Friday, May 7, 2010

Jodi O'Brien and Marquette University

Jodi O'Brien was offered the position to be Marquette University's new dean for the College of Arts and Sciences.

That offer was rescinded.

The headline of the story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "Marquette on hot seat for rescinding job offer to lesbian."

I detect a not too subtle bias there. Marquette, a private institution, is being condemned for discrimination based on sexual orientation.

(Even the New York Times ran a more balanced headline: "Marquette Rescinds Offer to Sociologist.")

From Sharif Durhams and Katelyn Ferral of the Journal Sentinel:

Marquette University has pulled an offer to hire a new dean for the College of Arts and Sciences from a lesbian who has written scholarly works on gender and sexual orientation, a move that is sparking criticism from faculty and a protest by students.

A university spokeswoman said the decision to withdraw an offer to hire Seattle University professor Jodi O'Brien wasn't about her sexual orientation or the quality of her scholarship. It did have to do with some of O'Brien's published writings "relating to Catholic mission and identity," Marquette spokeswoman Mary Pat Pfeil said.

"This was a decision based on a totality of factors, specifically related to the fit for the candidate to the college," she said in an interview.

In the end, the Jesuit school determined O'Brien was not an "acceptable candidate for permanent appointment," Pfeil said in a statement released Thursday afternoon by the university.

"At this time, the only comment I can offer is to confirm that I was offered the position of Dean and I accepted it, but there was an intercession by the President before my appointment was announced officially," O'Brien said in an e-mail Thursday evening. "I'm stunned and disappointed."

Several faculty members said the decision raised concerns about academic freedom and the university leadership's discomfort with the subject of O'Brien's published work - including a sociological study of vignettes on lesbian sex - rather than any issues of quality.

Psychology professor Stephen Franzoi, who served on a search committee for the post, said faculty members forwarded two candidates to Marquette President Father Robert A. Wild and Provost John Pauly. In their recommendation, committee members warned Wild and Pauly not to pick O'Brien if the university was not willing to support her if her sexual orientation or if her scholarship were criticized, Franzoi said.

Nancy E. Snow, a philosophy professor, helped O'Brien hunt for houses in Shorewood last month. She said the discussion of O'Brien's work is a smokescreen.

She sent an e-mail to several faculty members saying that she suspects donors criticized the hire and that Wild feared losing their support.

"This is a travesty that will have long-term impact for our ability to retain and hire high quality faculty," Snow said. "It's a public disgrace and an embarrassment."

Pfeil said she didn't know of a donor threatening to pull a donation from Marquette because of the hire.

About 100 students, some carrying signs, protested the decision in front of Marquette's Alumni Memorial Union, blocking part of Wisconsin Ave. on Thursday afternoon just before an award dinner for Marquette faculty. Some faculty members wore pink and lavender clothing and flowers in protest.

Margaret Steele, a doctoral student in philosophy department, said the decision "was made behind closed doors and very quietly" and seemed to be a "violation of MU values."

...Pfeil maintained that Wild has a well-deserved reputation of being inclusive of gays and lesbians, and that Marquette has made notable strides in the area of diversity in the past decade.

"We have on our faculty and staff individuals of various faiths, ages, ethnicity and sexual orientation," she said. "These differences help us to promote a culture of learning, appreciation and understanding."

Dr. John McAdams, Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette, has been following this story on his blog, Marquette Warrior.

He has published portions of an e-mail from Marquette President Father Robert A. Wild and Provost John Pauly. It was sent to Arts and Sciences faculty yesterday, explaining the decision not to hire O'Brien.

McAdams also links to the university's press release on the matter.

I agree with McAdams' assessment of the situation. He writes, "It’s not just a fiasco. It’s two or three fiascos piled on top of one another."

There have been major fiascoes before at Marquette.

Two words: "The Gold."

That one was about Marquette's identity, too; but in a much more superficial way.

This one goes to the soul of the university.

McAdams points out:

If Jodi O’Brien is not qualified to be Dean of Arts & Sciences at Marquette, she should never have made it to the short list, much less been offered the position.

Thus, if Marquette really wants to hire only Deans who are consistent with the “mission” of the university, they should take the trouble to appoint a committee that believes in that mission.

And if they feel the need to overturn the recommendation of the committee they appoint, they should do it early on (which they have the right to do, because the committee is merely making a “recommendation”).

There's no question that this is embarrassingly messy.

The sloppiness in the decision-making process was really inexcusable.

It never should have reached this point. The terrible awkwardness of rescinding the offer to O'Brien could have been avoided.

The New York Times reports:
The Rev. Robert A. Wild, the Marquette president, denied in an interview that the decision to revoke the offer was based on the candidate’s sexual orientation. Instead, Father Wild said, the decision came after he and other university leaders read academic writings by the candidate.

“We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family,” Father Wild said.

Dr. O’Brien’s 12-page curriculum vitae includes many articles and book chapters on topics like “Queer Christian Identities,” “Queer Christian Social Movements” and same-sex marriage.

Clearly, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences holds a very prominent leadership role. Finding someone to fill the position has been an arduous task. O'Brien not only made the short list of candidates, she was actually offered to be Marquette's new dean.

According to Roman Catholic Canon Law, a "Catholic" university is required to be committed to Catholic doctrine.

Canon 810 reads:

The authority competent according to the statutes has the duty to make provision so that teachers are appointed in Catholic universities who besides their scientific and pedagogical qualifications are outstanding in integrity of doctrine and probity of life and that they are removed from their function when the lack these requirements.

If O'Brien's statements proved problematic, that should have been debated and determined much sooner in the process, meaning BEFORE she was offered the job.

I question how committed Marquette is to its mission and Catholic identity. I wonder if faculty and administrators truly understand the university's mission and their responsibility in carrying it out.

Are expectations clear and consistent? What's accepted as an appropriate balance when it comes to the expression of individual freedom and shared Catholic values?

Is Marquette's Catholic identity window-dressing, in the background, low on the list of priorities, not necessarily something to be practiced and fully embraced?

Is Marquette's purpose for the greater glory of God? Really?

I think some soul-searching is in order.



Wild, critics react after Marquette University pulls job offer to lesbian

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