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McAdams says Kirkpatrick Award nice, but he’d rather be teaching

By   /   February 27, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

WAUKESHA, Wis. – Marquette University Professor John McAdams received the Jeane Jordan Kirkpatrick Award for Academic Freedom at the Conservative Political Action Conference Ronald Reagan dinner Friday evening. The award was presented by Rick Graber, President of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which supports the award.

McAdams was indefinitely suspended by Marquette after a November 2014 commentary on his blog, The Marquette Warrior, criticized philosophy instructor and graduate student Cheryl Abbate for telling a student she would not allow discussion of viewpoints critical of same-sex marriage in her class.

Photo by James Wigderson

Professor John McAdams (right) is this year’s recipient of the Jeane Kirkpatrick award at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, MD.

McAdams, a nationally recognized expert on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, appealed to a faculty committee, saying the academic freedom mentioned in his contract protected his First Amendment right to free speech. The committee issued a report in January 2016 recommending unpaid suspension for McAdams through the fall 2016 semester.

However, Marquette President Michael Lovell added three additional requirements to be met before McAdams can be reinstated. The requirements, listed in a Jan. 12 letter, said McAdams would have to accept the judgment of his peers, commit to the standards of higher education at Marquette, and acknowledge that his blog post was reckless and incompatible with Marquette’s mission. He also is expected to express regret for the alleged harm suffered by Abbate.  

Lovell’s actions have landed Marquette University on a list of the Ten Worst Universities for Free Speech, as ranked by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

In a letter last April, McAdams refused to accept the faculty committee’s recommendation and to comply with the additional demands made by Lovell. He is suing the university for breach of contract, claiming the contract with the university guarantees of academic freedom. The case is waiting on a ruling from Milwaukee County Judge David Hansher on competing summary judgment motions from McAdams and the university.

In the meantime, McAdams continues to be suspended and is unable to access the funds in his retirement account.

In a telephone interview Friday morning, McAdams spoke about receiving the award.

Q: Why is this award so important? Why is it so important to your particular cause?

McAdams: Let’s put it this way — it’s nice to know that there’s people who push back against campus political correctness. The fact that I’m willing to be kind of stubborn is good, but the fact that there are other people behind me who will support me is good.

The truth is, what you have with university administrations is a combination. Some of those people are politically correct, but some of them tend to go with the flow.  And if the forces that they face are mostly on campus political correctness, they’ll cave to that. If they’re countervailing things like, not only John McAdams who has a blog, but a big foundation like the Bradley Foundation or organizations like Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that will push back, it’s important to have that pressure. Because if there’s no one to push back, administrators are guaranteed to give the political correct on campus whatever they want.

Q: You’re getting an award on a national stage at a prominent gathering of conservatives from all over the country. What does it say that your situation is getting such national attention?

McAdams: A lot of professors have come under fire for doing and saying things that are not politically correct. Not that many have been fired, particularly not that many tenured professors have been fired. In fact, I may be the only one that I know about. I’ve heard of professors saying politically incorrect things taken out of an administrative position, or professors who didn’t have tenure — there was one based at the University of Kansas — not being renewed. So that’s a violation of academic freedom. So my case is fairly unique. It’s kind of an extreme case of trying to fire a professor because of a blog post. It’s a pretty extreme case.

And of course, the fact that it is supposedly a Catholic university, a lot of people actually think that, gosh, at a Catholic university there ought to be an understanding that if you want to speak up in opposition to gay marriage, you’re allowed to do it. And it sort of shocked some people to find that they’re trying to fire me for outing an instructor who said, no, you can’t speak out against gay marriage in my class.

So you put all that together and you’ve got … a kind of important national story.

Q: Do you think this award will have an effect on Marquette?

McAdams: I don’t know. Marquette seems to be absolutely stubborn in wanting to get rid of me. Okay, I’m an academic, so academics always have two equal and opposite theories, right? One theory is that all this attention will mean that, particularly if the summary judgment goes against them, they have an incentive not to appeal it but to settle in a way that’s favorable to me.

The other theory is, the more this becomes a big deal, the madder they get at me, and the more they’re inclined to double down. I guess the bottom line is, I don’t actually know.

Q: Given the national attention, how do you think this is making Marquette University look?

McAdams: It is making them look very bad, particularly because I was standing up for the right of a student, when gay marriage came up in class, to speak in opposition to gay marriage, (to) speak up on behalf of the Catholic Church’s own position.

It would be one thing if the student wanted to speak up in favor of going to the metric system or something. But here is a student (who) wanted to speak in favor of the Catholic Church’s position on gay marriage. He was told he couldn’t, and Marquette really de facto appears to be siding with Cheryl Abbate, appears to be deciding with the instructor who said, no, you can’t say that.

Marquette has done other things that seem to say you can’t approach gay marriage on campus, including an online training session on harassment that says two employees, if they talk to each other in express opposition to gay marriage, and somebody who doesn’t like that overhears them, then those employees could be considered guilty of harassment.

So, it’s somewhat shocking to find that a supposed Catholic university is outlawing people speaking up in favor of the Catholic position. The thing is, it’s not the university simply saying that they’re not going to enforce a particular view they’d be taking themselves. It’s a university enforcing a view opposite to Catholic teaching.

I think that has a lot of resonance, particularly from people who are used to thinking, whoa, they’re Catholic universities and they really are Catholic. In fact, most of the older ones, the bigger ones, are pretty much secular.

Q: To you personally, how do you feel about getting this kind of national attention, this kind of award?

McAdams: It’s nice. It’s nice to know that there are people who are supporting me. And there are some nice perks, like, the Bradley Foundation put me up in the river view suite here. But it turns out it really has a view of the river and really it is a suite. I’m an ordinary professor, so when someone says suite, I think of what a two-star hotel right off the interstate calls a suite. But no, I have a suite at a four-star hotel, so that’s a nice perk. I’m kind of enjoying it.

But quite frankly, I’d much rather just be back at Marquette teaching, blogging, feeling free to say what I want to say in my blog. That would be much better than all the attention I’m getting.

Q: You’re getting an award named after Jeane Kirkpatrick.

McAdams: Yes, she was vilified in academia because she was an anti-communist. Particularly, she said that regimes that are repressive, that are anti-communist and aligned with the US on foreign policy, are better than Communist regimes that are not only more repressive but are anti-American in their foreign policy. That put her at odds with a lot of academics who, to be frank about it, wouldn’t have minded if this or that dictatorship in Latin America was overpowered by communists. So she came in for a lot of flak about that. She was one gutsy lady.

RELATED: Judge to decide if summary judgment is to be made in McAdams case

Graber also spoke to Wisconsin Watchdog in a telephone interview about McAdams receiving the award. Before Graber became president of the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation last June, he served on the board for three years. He is a former ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Q: Why is the McAdams case so important?

Graber: As you know, he’s being honored at CPAC as the 2017 winner of the Jeane Kirkpatrick Award. It’s about academic freedom. It’s about freedom of speech. It’s about creating environments on campuses across the country where people are free to express their views, contrary views.

Obviously, it should be done in a civil way, but that freedom is being eroded, and this is a great case of that.

Q: Why is the award so important to the McAdams case? It’s a national award, it’s on a national stage. Do you think this award will help put more pressure on Marquette?

Graber: It’s an annual award, and a committee of people come together every year and review possible candidates. There’s a nomination process and John McAdams was the winner this year.  The point of the award this year and every year is to express the importance of First Amendment rights, freedom of speech and academic freedom. Professor McAdams is an example of someone who happens to be in our home town who happens to be in the fight of his academic life right now over an incident.

Marquette will do what Marquette wants to do. It’s an issue that’s important at Marquette, it’s an issue that’s important around the country.

RELATED: ‘Martyr to political correctness’ John McAdams to receive Academic Freedom award

Q: What does it say about the McAdams situation that it is getting such national attention? It’s not just a local issue, but it’s been written about in the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. Why do you think this case resonates so much that it gets such national attention?

Graber: It’s an easily understood facts situation. It’s a case where John McAdams, on his blog, posted about an incident within a class that was not being paid attention to by the administration at Marquette. (It’s) a blatant example of the lack of academic freedom that has plagued our college campuses.

College campuses should be a place where there are open exchanges of ideas, and sometimes controversial ideas. But that should be okay. It seems we’ve evolved in the direction of political correctness, (with) the agendas of the professors taking precedence over the free exchange of ideas

I think both the left and the right are concerned about this. It would be a terrible precedent if Marquette does not reverse course on this.

Q: How do you think how this whole McAdams case is making Marquette University look?

Graber: I’m not sure it’s my place to draw conclusions or opinions on how it makes Marquette look. I don’t think it’s good publicity for Marquette. I think Marquette should cherish and welcome academic freedom (and) free speech on campus, in its classrooms. Part of the reason so many people are commenting on this is to try to slowly make change on our college campuses from what’s happened over, really, decades.

I’m sure it’s an uncomfortable spot for Marquette to be, but Marquette put itself in this spot.

Q: What are you hearing from other people at CPAC about how important these fights over academic freedom are?

Graber: I think it’s a very important issue at CPAC. There’s a lot of energy in the hall, a lot of talk about the opportunity that exists right now to bring some meaningful change. There’s a lot of talk about regulatory reform. There’s a lot of talk about education reform and the opportunities that exist there — a lot of the themes that Bradley focuses on, the things that allow individuals and the nation to flourish. Again: regulatory reform, free enterprise, capitalism, the importance of community and family. All big issues.

In conjunction with all that is one of the hallmarks of our country: and that’s free speech. Academic freedom. It’s all there, and there’s a lot of excitement about it.

James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.


James Wigderson is a Wisconsin-based reporter for Watchdog. He is also an online contributor to MacIver Institute and RightWisconsin, blogs at the Wigderson Library and Pub, and was formerly an award-winning local columnist for the Waukesha Freeman. James is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. He lives in Waukesha, WI, with his wife Doreen and their children.