Universities are institutions with high ideals. Should they not live up to those high ideals, the courts may be responsible to make them. A strong message was recently sent to the elite private Universities in America by a ruling from the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Should a university promise to provide academic freedom, they will be required to provide it.
Marquette University Violation
The ruling from the Wisconsin Supreme Court was 63 pages and took the position that Marquette University violated the rules of its faculty handbook. This occurred when the university terminated its professor John McAdams. He was accused of writing a blog post about a graduate student instructor that criticized her trying to stop debate in her ethics class about gay rights. It happened in 2014, a student spoke with professor McAdams and told him that Cheryl Abbate, a graduate student, had written issues on the board. One of the issues listed was gay rights. She then told the students that everyone agrees on this one, and it is not necessary to discuss it.
Discussion Shut Down
When class was over, a student went to speak with Cheryl Abbate. He tried to speak with her about gay marriage. At the beginning of the conversation, the student and Abbate had a positive exchange. Abate then stopped the conversation and told the student he did not have a right in that class to make homophobic comments. She also told the student homophobic comments as well as racist comments won’t be tolerated. Abbate then encouraged the student to drop the class. Professor John McAdams described the encounter on his blog. On his blog post, he also provided the name of the instructor as well as a link to her public personal webpage.
Support For Cheryl Abbate
After this incident, Marquette University expressed its support for Abbate. McAdams was quickly placed under investigation. The university’s Faculty Hearing Committee (FHC) was convened. One of its members had signed a statement condemning McAdams prior to the hearing. This member said their statement displayed no disqualifying bias. The proceedings lasted four days. The FHC suggested the university suspend McAdams for no more and no less than two complete semesters.
Marquette University president suspended McAdams without pay. McAdams was then informed his reinstatement would involve signing a letter acknowledging his blog post was reckless as well as not compatible with Marquette University values and mission. McAdams refused to sign the letter. He continued to be suspended and filed a lawsuit. McAdams was seeking back pay as well as reinstatement.
Many members of the legal community looked at the case and thought it would be easy. It was obvious to many Marquette University would win the case. A private religious university is often provided significant discretion when it comes to implementing its rules for discipline if they coincide with its unique purpose and mission.
When a private university has a binding promise in place for its employees, it is important the university to honor that promise. Other universities have used their marketplace to decrease academic freedom when compared to a community college and others. Many have claimed their freedom makes it possible for them to not honor their binding employee promises.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected the University’s reasoning. Their excuse for such a breach of a Contract was not accepted. The court held McAdams blog post was covered by protected academic expression by what was written in its own faculty handbook.
The ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court only has authority in Wisconsin. It is a decision that was closely observed by lawyers and universities around the country. The ruling is a persuasive precedent that establishes a risk to other universities that replicate Marquette University’s approach to similar situations.
When other universities are face a similar situation, they often choose litigation. This appears to be preferred over dealing with internal consequences. These are administrators, professors, and students who strongly support repression and censorship. It appears the lawsuits will continue in pursuit of academic freedom. It may be cheaper than paying for the costs associated with censorship.