David R. Henderson  

Eric Posner's Tin Ear

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Legal scholar Eric Posner has written a piece on Slate defending various restrictions on students' speech. Robby Soave, at Reason's Hit and Run blog, has a good critique of much of Posner's article. But I want to point out a huge problem with Posner's piece that Soave did not comment on.

Posner writes:

That's why the contretemps about a recent incident at Marquette University is far less alarming than libertarians think. An inexperienced instructor was teaching a class on the philosophy of John Rawls, and a student in the class argued that same-sex marriage was consistent with Rawls' philosophy. When another student told the teacher outside of class that he disagreed, the teacher responded that she would not permit a student to oppose same-sex marriage in class because that might offend gay students.

While I believe that the teacher mishandled the student's complaint, she was justified in dismissing it. The purpose of the class was to teach Rawls' theory of justice, not to debate the merits of same-sex marriage. The fact that a student injected same-sex marriage into the discussion does not mean that the class was required to discuss it. The professor might reasonably have believed that the students would gain a better understanding of Rawls' theory if they thought about how it applied to issues less divisive and hence less likely to distract students from the academic merits of the theory.


Do you notice a little something missing from Posner's account? Before I tell you, I note that everything Posner writes about the Marquette incident in his article is in the two paragraphs that I've just quoted.

I'll save you the suspense. Posner leaves out the main thing about the Marquette incident that has many defenders of academic freedom up in arms: the fact that Marquette University is firing a tenured professor who criticized the teacher whom Posner discusses. In other words, everything that Posner writes in his piece is completely beside the point in judging the wisdom, morality, and legality of firing a tenured professor.


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CATEGORIES: Labor Market




COMMENTS (19 to date)
Charlie writes:

I'll be honest, this is the first time this story entered my bubble, but I followed your link, and I think the way he criticized the student is pretty germane to Marquette's decision:

He sent the student emails: "including one suggesting she had committed "treason and sedition" and as a result faced penalties such as "drawing, hanging, beheading and quartering." Another note, delivered to her campus mailbox, told the student, "You must undo the terrible wrong you committed when you were born. Your mother failed to make the right choice. You must abort yourself for the glory of inclusiveness and tolerance." Accordingly, and understandably, the student feared for her personal safety, and we posted a security officer outside her classroom."

It doesn't seem at all fair to say he was fired for exercising his academic freedom. They are trying to fire him for tormenting, threatening and harassing a graduate student--why he's doing that seems pretty irrelevant.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Charlie,
But then this should have been what Posner discussed if he wanted to discuss the Marquette decision. He didn’t.

JLV writes:

Tenure is not "license to be a jerk", though, you know?

Dude signed a contract. University judged his conduct to be in violation of contract. Its a bit weird that so many libertarians are all enraged about a private employment matter.

JLV writes:

Also, Posner's article is about student speech codes, not the rights of tenured professors, nor the ethics of doxxing. Seems perfectly reasonable that he would focus on the part of the incident that is germane to his article.

David R. Henderson writes:

@JLV,
Seems perfectly reasonable that he would focus on the part of the incident that is germane to his article.
Not when he misses the main thing that’s upsetting at Marquette. Read what I quoted above. The behavior of the instructor is distinctly NOT what libertarians find alarming.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Charlie,
I just read your statement above more carefully. I should have read it more carefully before responding.
You write:
He sent the student emails: "including one suggesting she had committed "treason and sedition" and as a result faced penalties such as "drawing, hanging, beheading and quartering."
No, he didn’t. I don’t know how you got that.

Charlie writes:

I apologize, I misread the statement. I thought the professor had sent those emails, but the professor published the name and then the student sent those emails from third parties.

At your discretion, you might delete my original comment. I don't mean to slander (libel?) anyone involved.

Again, I apologize. I see that I clearly misstated the facts. I promise this error was made unintentionally and without malice.

Charlie writes:

"the professor published the name and then the student sent those emails from third parties."

should be "the professor published the student's name and then the student received those emails from third parties."

David R. Henderson writes:

@Charlie,
Apology accepted. I’m torn about whether to delete your initial comment. On the one hand, I get why you would want to do that: that speaks well of you. On the other hand, because it speaks well of you, I would like other commenters to see that one can admit a mistake without the sky falling in.
I’m leaning to the “other hand."

Andrew_FL writes:

I don't consider myself a defender of "academic freedom" if academic freedom means that those who financially support an academic institution have no say in what that academic institution teaches. I guess libertarians didn't read God and Man at Yale, but I did.

I don't think you mean to imply here that a tenured professor should never be fired, though? And, I suspect (not having followed the issue closely) this is a case in which ideology of the institution itself, and not it's financial supporters, was the source of the decision. But an institution has the right to decide who it will employ, does it not? Subject of course to losing financial support from those who disagree with their decision.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Andew_FL,
I don't consider myself a defender of "academic freedom" if academic freedom means that those who financially support an academic institution have no say in what that academic institution teaches.
I’m like you. Academic freedom is something that most universities claim to uphold and I think that once they claim that, they should.
I guess libertarians didn't read God and Man at Yale, but I did.
I did too. In fact, it’s one of the first Buckley books I read, back in the late 1960s. I hope you see the irony of your reference to this book, given what Buckley writes about in the book, given what Marquette University is supposed to be, and given the particular discussion the instructor quashed in her classroom.
I don't think you mean to imply here that a tenured professor should never be fired, though?
Correct. There are certain things that should get you fired: not showing up for class (I don’t know what the magic number of absences is--I would probably give less leeway on this than I see various schools giving), hitting a student who hasn’t hit you first, probably having sex with one of your students, and a few other things.
But an institution has the right to decide who it will employ, does it not?
Yes. And Marquette exercised that freedom by employing the professor and giving him tenure. The institution does not have the right to breach a contract.

Andrew_FL writes:

@David R. Henderson-

And Marquette exercised that freedom by employing the professor and giving him tenure. The institution does not have the right to breach a contract.

Ah, yes, that's a good point. So, he should be able to sue them for that, right?

As for whether I appreciate the irony, yes, a bit. ;) For me, Buckley's most important point was, if those paying for their children to attend the Uuniversity, and the alumni who make significant financial contributions to the university, shouldn't have to subsidize things they disagree with, and I think that's true even if what they don't want to subsidize are things opposite what Buckley was talking about. I do think that in this case, the university was in the wrong, but I just meant, I don't think they'd be wrong for firing someone over an opinion in general. But yes, if the employment contract explicitly says they can't do that, well, they can't do that.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Andrew_FL,
Good. Then we’re agreed.
For me, Buckley's most important point was, if those paying for their children to attend the university, and the alumni who make significant financial contributions to the university, shouldn't have to subsidize things they disagree with, and I think that's true even if what they don't want to subsidize are things opposite what Buckley was talking about.
Right. And given that this statement "Marquette University is a Catholic and Jesuit university” is the first thing in the “About” on Marquette’s website, I wouldn’t be surprised if many parents and contributors think they’re giving money and sending kids to places that uphold Catholic precepts.

Charlie writes:

@DavidH

That's fine with me.

Dan King writes:

So I don't think the prof should have been fired because of a blog post. But I do have a problem with tenure, especially for the superannuated sorts. Mr. McAdams is 69 years old. Under current law, faculty can stay employed into their 90s, with tenure, regardless of how incompetent they are.

So while Marquette picked the wrong reason, their efforts to get rid of Professor McAdams may in fact be warranted. I wouldn't judge them too harshly.

The Monster writes:


So wait, he blames the immaturity on helicopter parenting and his proposed solution is........... more helicopter parenting?

http://monstrousreprobate.blogspot.com/2015/02/why-slate-is-wrong-how-to-cure.html

David Johnston writes:

[Comment removed for ad hominem remarks. --Econlib Ed.]

Rich Horton writes:

Well, you could be generous and think Posner was only commenting on the original incident. But, of course, this would only prove the larger point as Marquette is now insisting 23-30 year old graduate students must also be treated like children.

Yancey Ward writes:

The real problem with what Marquette has done is that the professor would not have been in any danger of losing his job if the grad instructor had been on the opposite end of the gay marriage argument with the student, and then had been attacked in exactly the same manner by the professor. Indeed, you can be almost 100% sure that it would be the instructor who would be in danger of getting fired.

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