The following is a guest post* from a philosopher who has been in communication with Marquette University philosophy graduate student Cheryl Abbate about the events that occurred in her class and that have been at the center of much controversy recently. The post aims to correct several mistaken and misleading elements in associate professor of political science John McAdams’s account of these events, which he did not witness, but which he has repeated several times, and which has formed the basis of several news reports. The author prefers to remain anonymous so as to avoid retaliation by McAdams.
A Critical Response to John McAdams’s Attacks on Cheryl Abbate
In recent news, a tenured professor at Marquette University, one John McAdams, has inspired a political attack against Cheryl Abbate, a philosophy graduate student at Marquette University. While a number of academics have expressed a concern about how this tenured professor breached his duty to mentor graduate students in private if he believes they have acted inappropriately, I would like to point out that Professor McAdams should also be criticized for misrepresenting the events that happened in Ms. Abbate’s classroom, starting with his initial post on November 9th. Equally troubling is the fact that Professor McAdams continues to maintain that he “accurately” reported the events surrounding Ms. Abbate’s confrontation with the complaining student. Below, I have enumerated a number of libelous statements found within Professor McAdams’s numerous blog posts about Ms. Abbate. In addition, I have pointed to the fact that he not only refuses to take responsibility for the numerous defaming news articles about Ms. Abbate that have generated national attention, but he also perpetuates these defaming statements himself.
1. Let us begin with Professor McAdams’s initial post on November 9th, 2014 where he states that, during the class in question, “she [Cheryl Abbate] listed some issues on the board, and came to “gay rights.” She then airily said that “everybody agrees on this, and there is no need to discuss it.” To be clear, Professor McAdams was not in the classroom to know what was actually said (and it has been confirmed by Inside Higher Ed that the student did not tape record the class itself). Nevertheless, professor McAdams felt it was acceptable to attribute direct quotes to Ms. Abbate. In fact, Ms. Abbate clarified to Inside Higher Ed that she never stated that “everybody agrees on this” because the purpose of the class was not to determine who agrees with gay marriage, but to encourage students to consider how one specific philosophical principle (Rawls’s equal liberty principle) might be applied to contemporary social policies. In her interview with Inside Higher Ed, Ms. Abbate reported that, during her lecture, she stated “it seemed right to me” that a ban on gay marriage would violate Rawls’ principle of equal liberty. In response, Professor McAdams stated that “this is not precisely what the student reported to us, but it’s easy to see how the student would have perceived the instructor blowing off an issue that he wanted to discuss.” Yet, clearly, there is a significant difference between the statement “It seems right to me that a ban on gay marriage would violate Rawls’s equal liberty principle” and the statement “everyone agrees with gay marriage.” If the complaining student’s perception was that Ms. Abbate was “blowing off” a discussion about gay marriage, then clearly he is confused about the purpose of Ms. Abbate’s ethical theory course, which does not encourage students to put forth personal opinions that lack philosophical grounding. Rather, an ethical theory course is aimed at encouraging students to explore the feasibility of specific ethical principles and how they might apply these principles to concrete social and moral issues.
2. Professor McAdams, on more than one occasion, has claimed that Ms. Abbate said “any objections to gay marriage would be homophobic.” Clearly, this is a false statement as evident by the fact that she is never quoted, by any news source (including Professor McAdams’s own blog post) saying just this. What she is quoted with is the statement that “homophobic comments will not be tolerated.” Again, this is considerably different from stating that “any objections to gay marriage would be homophobic” (my emphasis).
To see why this matters, let us quickly review what happened in Ms. Abbate’s class. The complaining student approached her after class to complain that she did not open up a discussion about gay marriage when discussing Rawls’s equal liberty principle. He provided an arguably poor counter-argument to gay marriage which was based on Mark Regnerus’s flawed research. When Ms. Abbate explained to the student why his so-called “objection” was misguided given the philosophical principle under discussion, the student responded with the following statement: “Regardless of why I’m against gay marriage, it’s still wrong for the teacher to completely discredit one person’s opinion when they may have different opinions.” As an anonymous commenter on Daily Nous pointed out, “Surely at least some purported reasons one could be against gay marriage (‘those people’ are icky; ‘those people’ should be burned at the stake; ‘those people’ don’t deserve to be treated decently) qualify as bigoted. And should not be seriously entertained for that reason. And of course it’s someone’s job as a professor to ‘completely discredit’ some opinions.”
The anonymous author of this quote is all too right. See Exhibits A, B, & C, which all draw attention to so-called “objections” to gay marriage that Ms. Abbate has recently been presented with which are clearly homophobic.
Any ethics instructor most likely will confirm that, every once in a while, these sort of bigoted comments rear their head in philosophy class, even at universities like Marquette. Ms. Abbate herself is aware, perhaps from past experience, that offensive comments very well might have been opined by students in her class had she opened up her class to a discussion on gay marriage. Furthermore, the fact that the complaining student completely dismissed Ms. Abbate’s explanation as to why his “objections” to gay marriage were not philosophically founded (especially given the context of the class) and then consequently demanded to voice whatever objection to gay marriage came to his mind most likely triggered a warning sign to Ms. Abbate that this student very well might be determined to make offensive and homophobic comments during class. What we should expect from any instructor to say in response to a student who insists that he has a “right” to object to gay marriage, without any philosophical reasoning to support his position, is exactly what Ms. Abbate did say: certain comments, such as the ones expressed in the above e-mails, are homophobic, inappropriate, and will not be tolerated during an ethics class.
3. In his initial blog post, Professor McAdams implies that Ms. Abbate is dismissive of Catholic doctrine. According to him, “like the rest of academia, Marquette is less and less a real university. And when gay marriage cannot be discussed, certainly not a Catholic university.” However, the Catholic Church’s position on gay marriage is completely irrelevant to a discussion on the implications of John Rawls’s equal liberty principle. As one philosophy professor stated on his personal social media page, “The class was discussing John Rawls’s first fundamental principle of justice–the equal liberty principle. And the question before the class was whether Rawls’s principle implied that gays should have the same basic liberty to marry as straight individuals. [For the record, the Catholic Church has no doctrine on Rawls interpretation.] Rawls’s principle maintains that all individuals have the same basic liberties. If his principle is correct, then gays are entitled to the same basic liberties as straights. One might reject Rawls’s principle. But, again, that was not the question before the class. The question before the class was “What are the implications of Rawls’s first principle of justice?”–a question which Ms. Abbate answered accurately in class.”
Evidently, Professor McAdams misrepresented what happened in Ms. Abbate’s class by failing to acknowledge the following relevant fact: the focus of this particular class was on what Rawls’s theory of justice implies— not what the Catholic Church has to say about gay marriage. Professor McAdams’s failure to accurately describe the context of the class is incredibly deceptive and, predictably, has led to Ms. Abbate being characterized as “Anti-Catholic” and dismissive of the Catholic Church’s teachings.
4. Professor McAdams informed Inside Higher Ed that his initial blog post about Ms. Abbate was nothing “personal.” Yet, Professor McAdams has continually criticized Ms. Abbate’s personal blog, which does not have anything to do with the event at hand. In fact, he has gone so far as to insinuate that Ms. Abbate is sexist toward males, as evident by the following comment he makes on his blog “Less benign is her [Cheryl Abbate’s] essay titled “Yes All Men…Contribute to the Prevalence of Rape.” Yes, it’s a common theme among feminists and Exhibit One of the reality that hard-core feminism is, at root, about sexist antipathy toward males.”
5. Professor McAdams recently published a private e-mail he received from an individual who suggested that he take serious the impact his blog has had on Ms. Abbate. As this individual pointed out, Ms. Abbate’s Rate My Professor Page has been attacked as a result of Professor McAdams’s blog post. In response, Professor McAdams claimed that “You should note that her ratings on student ratings websites have nothing to do with our reporting, and her treatment on national news outlets has consisted of reporting and fair commentary.” Below is exhibit D, a nasty comment left on Ms. Abbate’s Rate My Professor page which clearly was written by someone who read either Professor McAdams’s blog or one of the other news articles which is based off of McAdams’s initial blog post (this comment has since been removed by Rate My Professor, along with a number of other comments authored by individuals who, in fact, were not in Ms. Abbate’s class).
6. Not only did Professor McAdams provide dishonest and incomplete information about the events surrounding Ms Abbate’s ethics class, but he has defended the blatantly false claims about Ms. Abbate on other news outlets, such as Fox News. According to Professor McAdams, “her [Cheryl Abbate’s] treatment on national news outlets has consisted of reporting and fair commentary.” Yet, a quick review of some of the defaming article titles from these so-called “fair” news reports tells another story. For instance, Fox News has titled its report on the event “Teacher to student: If you don’t support gay marriage, drop my class” and IOTW Report has titled their article “Settled Science- Nobody Disagrees With Gay Marriage.” Clearly, the headlines of these articles are blatantly misleading since there is no evidence whatsoever that Ms. Abbate uttered either of these comments. The fact that Professor McAdams claims that the commentary about Ms. Abbate thus far has been “fair” is to wrongly suggest that Ms. Abbate told the student to “drop her class if he doesn’t agree with gay marriage” and that “everyone agrees with gay marriage.”
I would like to close by drawing attention to an obvious fact that has yet to be acknowledged in any of the reports regarding the confrontation between Ms. Abbate and her student: Ms. Abbate cannot properly defend herself because of FERPA policies. For all we know, the complaining student set Ms. Abbate up to be the target of a scandal because he wasn’t performing well in her class or because he has an issue with female authority figures (and from the transcripts of the audio, it is easy to see how he intentionally baited her into saying something that would be perceived as “controversial”). Furthermore, perhaps Ms. Abbate had reason to believe the student in question would make inappropriate comments in class if given the chance, due to previous experiences or conversations she might have had with him. These are all very real (and likely) possibilities that might further put into perspective what actually happened. Yet, given the limitation of what Ms. Abbate can and cannot say, we will never have a complete explanation. Professor McAdams must know this, which is why it is incredibly unprofessional and unfair for him to publish a truly one-sided account of what happened in Ms. Abbate’s class.
As of December 1st, 2014, Marquette University has yet to issue a public statement in defense of Ms. Abbate. Please continue to contact the president, provost, and the dean of the Arts and Sciences and encourage them to do the right thing.