Protecting Students from Catholicism At Marquette

In their zeal to protect students from any comments or opinions that may hurt their feelings, many professors have created “safe spaces” in their classrooms—controlling all conversations in an effort to ensure that no one is ever offended. But, a recent controversy at Marquette University has revealed that a “safe space” is now defined as a classroom that is free from Catholic teaching on marriage—and offending faithful Catholic students is always allowed.

The Atlantic reports that the controversy began on October 28, 2014 when Cheryl Abbate, a graduate student in philosophy, was teaching a course about John Rawls and asked students for examples of current events to which Rawlsian philosophy could be applied. According to Abbate’s own blog, “When one student rightly suggested that a ban on gay marriage would violate Rawls’s Equal Liberty Principle, I wrote on the board, noted that this was the correct way to apply Rawls’s principle to a ban on gay marriage and then moved on to more nuanced examples.”

Maybe not. According to The Atlantic and other media reports, Professor Abbate did not “move on” quite so quickly. Rather, Abbate added that “if anyone did not agree that gay marriage was an example of something that fits the Rawls’ Equal Liberty Principle, they should see her after class.” She made it clear that the classroom was not a “safe space” for dissent on the value of same-sex “marriage.” Such conversations had to be held in secret so as not to offend others.

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One student in the class decided to pursue this issue with Abbate after class—secretly recording the exchange. According to published transcripts, the student said:

I have to be completely honest with you, I don’t agree with gay marriage. There have been studies that show that children that are brought up in gay households do a lot worse in life such as test scores, in school, and in the real world. So, when you completely dismiss an entire argument based off of your personal views, it sets a precedent for the classroom that “oh my God, this is so wrong; you can’t agree with this, you’re a horrible person if you agree with this.” And that’s what came off. And I have to say I am very personally offended by that. And I would stress for you in your professional career going forward, you’re going to be teaching for many more years, that you watch how you approach those issues because when you set a precedent like that because you are the authority figure in the classroom, people truly do listen to you … it’s wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person’s opinion when they may have different opinions.

Professor Abbate replied:

Ok, 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 the class is homosexual? And, don’t you think that would be offensive to them if you were to raise your hand and challenge this?

When the student replied: “If I choose to challenge this, it’s my right as an American citizen,” Abbate responded: “Well, actually you don’t have a right in this class … to make homophobic comments, racist comments, sexist comments…. This is about restricting rights and liberties of individuals … and just as I would take offense if women cannot serve in XYZ positions because that is a sexist comment…. You can have whatever opinions you want but I can tell you right now, in this class homophobic comments, racist comments and sexist comments will not be tolerated. If you don’t like that you are more than free to drop this class.”

And, when the student asked: “So, are you saying that not agreeing with gay marriage is homophobic?” Abbate responded that “To argue that individuals should not have rights is going to be offensive to someone in this class.”

In the “safe space” Abbate has created, homosexual students have the right not to be offended if another student objects to same-sex “marriage.” But, where does that leave faithful Catholic students? Is there a safe space for them? This student was invited to drop the class. It is likely that he was not the only student who was offended by Abbate’s dismissal of counter-arguments to Rawlsian support for same-sex “marriage.” It is likely that many faithful Catholic students were offended in that class—but at Marquette, it is clear that the rights of Catholic students who are faithful to Catholic teachings on marriage are secondary to the rights of progressive students to feel validated in their support for same-sex “marriage.”

In her own blog, Abbate admits this “I did however, remind a student of his right to drop my class if he felt he could not abide by my safe-space policy (which is in accordance with Marquette University’s Harassment Policy).” For Abbate, it is uncontroversial to have a safe-space policy that is only safe for those who agree with her about the value of same-sex “marriage.” Rawls’ Equal Liberty Principle could just as easily be drawn upon to support the student’s contention that same-sex “marriage” can violate the equal protection rights of children. To demonstrate her own commitment to Rawls’ Equal Liberty Principle, Abbate could have invited discussion on the research by Mark Regnerus on the unique problems faced by children raised by same sex parents, or the newest study by Catholic University sociologist Paul Sullins, which found that in a representative sample of 207,007 children, including 512 with same sex parents, children raised in same sex households were twice as likely to experience emotional problems than children with opposite sex parents.

But, such discussion cannot occur in a Marquette University classroom because it appears that it has indeed become a space that is safe from Catholic teachings on same-sex “marriage.” The Marquette Harassment policy states that: “verbal, written or physical conduct directed at a person or a group based on color, race, national origin, ethnicity, religion disability, veteran status, age gender or sexual orientation where the offensive behavior is intimidating, hostile or demeaning or could or does result in mental, emotional or physical discomfort, embarrassment, ridicule or harm.” As Abbate has said, according to Marquette’s anti-harassment policy, if there had been a gay or lesbian student in that classroom that day, that student has the right to be free of “mental or emotional discomfort” if debate on same-sex “marriage” was allowed to occur. Such a policy is effective in insulating students from Catholic teachings on same-sex “marriage.”

What if a student was enrolled in the class who had previously had an abortion—would that student also have the right to be free of mental or emotional discomfort if debate on Catholic teachings on abortion occurred? Most likely—and this is why there is so little debate on Catholic campuses these days. And, those professors who persist in continuing the debate over these issues are punished—one tenured professor has been fired.

Tenured Professor Fired for Publicizing the Case
In December, Marquette relieved Professor John McAdams of his teaching and other faculty duties for blogging about the Abbate incident. According to McAdams, the student involved in the confrontation with Abbate talked with him about the incident, and McAdams took to his blog, Marquette Warrior, to publicize it as an example of the ways in which free speech is chilled at Marquette. And, because of that blog—because he was exercising his own right to free speech, McAdams has been stripped of tenure.

In a December 16 letter to McAdams, Dean Richard C. Holz of Marquette’s Klingler College of Arts and Sciences wrote: “The university is continuing to review your conduct and during this period—and until further notice—you are relieved of all teaching duties and all other faculty activities, including, but not limited to, advising, committee work, faculty meetings and any activity that would involve your interaction with Marquette students, faculty, and staff.”

Holz was critical that although McAdams did not reveal the name of the complaining student, he did reveal the name of the Professor in the class—a graduate student—and this was a violation of the graduate student’s rights. McAdams has protested that the graduate student was the only professor of the class—with full-authority in charge of her ethics class. Abbate had the authority to award grades to students—putting her in the role of a faculty member. She was not functioning as a “graduate student” in her capacity as the identified faculty member for that ethics course.

McAdams also claims that Holz did not inform him of the policy violations, but he provided McAdams with a copy of Marquette’s harassment policy—suggesting that he was under investigation for violating this policy. It is likely that McAdams’ offense was making the professor “uncomfortable” by publicizing the controversy. On December 17, Marquette released a statement on its suspension of McAdams publicly insinuating that the professor was suspected of violating Marquette’s harassment policy through his blog. The statement read:

Our president has been very clear including in a recent campus wide letter about university expectations and Guiding Values to which all faculty and staff are required to adhere, and in which the dignity and worth of each member of our community is respected, especially students.

Although McAdams has received support from students on campus through a petition and a Turning Point USA demonstration supporting him, there has been little faculty support. It is likely that McAdams has made himself unpopular among the progressive faculty members on campus because of his willingness to expose what he sees as campus corruption. In 2011, he blogged about the search for a new Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette that resulted in the hiring (and then, “not-hiring”) of Jodi O’Brien, a self-described “sexuality scholar” who denigrated Catholic teachings on marriage in her publications. According to O’Brien, she had been recruited by several senior leaders from Marquette to lead the College of Arts and Sciences. And, she is not the first gay or lesbian scholar to have been so recruited. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Isaiah Crawford, an openly gay man and currently Seattle University’s provost—the highest ranking academic officer at the university—was offered the same job of dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette several years ago.  Professor McAdams blogged that Marquette had sent a representative to Seattle to encourage Ms. O’Brien to apply for the dean position—confirming his belief that “she was pushed by some faculty and administrators adding the right kind of diversity to the school.”

Last week, Marquette began the “firing process” against McAdams—claiming that the blog led to “impaired value.” But, it may not be quite as easy as Marquette’s President and Dean may have anticipated. The American Association of University Professors sent a letter to Marquette objecting to the suspension of McAdams without adequate cause or hearing. Now, with this latest development—the firing process—AAUP is stepping up its response. In The Academe Blog, the blog of the AAUP, the editor writes of the McAdams case: “This latest development is far more alarming. AAUP regulations, and Marquette’s own policies, explicitly prohibit what Marquette is now doing: punishing a professor for publicly expressing his opinions.”

Indeed, this is what is at stake here. Do faithful Catholics on Catholic campuses have the right to express their support for Catholic teachings on faith and morals? At Marquette, the answer seems to be no.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia)


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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