A Philip Roth novel has been writing itself for the past several months at Marquette, a Catholic university in Wisconsin. A political science professor there, John McAdams, risks losing tenure at least in part over a blog post he wrote last November in which he detailed an after-class dispute. Marquette philosophy graduate student and "The Theory of Ethics" instructor Cheryl Abbate was approached by a conservative male student who opposes gay marriage and thought the issue should be debated in class. The student recorded their conversation, during which Abbate, after some back and forth, allegedly told him that “you don’t have a right in this class to make homophobic comments.” 

McAdams, who came into possession of the recording, implied in his post that this was an example of liberals' silencing debate on campus. McAdams’s post made the rounds online. After Abbate suffered horrific harassment from misogynistic trolls, she transferred doctoral programs mid-year and the administration moved to revoke McAdams’s tenure—to can him, essentially. 

Unlike regular employers, who regularly fire employees for far less, tenured professors have the right—the duty, even—to state unpopular opinions, or at least to speak out without concern for their employers’ reputations. As such, their rights are often seen as central to freedom of expression more broadly. From McAdams’s standpoint, he was merely sticking up for a student whose views had been suppressed by a politically correct instructor. Abbate’s perspective is quite different

John McAdams has written a number of blog posts about me which contain lies and defaming statements (for instance, that I called my student homophobic, that I said “any objection to gay marriage is homophobic,” that I have “sexist antipathy towards men,” and so forth). John McAdams has also repeated such lies to various news sources on a number of occasions. John McAdams also has a history of doing this exact sort of thing to other women at Marquette University. 

In an extra twist, it turns out that McAdams is the undergrad’s advisor. 

McAdams's "Marquette Warrior" blog, which is dedicated to providing "an independent, rather skeptical view of events at Marquette University," is something of a men’s-rights group blog unto himself. (Sample blog post title, unrelated to the controversy in question: “Feminist Blather About Rape.”) He's hardly a sympathetic protagonist, but it’s hard not to balk, as The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf does, at the thought of a long career being demolished over a blog post. Things do look better at this point for Abbate than for McAdams. He’s ending his career in disgrace, while she’s receiving tremendous support from the academy. And the thought of being fired for a bad social-media decision is—as Jon Ronson’s recent New York Times magazine piece illustrates—legitimately terrifying. That a professor who instigated a shaming pile-on and put a grad student’s career in jeopardy wound up where he did sure sounds like the definition of karma, but it’s an upsetting story all the same. 

Given the number of hot-button issues this controversy touches on, it’s easy to turn it into a debate about gay rights; women in academia; political indoctrination of undergrads; or academic freedom for tenured professors. It seems, at first, to fit into the narrative of privilege-checking millennials versus P.C.-eschewing older white men. What it’s actually about, however, is far simpler: Is it a violation of professional ethics for a professor to speak ill of a student online? And there, the answer’s an easy one: Yes. It’s not just a violation but a major one, as I’ve argued in the past, as it relates to instructors mocking student errors. If instructors attack students—and that includes grad students—online, the trust that holds a pedagogical environment together falls apart. 

McAdams’s defense is that he was never Abbate’s professor, but is simply commenting on the behavior of a fellow instructor. On his blog, McAdams contended that Abbate “was not functioning as a ‘student,’ but as a faculty member.’” Others seem to find this convincing. Eugene Volokh referred to Abbate as a “collegue” of McAdams, and dismissed concerns about her student status: “[I]t’s hard for me to see how such public criticism of a graduate student in another department should lead to a cancellation of the professor’s teaching and an order that the professor not even come to campus.” Eric Posner described the incident as having involved an “inexperienced instructor,” whom he later refers to as the “professor.” And Megan McArdle acknowledged the “obvious power imbalance between faculty and graduate students,” but the worst she can say of McAdams’s behavior is that it was “pretty mean”—bad form, in other words, but not professional misconduct. 

But a grad student instructor isn’t a colleague to a tenured professor. Grad students can be gotten rid of far more easily, but more to the point, they rely on carefully built reputations to even stand a chance of making it past the various weeding-out processes (fellowship, postdoc, and faculty applications) that precede being up for tenure. Oh, and grad student stipends at Marquette “start at $13,517”; no mention of overtime pay for staying after class to discuss Rawls and gay marriage. And the teaching grad students do is only partly about providing an education to undergraduates. It’s also part of graduate training. 

In the same post, McAdams objected to an administrator’s telling him that “it was fine to commend students, but we should not criticize student activities,” saying that this administrator was “demanding biased journalism.” It’s absurd that a professor would see his relationship to his university’s student body as that of an objective journalist. Yes, sometimes professors might mention students by name online, but context matters. A professor who blogs with pride about a student winning an award isn’t impeding anyone’s educational experience.

Friedersdorf makes the strongest case in defense of McAdams, or, rather, against the charge the Marquette administration has leveled against him, namely that McAdams somehow to blame for the hate mail Abbate received following his post:

[It] sets an alarming precedent: that faculty members will be held accountable not only for their words, but for any efforts to intimidate or harass those they publicly criticize. By this logic, a professor who criticized a college football player accused of rape, or a fraternity member who chanted ‘No means yes, yes means anal,’ or a college Republican running an ‘affirmative-action bake sale’ could be stripped of tenure based partly on whether that student got nasty emails. Only myopia can account for failure to see the threat to academic freedom. 

Friedersdorf is right that people (and that includes professors) shouldn't be taken to task for subsequent harassment of those whose ideas or conduct they’ve criticized online. Even well-intentioned criticism can lead to a story exploding. If McAdams had, say, questioned the work of a feminist blogger with nothing to do with Marquette, and trolls had found her via his post, it would have been wrong to hold him responsible.

The problem comes from the fact that Abbate was a student at his university. Professors should never even risk sparking viral outrage against students. What's especially troubling is that he insulted not just Abbate's ideas, or her behavior in some general sense, but her academic performance. If he were for whatever reason privy to her transcript, would we defend his free-speech right to blog about its contents? 

Friedersdorf is also correct that universities need to be consistent about professors’ speech regarding individual students. If a college is fine with professors who call out individual campus Republicans by name, but not when the calling-out comes from conservative faculty members, then yes, that’s a problem—but one to be dealt with by making it clear to professors that bashing students online is a breach of ethics. That doesn’t necessarily mean a zero-tolerance policy, in which first-time offenders (not that McAdams was one) should lose tenure. But there’s a middle ground between iron-clad tenure and at-will employment. An overly inclusive definition of protected speech for tenured professors can, paradoxically, limit the academic freedom at an institution.