’t find that it has a faculty union (although it might, and I just can’t find a note of it), which would mean the blogger prof has less of a leg to stand on.

For my part, I find it unwise to blog too openly about what happens in my place of work. Some faculty get pretty arrogant and think they’re untouchable and any repercussions for what they say about their place of employment are totally illegitimate. I can’t really speak to the issue of legitimacy of repercussions, but I know from observation that legitimate or not, repercussions do happen, and people who act like they’re immune are idiotic, or, to put it more nicely, un-strategic.

To add just a bit more, academic freedom is intended to allow people the freedom to research controversial issues, and argue for controversial findings/interpretations of those issues, without repercussions, so we don’t stunt the search for knowledge. Its purpose is not to allow us to criticize our employers (although of course protection for that is nice as well, just for a different set of reasons).

Nor, I think, is academic freedom intended to protect people for any particular political stances they want to yammer about publicly. The University of Illinois, for example, did not, in my opinion, violate the academic freedom of Steven Salaita. But being a public university, bound by the First Amendment, they arguably violated his free speech rights.

And yet I have a hard time imagining the same uproar had Illinois rescinded the hiring of an academic who tweeted that gangbangers were responsible for white racism, as Salaita tweeted that Zionists were responsible for anti-semitism. Defenses of speech and academic freedom are sometimes selective. My graduate program once counted political activity towards tenure, until someone asked what they’d do if they had a politically active white supremacist in the department. That crystallized the reality that it wasn’t really political activism they approved of, but the correct type of political activism, even if those bounds were rather wide.

There’s often a fine line between political activism and academic activity. As an academic I’m persuaded that its foolish for governments to grant rents to firms, but if I stand up at a city council meeting and oppose a tax credit to lure a business to town, is that academic or political? What about if a geologist talks publicly for/against fracking? Perhaps the obscurity of the line is what leads academics to think that any pronouncement they make is covered by academic freedom. And in the Marquette prof’s case, I’m not seeing that journalism, as the professor (correctly) notes he’s doing, about the university itself, counts as academic freedom for a political scientist.*

Whatever the cause, I think we ought to be more humble about how we extend the concept of academic freedom. The step from research findings to applications is so fraught with problems, and with such a history of failure (in all disciplines), that I think we ought to view application, or at least public argument for application, as something distinct from the freedom to research something. Those arguments ought nevertheless be covered by freedom of speech, for those faculty who work at public universities. And private universities would probably be well-served to privately extend a guarantee of freedom of speech as well. But they don’t have to.

*Our faculty union contract with our private college explicitly states that we have academic freedom concerning things in our area of specialty. The Art Historian who makes pronouncements about global warming? That’s not necessarily covered, and I’m not sure it should be. If academic freedom is designed to allow us to learn more about controversial issues, it doesn’t seem intended to protect us in talking out of our asses about things we haven’t actually studied at all.

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9 Responses to Academic Freedom Has a Limited Purpose

  1. James, thanks for posting this. I think I mostly agree, and the fact that McAdams is from a different department changes a little how I view the situation, at least when it comes to the firing. (I am, however, not very forgiving of him for what he did, perhaps because I did really stupid stuff as a grad student and while I learned better, I didn’t get harangued in public. Still, grad students are adults and are responsible for their actions.)

    What role do you think civility, as civility, ought to play in academic freedom? I think back on my post and am sometimes afraid that perhaps I’m making an is = ought statement. I do agree that when it comes to Salaita, the tribes align somewhat differently than they probably would under your example.

    • James Hanley says:


      I didn’t (yet) read his original essay about the incident, so for now I’m agnostic about the in/appropriateness of what he wrote.

      I think civility is valuable. That is, there’s value in showing that we can disagree intellectually without it being personal. When I first co-taught my Nuclear Weapons and Power class (co-taught with a chemist), we occasionally disagreed with each other in class on certain issues. We’ve now done more intellectual development on the topic, and that doesn’t happen anymore, but the students at that time seemed to actually respond well to having professors actually argue, but politely, in class.

      And I think it’s good to model that for our students by not sneering at any arguments they might make, no matter how dumb, by giving them a serious response.

      But the problem among colleagues, I think, is not just intellectual disagreement, but disagreement at the level of values and world view. I think of Stephen Jay Gould’s relentless and nast attacks on Edward O. Wilson, for example, or fights I’ve seen in the social sciences between rational choice theorists and post-modernists. It’s not just a fight about method or interpretation, but about whether my primary understanding of the world is right or wrong. It’s roughly equivalent to a clash of religious beliefs, and for the same reason.

  2. I should say that my view on this is evolving. I’m no longer nearly as certain as I was that the proposed firing is justified. Your post here and a recent article by Megan McArdle are compelling me to look more into what went down and what the correct response was/would have been.

    • trumwill says:

      The best argument I’ve heard about the firing is that McAdams has allegedly been warned about naming students (even TA’s and graduate student instructors) twice before, and was openly flouting that warning.

      • Mike Schilling says:

        If what I’ve read elsewhere is true, in the past he’s gone as far as revealing the address and phone number of a student he was annoyed with, and was warned that one more incident would be his last.

  3. James Hanley says:

    Looking through some of the prof’s blog posts, he’s been pretty critical of what he sees as overdone political correctness at the school, and directly critical of the school’s president. I’d venture a guess that they’re just tired of him and looking for an excuse.

    He does seem a bit of a twit. He seems to have a one-size-fits-all attitude toward feminists. In one post, which is an otherwise good critique of a sexual harassment training program that almost seems a parody, he says, “Might a feminist object to this: of course. Might a reasonable woman? No.” The categorical distinction between feminists and reasonable women is ridiculous, and unintellectual.

    Still, I don’t see where he did anything that really justifies firing him; certainly not if Marquette really values free exchange of ideas.

  4. How would McAdams’s challenge work if he takes it to court? I assume it would be something like a breach of contract, where the terms of Marquette’s granting of tenure is examined. In that case, they’ll probably look at whatever conditions or provisos have been added to that grant, but also at what current practices and “best” practices are. If current practices are examined, would that help or hinder his cause? (I imagine it would help, but I don’t really know.)

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