Marquette University Hires Lesbian Dean, Then Rescinds Offer

Jodi OBrien

A lesbian sociologist with sterling credentials and countless scholarly works is at the center of a social justice struggle that is playing out at two Catholic universities -- one from the liberal Northwest and the other anchored in the conservative heartland.

Jodi O'Brien, a highly respected and openly gay professor at Seattle University, was appointed dean of the college of arts and sciences at Milwaukee's Marquette University in April, but then on May 2, the offer was rescinded, in part, because of some of her academic writings were at odds with the church.

"I was stunned," O'Brien, 50, said at the time in the Seattle University Spectator. "I had no idea this was in the works."

The controversy has brought into sharp relief two Jesuit schools, 2000 miles apart, one where gay students and faculty feel accepted and the other where despite efforts, some students and faculty say anti-gay attitudes still prevail.

Monday, dozens of faculty from both Jesuit universities took out a full page ad in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, protesting Marquette's decision to withdraw O'Brien's appointment based on her sexual orientation.

They called on administrators to offer her the job again with an apology and condemned the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and "other outside influences" in the decision.

The reversal "puts academic freedom at risk at Marquette University," said the ad. "We reject an intellectual 'litmus test' for our faculty, staff, and leaders in the administration."

"We believe this action has caused significant harm to the reputation of Marquette University," the statement said. "It threatens our credibility and integrity as a university. It has caused suffering among students, alumni, staff, and faculty, and it will cost Marquette considerably in terms of community relationships, research, and recruiting and retaining students and faculty."

Officials at Marquette have said they withdrew the offer not because O'Brien was openly gay, but because of the nature of her published vignettes on lesbian sex and same-sex marriage.

O'Brien, who just ended her tenure as chair of Seattle's sociology department and is not a Catholic, told ABCNews.com that she is no longer granting interviews.

"I have not yet had an official conversation with Seattle University about returning, but colleagues and administrators there have been very gracious and supportive during this time," she said.

Kathleen La Voy, who worked with O'Brien for 15 years and who wrote her recommendation for the Marquette job, said she was "amazed" at the appointment reversal.

"Jodi has always embraced Catholic values," said La Voy, chairman of the psychology department and associate dean of the college of arts and sciences at Seattle. "She has upheld the values of the church on a personal level and is able to honor what a Catholic believes."

"She is great working with people, a great advocate for students and a fair-handed and outstanding administrator," said La Voy, who signed the protest ad.

Earlier this month, about 100 students protested the action, carrying signs demanding an official four-pronged apology: to O'Brien, to the search committee, and to the Marquette and the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] communities.

"We just had a meeting with the president and there's no apology yet," said Desiree Valentine, 22, who graduated on Sunday and was part of the protest.

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