Offer to Lesbian Scholar Rescinded by Jesuit School

This spring, Marquette University asked Seattle University’s Jodi O’Brien to be Dean of its Klingler College of Arts and Sciences and then rescinded the offer. Dr. O’Brien is a sociologist, a specialist in gender, sexuality, and religion—and a lesbian. The most explicit reason given by Marquette President Robert Wild, S.J., was, “We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family,” in her academic writings.

What are they? Why do they matter? And since when does any academic institution have the right to offer a job—then rescind it—for what look to be discriminatory reasons? More is on the line than Dr. O’Brien’s career which, I hope, will only benefit from the exposure.

As an alum of Marquette (Arts, ’72) and an equally out lesbian with similar specialties (albeit a theologian rather than a sociologist), I am more than a casual observer of the situation. I am not acquainted with Dr. O’Brien, though this travesty has brought her work to my screen. I have shared my views with President Wild. This is a complicated and disheartening situation—a cautionary tale all around—and the integrity of Catholic higher education hangs in the balance.

According to reports, Dr. O’Brien was headhunted for the deanship a year ago but turned down the overtures for personal reasons. Maybe she preferred the coffee or the weather in Seattle. Who knows. But in 2010 it was Marquette itself that short-listed her for the position. The committee, according to one of its members, was clear that some of her publications could be considered a little rich for the blood of Catholic conservatives who lie in wait for such appointments. But the committee made clear that if the administration selected her they would be expected to stand behind her. They did select her, but the president did not stand behind her.

According to reports, Dr. O’Brien accepted the offer and went to Milwaukee where the university hospitably deputized a faculty member to help her find housing. She was not an unknown quantity. In fact, she is a tenured professor at Seattle University (likewise a Jesuit school) where she chairs the Anthropology, Sociology, and Social Work Department. To add to her Jesuit bona fides, she held the Louis B. Gaffney Endowed Chair (2007—2009), a rotating endowed chair for professors who connect the mission of the Society of Jesus with the academic life of the campus and the larger community. Sounds like the real McCoy to me; sort of the type who would be named to Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit honor society of which I am a member. But wait, she wrote about lesbians and she is one. Horrors!

The university issued an inexplicable statement claiming that although Professor O’Brien brings:

an excellent background, a record of achievement and a strong academic track record… it was decided after further analysis that this individual was not the person who could best fill this very important position.

It continues:

There were certain oversights in the search process, and we regret that deeply. As a result of this search, the university will revise some aspects of the search process.

Note the increasingly abstract rhetoric. It starts with Dr. O’Brien, then she becomes an “individual,” later a “person” as the agent fades into oblivion. Note the complete lack of anyone taking responsibility. Just how did those “oversights” jump into the search process all by themselves? This sort of shifty, murky statement usually hides a multitude of sins, as it does here.

I await further clarification, but at this writing it seems that the only plausible explanation for rescinding an offer made to so obviously qualified a candidate is discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or prejudice related to the nature of her scholarship vis-à-vis queer families. A runner-up explanation is that Marquette administrators are totally incompetent. Pick your poison.

Encroachment on academic freedom in Catholic institutions is not new, but it has been confined in the main to theology. Apparently now even sociology at Catholic institutions must be done within the narrow parameters of Roman Catholic hierarchical views. Likewise, the promised revision of the hiring process can only mean that candidates whose views do not square with institutional Roman Catholic theology will be discriminated against before the offer is made. Private universities like Bob Jones, Oral Roberts, and now Marquette do that. It goes on all the time of course, but the university acts as if the major issue at stake here were sloppy work rather than egregious action against a person they pursued in the first place.

Marquette may be in the vanguard of Catholic institutions that are growing increasingly parochial, shaping the social sciences and perhaps eventually the physical sciences to Roman kyriarchal ideology rather than to the gold standard in the field. It is a sad loss of what might have become a world-class university.

President Wild stated several times for the camera, and obviously on the advice of counsel, that this retraction of a perfectly legal contract is “not about sexual orientation.” It will be interesting to see what the lawsuit looks like, or whether Marquette will settle for a large sum out of court. He waxed poetic about the many gay and lesbian people at Marquette: “We have a variety of men and women here who are homosexual who work in all sorts of venues in this university, holding a variety of positions. They do great work, they make a valuable contribution to this institution.”

I know some of the best and brightest at Marquette and they were not persuaded by his line. I asked Robert Wild about these queer people at Marquette in my letter: “Is it because they are worthy to do the dishes or clean the floors but not to be a dean? Is it because they are in high teaching and/or administrative positions but remain closeted so no one has to deal with the truth of their Catholic lives, the fact that many great leaders in Catholic higher education are gay or lesbian? Is it because they are athletes and bring fame and fortune to the university that they are ‘allowed’ to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, still part of that winning Catholic team as long as they remain silent on their sexuality? What about the many valiant heterosexual allies who bring their professional expertise to bear when they support same-sex love despite the institutional Catholic Church’s antiquated teachings?” No response.

A number of Marquette students have been active in their opposition to this move. Many alums are sickened by the whole affair, shocked that the institution that imparted strong values of service and social justice would disgrace its own history by this clueless, graceless, and perhaps illegal move. The Marquette Faculty Senate passed a resolution condemning the decision to rescind the offer but did not muster a vote of no confidence in their president. The American Sociological Association sent a strong letter to Marquette about its actions against one of their members. The Seattle University faculty wrote an equally strong retort to its Jesuit counterpart in Milwaukee since the move cast aspersions on their Catholic identity. Some have called for President Wild’s resignation. He had announced his retirement effective June 2011, but after this fiasco questions about his competence are now on the table.

The blame game on this one has been played faster than Marquette basketball. Initially, it was reported by a faculty member who attended a closed door session that President Wild had been pressured by the local ordinary, Archbishop Jerome Listecki. Listecki admitted that he had expressed his “concerns” but emphasized that Marquette is independent of the Archdiocese and could well make its own decision. That translates to the need to buckle under to his “concerns” or face sanctions from higher up the Roman ecclesial food chain. It is also suspected that some deep-pocketed donors probably made their “concerns” know too, but there is no way to prove it.

When pressed for reasons why he intervened to rescind the offer, President Wild demurred on this “personnel matter” but left the impression with at least some faculty that he had been pressured. Hey, life is one big pressure. One just decides with whom to cast one’s lot. Whatever the dynamic, Mr. Wild caved—unlike Marquette’s Midwestern rival the University of Notre Dame where Listecki and other conservative Catholic bishops tried unsuccessfully to pressure that institution’s president to disinvite President Barack Obama from speaking at Commencement. But, then, President Obama wasn’t a lesbian.

This whole sordid affair casts serious doubt on Marquette’s claim to excellence and, by extension, on the credibility of Catholic universities. Academic freedom is a thing of the past at Marquette if a lesbian sociologist cannot acknowledge the obvious limits of current family constellations and the reality of same-sex marriage without being considered beyond the pale of Catholic identity. How is she to understand the subjects she explores without generating data? What is she to do with the data that drive her research? Women’s, gender, and queer studies are now accepted disciplines in the academy. For Marquette or any other Catholic institution to circumscribe them with ecclesial litmus tests bodes badly for accreditation and ranking, not to mention reputation.

Students and faculty will leave Marquette shortly for vacation. Such tempests usually cool over the summer. I doubt that the university, which ironically had a conference on forgiveness recently, will make amends and name a chair for Dr. O’Brien. Nor is it likely that “pressure” exerted by those who champion academic freedom and administrative competence will trump a local bishop bucking for cardinal or deep pocketed donors who blush at the thought that women enjoy sex with other women.

Dr. O’Brien is not the first queer person in Catholic academic leadership. I daresay if conditions were such that they could come out without negative repercussions we could all get on to more important matters. But, for now, I regret to say that Marquette and any other Catholic institutions that follow it down the primrose path of prejudice are the big losers and this is not the NCAA tournament.