Cheryl Abbate, the philosophy graduate student instructor at Marquette attacked by a right-wing political science professor at the same university, gives a crisp and clear statement of her version of what transpired here. Meanwhile, via Weinberg, I learn of a letter by graduate students in philosophy at Harvard to the Marquette Dean. It starts out quite well:
This is an open letter on behalf of the Harvard Philosophy Department’s Graduate Student Organization. We were very concerned to learn about the public attacks by Marquette Professor John McAdams against Marquette graduate student Cheryl Abbate.
Anyone who teaches ethical theory will have to manage conversations involving politically sensitive topics, and in doing so, it is impossible to express agreement with every student on every occasion. Indeed, part of the point of an ethical theory course is to equip students to examine critically even their most deeply held views on moral issues.
These are sound and sensible points. But then the letter continues:
However one may characterize Cheryl Abbate’s way of managing a discussion of same-sex marriage inside or outside the classroom, she ought not to have been subject to the public attack orchestrated by Professor John McAdams. As a foreseeable result of this attack, Cheryl Abbate has been subject to an overwhelming volume of hate mail and threats, as well as negative attention in national media. In initiating this flurry of attacks, we believe that Professor McAdams exploited the power differential between a professor and a graduate student.
Universities owe their graduate students—who are among the most vulnerable members of their communities—a guarantee of protection from this kind of treatment. But at Marquette, we were recently disturbed to learn, Cheryl Abbate was put in a position where her best option was to transfer out of her doctoral program.
We call on Marquette to articulate a clear policy for protecting its graduate students from abuses by more powerful members of its community.
There is much that is strange about this, in roughly ascending order of significance:
1. Ms. Abbate was able to transfer to a much better program (Colorado), a silver lining in an otherwise dark rain cloud. It's hard not to see her as being better off professionally in the end, despite the ugliness that prompted her to transfer.
2. Professor McAdams's creepy behavior was not in any way facilitated by "the power differential between a professor and a graduate student." Note, first, that McAdams is, despite his many years in the academy, still merely an Associate Professor of Political Science. And apparently even his local institutional clout is so meager that the University is unabashed to suspend him without a hearing. More importantly, since Ms. Abbate was a student in the philosophy department, McAdams had no power over her at all. What enabled him to ignite a right-wing firestorm was his ability to use his blog to tap into a pre-existing network of "conservative" social and traditional media that love narratives about intolerant liberals in the academy. This has nothing to do with power differentials between faculty and students; graduate students, after all, have pulled the same kind of stunt against tenured professors! There is a serious problem with the way in which social media is used to harass faculty and students, which we have noted before, and universities ought to defend their teachers and students against such attacks, as they sometimes do, but not by punishing faculty or student speech.
3. In this regard, I do wonder what these graduate students are asking Marquette for by way of "a clear policy for protecting its graduate students from abuses by more powerful members of its community"? Presumably, the University already protects students, including instructors, from sexual harassment, physical assault, and other unlawful misconduct. But is it to protect them from speech critical of their pedagogy? How can a university, consistent with a commitment to free speech and inquiry, including about its own teaching and research, possibly "protect" anyone from that?
IMPORTANT UPDATE: A PhD student in philosophy at Harvard writes:
As a PhD student in the philosophy dept. here at Harvard, I wanted to write you regarding your recent post on your blog, entitled “More on the Marquette Case.” As you noted there, a letter was written by the “graduate students in philosophy at Harvard,” addressed to the Dean at Marquette. However, not all the students in our department approved of this letter, and indeed, some of us wanted not to send it. It was sent because we were outnumbered in a straight vote about whether to send it; effectively we had no choice after that vote.
I, for one, agree with your analysis of the latter half of the letter, and wanted to clarify, for what it’s worth, that the letter does not speak for all the students of the department. Rather it represents some of the more politically-inclined folks who get riled up about these sorts of things and then take action ‘on behalf of the students’ as soon as they have a straight majority. There is at least some significant minority of us not represented by this letter.
I had suspected as much, but it's good to have confirmation of this fact.
ANOTHER: Jeremy David Fix, another PhD student at Harvard (who gave permission to use his name), writes:
While I did not help compose the letter, the voting process did not require a 'straight majority'. A 75% majority was required to pass the motion and send the letter. This requirement was clearly stated in the open graduate student meeting where the letter was discussed, the email that asked for the vote through an anonymous online survey, and the email that confirmed the result of the vote, as far as I remember. Though my colleague is correct that "not all the students in our department approved of this letter, and indeed, some of us wanted not to send it", the actual percentage of supporting votes was significantly higher than 75%. Whatever the validity of the concerns about the content of the letter, this letter in no way indicates that the graduate community is overrun by politically motivated folks illegitimately pretending to speak for others.
I agree that there is no evidence that "the graduate community is overrun by politically motivated folks illegitimately pretending to speak for others," and I did not interpret the original e-mail, above, that way. The unknown is how many of the graduate students actually voted (my originally correspondent thinks only about 20 of the 40 students in the program voted). In any case, the important point, given that the letter is not very sensible, is that not all Harvard graduate students supported it.