Marquette Retracts Job Offer to Lesbian-Feminist Sociologist

Last Thursday night, Marquette University–a Jesuit Catholic institution in Milwaukee–retracted its offer to sociologist Jodi O’Brien to serve as dean of its College of Arts and Sciences. O’Brien, who is openly lesbian and feminist, is currently chair of the department of anthropology, sociology and social work at Seattle University and has published frequently on issues of gender, sexual orientation and religion. The Rev. Robert A. Wild, president of Marquette, denied that the decision was based on O’Brien’s sexual orientation; instead, he told The New York Times, “We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family” in her academic writings.

O’Brien is my department chair, as well as a friend and mentor. When I spoke with her on Friday, she told me that the news came as a shock: “I was given a contract by Marquette, which I signed, and [then] I received the news that they would not support the hire.”

Although reluctant to say more on the record at this time, she did tell the Associated Press in an email, “I’m very disappointed. The College of A&S at Marquette is strong and vibrant and I was looking forward to working with the students and faculty there.”

Although Marquette officials insist that this is not about O’Brien’s sexual identity, I beg to differ. Marquette spokeswoman Mary Pat Pfeil told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the decision was related to the “fit” of the candidate for the college, but institutions often use the “fit” argument as a catchall to deny entry for those who challenge the status quo. O’Brien, who bears witness to the feminist credo “the personal is political” in her advocacy of LGBT and feminist issues, certainly does so. Her work provides important insights into the experience of lesbians and gays in the church,  queer Christian social movements and the same-sex marriage debate, which obviously caused discomfort for the Marquette administration–even after the search committee found her eminently qualified for the position.

This incident is an attack on the personal and professional freedoms of academics as well as on gains in disciplines such as women’s, gender, sexuality and LGBT Studies.  If we cannot expect the best and brightest faculty within our fields to transition into leadership in the university–a time-honored tradition within the academy–we will not see the institutional change that feminists have historically called for.

Students and faculty from across the country are expressing outrage over Marquette’s decision. About 100 students protested outside of a faculty dinner on Marquette’s campus, at which philosophy professor Nancy Snow–who supported O’Brien’s candidacy and helped her and her partner search for housing in Milwaukee–addressed the crowd:

Students at Marquette and Seattle University have created Facebook pages to show their support for O’Brien.  She told me that she is also grateful for the hundreds of supportive emails from individuals around the country, including Marquette alumni.

O’Brien’s experience is not an isolated incident. The wishes of faculty, as in this case, are often stymied by repressive administrative forces. We should be vigilant on our campuses and in our communities against these sorts of actions. As feminists, we must continue to build coalitions of support for scholars like O’Brien and others to combat overt discrimination and to push back against institutional oppression.

Above: Jodi O’Brien. Photo courtesy of Jodi O’Brien.

Comments

  1. Sara Kraft says:

    Good article!!

  2. Sarah Reshetar Moschenross says:

    Great article, Mako. This is an abomination. Shame on Marquette. Thank you for bringing this issue to my attention– I’m forwarding this link along to spread the word!

  3. Great post, Mako. I shared it with the listserv of Sociologists for Women in Society. Please join us (only $14 for students!) and say Hello if you’re going to the summer meeting in Atlanta.

  4. Following is my letter to the President of Marquette University:

    May 11, 2010

    Robert Wild, S.J.
    President, Marquette University
    Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53233

    Dear Robert Wild:

    “Excellence. Faith. Leadership. Service. These are the pillars of our mission, and you will find them in everything we do.” All four pillars of Marquette University’s mission statement were toppled in your recent decision to rescind the offer made to Seattle University Professor Jodi O’Brien to be the incoming dean of Marquette’s Helen Way Klingler College of Arts and Sciences. As a graduate of the College of Arts and Science (1972), I join legions of alums in expressing my deepest dismay over this action.

    “Excellence” requires that a world class university offer classes and support research in emerging areas of scholarship. Gender, women’s, and queer studies are among those in our time. Seattle University, another Jesuit institution, knows that and has valued Dr. O’Brien. It is no wonder that Marquette pursued her for the deanship. What pressures—economic, political, theo-political—were brought to bear to encourage you to forsake excellence for mediocrity?

    “Faith” informs religiously-based universities. But in this instance, it is a narrow, institutionally dependent Catholicism that seems to have gotten in the way. Catholic moral theology is no longer informed only by institutional church documents and teachings, but by the social and physical sciences including sociology and anthropology that are Dr. O’Brien’s area of expertise. Pro-sex Catholic theology is a welcome addition to the field. It can only be developed in consultation with data that may make some conservative Catholics uncomfortable.

    “Leadership” requires moving in new directions. It also involves standing up for principles and supporting those who are charting the future. Marquette can make no claim to leadership while treating Dr. O’Brien in such a cavalier fashion. It is time for the present administration to relinquish the reins to those who will lead despite tactics that intimidate and actions that dilute Marquette’s identity.

    “Service” is a hallmark of Marquette culture. In this instance, Marquette students were served badly by an administration which has deprived them of creative leadership. Alums have been ill served by your action which has brought ridicule on the university and shame to those who support it. Dr. O’Brien has been treated with disrespect. The larger Catholic community, already in distress over clergy misconduct and episcopal cover-ups, is done a disservice when a progressive scholar is deemed unworthy to carry its values.

    Listening to your recent remarks to the faculty, I was struck by your unconvincing efforts to abide by the letter of the law when it comes to discrimination and by your shaky promise to make amends for what has every appearance of being a case of discrimination pure and simple. I am all too familiar with the dynamics at play here. On at least three occasions in my career as a Catholic lesbian feminist theologian I have been treated the way you treated Dr. O’Brien.

    I have been invited and then disinvited to teach or lecture on these occasions. Never was my professional training or competence called into question. To the contrary. There was a reason I was invited in the first place. I like to think that my Marquette education played a role. But in each instance, pressures were placed on the inviters by those in ecclesial power. Dire threats were issued of what would befall them if they made good on the invitations. They caved as you apparently did in the case of Dr. O’Brien.

    What remain unknown are the many instances when scholars like Dr. O’Brien are simply passed over completely for opportunities to serve. We are usually discriminated against earlier in the process so our names do not even appear on short lists. But when they do, and groups rescind bona fide invitations, it is more than a matter of sloppy administration. It is unprofessional and immoral.

    Excuses that the committee did not vet the candidate more thoroughly ring hollow. From what I understand, the committee was more than candid and expected that if Dr. O’Brien were invited the invitation would stand. I shudder to think what message students took from your action. Apparently, in your view, it is all right to discriminate. If per chance you do not do it early enough it is permissible to correct your own mistake despite the insult to the person involved. I think not.

    To claim that Dr. O’Brien as the Dean of Arts and Sciences would not be able to represent the university’s Catholic identity is the most troubling aspect of this sordid chapter in Marquette’s history. You state: “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 am perplexed.

    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? I hope you are as repulsed as I am by the suggestion that Marquette’s Catholic identity can be bought at the expense of even one person’s moral integrity.

    With all due respect, I think it is time for you to “Be the Difference” as Marquette’s public relations would have it. I respectfully suggest that you hasten your retirement such that your last official act, with proper apologies for professionally discourteous, perhaps illegal, and certainly unjust treatment, would be to reoffer the invitation to Dr. O’Brien. Then we could all rejoice in the spirit that should be Marquette.

    Sincerely,

    Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D.

    Cc: Marquette Tribune

  5. unanimous says:

    I feel that the university is right in this subject. Each college of religion have different belief. However, her belief does not line up to the catholic church doctrine. Everybody knows that the RCC is against homosexuality, so why is she even trying to apply for the job? She is looking to start a fight or debate. You don’t go looking for trouble.

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