Banned for beliefs: Washington Post tries to tackle the fracas at Marquette University

The long-smoldering struggle between Marquette University and a prickly professor made the Washington Post this week. But there's something funny about the headline:

A university moved to fire a professor after he defended a student’s right to debate gay marriage. Now he’s suing.

A little surprising, in itself, I guess. But what if I told you it's a Catholic university? A Jesuit one, at that? If criticizing gay marriage -- quoting, for example, the teachings of the Catholic church -- during a discussion in class is not allowed in a Catholic, Jesuit university …?

There is a good summary at the top of Post story, at least:

The conflict began in 2014: After a student complained after a philosophy class that he was disappointed that he and others who question gay marriage had not been allowed to express their views during the classroom discussion, the graduate-student instructor told him that opposition to gay marriage was homophobic and offensive and would not be tolerated in her theory of ethics class. John McAdams, an associate professor of political science at Marquette, blogged about it, writing that the instructor "was just using a tactic typical among liberals now. Opinions with which they disagree are not merely wrong, and are not to be argued against on their merits, but are deemed ‘offensive’ and need to be shut up."
The story went viral, touching as it did on the heated debates over issues such as campus culture, gay rights, academic freedom, whether students should be protected from comments they find offensive or hurtful, and where the lines should be drawn in discussions of charged topics such as race and sexuality to ensure that people don’t feel stigmatized or unsafe. The instructor was targeted on social media by people angered by McAdams’s account of the incident and ultimately left the university.
McAdams was suspended without pay the following month and banned from campus, and in March of this year he was told by university president Michael Lovell he could not return to teaching unless he wrote a letter acknowledging that his behavior had been reckless and incompatible with Marquette values and that he feels deep regret for the harm he did to the instructor.
On Monday, McAdams and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed a lawsuit in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, claiming breach of contract.

Now, Marquette would never be mistaken for Catholic University of America, in which faculty members are, to some degree, required to stick with traditional church teachings. One example: Years ago, when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops put sexuality on their agenda, Marquette ethicist Daniel Maguire told me: "When pelvic issues come up, the bishops get nervous … [but] the bishops are growing up and debating the issues. And it shows that the laity ought to grow up and debate, too." So the university should be accustomed to people breaking political correctness.

A pat on the back for the Post's respectful effort to retell competing arguments. For instance, it says the university argues that McAdams was bullying a student, while he says she was acting as an instructor at the time of the incident. The 1,600-word piece also quotes the lawsuit, plus a release from the professor and an email from a university spokesman. Also a report from the Faculty Hearing Committee and a statement from the student president, pulled from the campus newspaper. In a sign of our journalism times, apparently the only live quote is from the professor's lawyer.

That's also the article's big drawback; one phone call and a lot of canned stuff. I see no attempt to contact the undergraduate student or the graduate-student instructor who shut him up. The students aren’t even named, even though the graduate student -- Cheryl Abbate -- is named in the legal complaint as well as the report of the Faculty Hearing Committee, both linked from the Post story. But the student she shut up is named in the latter only as "JD." Both students' names are important. Those accused of wrongdoing have a right to face their accusers.  

Nor does the Post quote anyone else at Marquette who may be acquainted with the situation. This despite the fact that the complaint names a Dr. Luft, Dr. Snow and Dr. Donaldson, all current or former Marquette staff or faculty.

In a lengthy FAQ file, the university accuses McAdams of bypassing normal channels and instead blogging about the graduate student "publicly shaming her, questioning her values and including a link to her contact information." And some of the online comments against Abbate are indeed vicious. Among the milder ones, according to Inside Higher Ed, are "tyrant," a "stupid, stupid woman," a "toxic example to students" and "ignorant liberal bitch."

There are layers of other academic issues here. Did the university flout its own bylaws in summarily suspending him? Did it behave spitefully by banning him from campus, as if he was a physical danger? Did the ban deny him a chance to gather info to defend himself?

But the religious issues are quite a bit simpler. The Roman Catholic Church's stance toward gay marriage could hardly be clearer: in a word, "Nope."  And if professors like Maguire are free to criticize bishops over church teaching, why shouldn't professors like McAdams -- and students like JD -- be free to discuss church teaching at a Catholic university?

The picture is simpler yet for media like the Washington Post: finding out what actually happened in the classroom, and whether a student was unfairly silenced merely for agreeing with the church. And not least, what precedent this conflict may set -- not only at Marquette but at other Catholic universities. Might the authoritative Ex Corde Ecclesiae document, addressing the work of Catholic universities, from St. Pope John Paul II be relevant to this case?

To be sure, the Post writer already had much to digest and explain: 28 pages of legal complaint, the 1,100-word FAQ file, the 164-page report of the Faculty Hearing Committee, McAdams' blog, various articles. And all on a daily deadline. It's just that when you collect and collate what everyone else has said, it looks more like curating than reporting.

So I'm ending this post like my colleague Bobby Ross Jr. often does. What do you think, readers? Is the Post story adequate on its own? Or does it need some additional, original reporting?

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