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There’s a lot of hypocrisy about Wisconsin professors’ freedom of speech and academic freedom. It’s easy to defend speech you like. A lot of people are defending only the speech they like. A challenge to left and right: Start being consistent.
To conservatives, this challenge: If you support Marquette Professor John McAdams, then you should also support the right to strong tenure protections for liberal professors. After all, the only thing giving McAdams a fighting chance is tenure. Furthermore, think about it: Whose speech is most controversial on college campuses and in need of strong tenure protection?
Yet, by weakening tenure and indefinite status, Republicans (those in the legislature, the governor’s mansion and serving on the Board of Regents) have actually made it harder to voice conservative opinions on campus. Go figure. I’m not the only one on campus who has made this point; a conservative and a libertarian professor did too. I support academic freedom and freedom of speech for liberal, conservative and apolitical professors.
Furthermore, conservatives, don’t look the other way when a Republican legislator outrageously threatens to use government budget-cutting powers to target UW for more "reforms" because professors exercised their freedom of speech to voice "no confidence" in top leaders. State Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges, issued a press release that was headlined "No Confidence vote proves greater reforms of UW System urgently needed" and trashed professors for "living in the 1970s."
When you add the "reforms" together – weakened shared governance, weakened tenure – it appears some conservatives prefer that professors in Wisconsin have less of a voice. That’s wrong. Yet, in the McAdams’ case, they’ve (correctly) morphed into champions of academic freedom.
On social media, some conservatives openly support UW budget cuts and tenure reforms because they say professors are liberal and intolerant to conservatives (this happens repeatedly on my own threads). If the liberal ideology of professors is even part of the motive for budget cuts and other changes, that’s extraordinarily wrong – this from the same people who decry government attacks on free speech in the John Doe 2 case and IRS controversy.
Maybe there’s a reason UW System President Ray Cross wanted chancellors to not "whine" about budget cuts; maybe he knows how incredibly thin-skinned some Republican legislators can be and how quickly they might wield government power back against UW as a result. That, right there, is the very need for tenure. Expose it, don’t enable it. UW-Madison’s chancellor "warned that a no-confidence vote could lead to a backlash from state lawmakers," according to the Journal Sentinel. That’s outrageous.
Most columns would stop there, with one side. But I’m far from done. Onto the left.
To liberals, I offer this challenge: Defend conservative speech as strongly as you do your own.
For starters, publicly add your voice to those demanding that Marquette University not fire tenured professor John McAdams because of a blog post defending a student right to oppose gay marriage in a classroom. Defend that student. Where are those liberal voices?
Marquette should give McAdams his job back and work to ensure that conservative students’ voices are not silenced in class.
Furthermore, liberal professors: Make university campuses more tolerant of diverse ideological viewpoints, especially public universities.
Don’t make it difficult to be a vocal conservative on campus. As one of the few known instructors in UW not branded as liberal (I label myself as an independent by the way), I can attest to the fact that it can be extremely difficult to be considered conservative on campus. I have considered it a complete nightmare. If you are branded as conservative on a campus, some (not all) may subject you to name calling, bullying and shifting, vague or double standards. You may feel you have to work twice as hard. McAdams himself gave me this advice years ago: "Fight it early, and fight it hard." He meant intolerance to non-liberal perspectives.
Now with tenure/indefinite status weakened, I routinely weigh the potential cost of weighing in on controversial topics – including this one. I wanted to write a reasoned column on the UW-Madison protests recently, but decided that I didn’t dare. It’s too great of a risk.
There’s something wrong about having to make that calculation. I fear that my freedom of speech might not be defended by liberals on campus in that context, especially since the right weakened tenure/indefinite status. Just great. So now I write a column that calls them all hypocritical … brilliant! You have to stand up for your right to your own opinions, at some point, though (my opinions, by the way, are my own and do not represent the university where I work).
What I prefer, frankly, is that our ugly ideological wars stay out of classrooms. Keep academic freedom strong for professorial speech outside classrooms and stop making the UW an ideological football besides.
I am compelled to add that I’ve also found that more people on campus – including administrators and "liberal" professors – have defended my right to free speech overall than have not over the course of time. I found that shared governance was a protection – which Republicans just weakened. The academic staff equivalent of tenure was a protection too; I doubt that will be around long now, though, for others, as it was just weakened by Republicans. See the pattern?
When it comes to McAdams, I think intent matters. A student came to McAdams, a conservative professor at Marquette University, with a recording of a conversation the student had with a teacher about voicing opposition to gay marriage in class. FOX 6 ran the recording while camouflaging the student’s identity as "Matt." It’s about time that the first complaining student’s voice is also heard in this debate; how revealing that his "rights" have become so lost. According to FOX 6, the exchange went this way:
Matt: Regardless of why I'm against gay marriage, it's still wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person's opinion when they may have different opinions.
Instructor: Okay, there are some opinions that are not appropriate – that are harmful, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions. And quite honestly, do you know if anyone in your, in the class is homosexual?
Matt: No, I don't.
Instructor: And do you not think that that would be offensive to them if you were to raise your hand and challenge this?
Matt: So, because they're homosexual, I can't have my opinions. And it's not being offensive towards them, because, I am just having my opinions on a very broad subject.
Instructor: You can have whatever opinions you want, but I will tell you right now in this class, homophobic comments, racist comments, sexist comments, will not be tolerated. If you don't like it, you're more than free to drop this class.
I find this exchange very troubling – and I say this as a person who supports gay marriage (although if I didn’t, I would be too afraid to say). What about his right to not have to drop the class because of his religious beliefs? Yet, we’ve heard almost no one, save for McAdams and conservatives, defend him. Marquette seems more troubled by what McAdams said outside of class than about what happened inside this class.
The student then complained to administrators, one of whom allegedly referred to him as an "insolent little twerp," according to FOX 6. Also deeply troubling. It was then that the student went to McAdams. McAdams named the instructor, a graduate student, and she then received outrageously wrong harassing emails from people not McAdams, which he has decried. Marquette then suspended McAdams, banished him from campus and wants to fire him if he doesn’t admit wrongdoing.
On Monday, McAdams filed a lawsuit against the university. The university is not backing down, saying that McAdams subjected the graduate student to "an extensive public shaming campaign by a member of our faculty."
It’s obvious McAdams’ intent here was to help the student who said his voice was silenced and who didn’t receive redress through formal channels. McAdams felt he was acting as a whistleblower of sorts and was criticizing the graduate student as an instructor. We could argue McAdams could have taken it up through internal channels that he clearly thinks are not fair, I suppose, but he doesn’t think they work (as evidenced now by his own case).
Even if you think McAdams shouldn’t have blogged about a graduate student in the context of her job as a teacher (I personally wouldn’t have), stripping a tenured professor of his job is going too far since his intent was obviously to defend another student’s freedom of speech.
Why doesn’t Marquette seem more concerned about the rights of the student who went to McAdams to not be called names and to not be subjected to silencing in class because of his religious/political beliefs?
Furthermore, McAdams is not responsible for odious speech other people made, harassing the student teacher. He’s responsible for his own speech. Normally, discipline is graduated.
Can you imagine the hue and cry if this had occurred in reverse? Say a conservative instructor told a liberal student he couldn’t express support for gay marriage in class. Think about it.
Two wrongs don’t make a right. Either you stand for freedom of speech/academic freedom on campus or you don’t.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.