A Jesuit School Gets Dogmatic

Is Marquette’s promise of academic freedom worth anything?


St. Joan of Arc Chapel in Marquette University in Milwaukee, 2012.
St. Joan of Arc Chapel in Marquette University in Milwaukee, 2012. PHOTO: ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES

Marquette is a Jesuit university in Milwaukee. Which is appropriate, because jesuitical is the word that fits its explanation for firing a tenured political science professor who defended a student who was badly treated by an intolerant graduate instructor.

The sacked professor is John McAdams, who in 2014 wrote a blog post criticizing by name Cheryl Abbate, who taught a course on ethics. Ms. Abbate had told a student he could not express his disagreement with same-sex marriage in her ethics class because it was “homophobic” and on that issue there could be no debate.

In his post on the incident, Mr. McAdams made no judgment on same-sex marriage. But he noted that liberals are inclined to deem views they disagree with as offensive and then use that to shut down debate. The story went national. 

Marquette officials took action—against Mr. McAdams. He was blamed for the hate mail that Ms. Abbate received after he named her, even though there’s no evidence he was part of any of it. Marquette President Michael Lovell gave him an ultimatum: apologize or be suspended without pay indefinitely. Mr. McAdams refused to apologize and has been effectively fired.

He’s also suing, and last May a Wisconsin trial court backed the university’s dismissal. But Mr. McAdams has appealed and wants to go straight to the state Supreme Court. The Wisconsin Institute for Liberty and Law, which has taken his case, says the firing violates Mr. McAdams’s contract with Marquette, which promises freedom from threats of dismissal over constitutional rights such as free speech.

As a private institution, Marquette has the right to set its own employment standards and it needn’t abide by the First Amendment. But it is hard to square Mr. McAdams’s dismissal with any reasonable understanding of Marquette’s contract guaranteeing him academic freedom.

We wish these issues weren’t left for courts. But when institutions such as Marquette are unable to handle what should be the normal give and take of debate, they invite that intervention. How much better we’d all be if Marquette would acknowledge its mistake and give the professor his job back.

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