Marquette University Hires Lesbian Dean, Then Rescinds Offer
Controversy Swirls at Two Jesuit Universities About Embracing LGBT Students and Faculty
By SUSAN DONALDSON JAMES
May 26, 2010
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dean of the college of arts and sciences at Milwaukee's Marquette University in April, but then on May 2, the offer was rescinded, in part, because of some of her academic writings were at odds with the church.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.
Marquette Not so Welcoming for LGBT Students
"I wouldn't say this is a comfortable place on the whole for LGBT students," said Valentine, a gender studies major who was told she could not bring a transgender speaker to campus.
"I feel like the people on campus are very supportive," she said, "but it gets more difficult on an institutional level."
"Marquette was moving in the right direction in the area of diversity, especially LGBT issues, but when this broke, it was a huge set back," said Valentine. "I appreciate my Jesuit education, but my great love comes with great disappointment."
O'Brien was hired by Seattle in 1995 to teach sociology, anthropology and women's studies. Since 2002, she has been chair of its sociology department.
According to an interview with The Advocate, O'Brien said Marquette had recruited her in 2008 and after she made the short list, she withdrew her name. Again in 2009, she was a finalist and accepted the post in mid-April.
The Rev. Robert A. Wild said the school changed its mind about O'Brien after reading a sociological study of lesbian sex she wrote.
"We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family," he told The New York Times.
Julie Wolf, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said Archbishop Jerome Listecki had been "very vocal" and "transparent" in discussions with Wild, but does not interfere with hiring at Marquette, which is under the Jesuit Order.
His objections "had nothing to do with her sexuality," said Wolf. "It was some of her writings."
Marquette spokeswoman Mary Pat Pfiel referred press to a prepared statement that said the university "remains steadfast in its opposition to any and all forms of discrimination, as reflected in our Statement on Human Dignity and Diversity. In rescinding the employment offer to a recent candidate, the university was aware that there would be those who opposed the decision, and Marquette President Robert A. Wild, S.J., has acknowledged that the search process requires review.
"This was a substantive decision, even if a difficult one, that Father Wild made based on what he believes to be in the best interests of Marquette University and its mission of excellence, faith, leadership and service. It was certainly not a decision based on fear, outside pressure or, as has unfortunately been alleged, on discrimination because of sexual orientation. Nor does this decision challenge a faculty member's right to academic freedom."
Some community members had suggested that there may have been interference from other conservative decision makers at the school.
"We hear opinions and viewpoints from multiple people and from various constituencies," said Pfiel, who said although the university was autonomous when it comes to hiring faculty, O'Brien was a "leadership hire."
Marquette has also pledged to have an "ongoing dialogue next year with students, faculty and staff about academic freedom, our Catholic identity and the needs of the LGBT community."
Pfiel said the university was a "welcoming community," but some faculty and students said that was not the case.
"It's OK," said Nancy Snow, 51, who is a professor of psychology and one of about five gay faculty members on campus. She was asked to show O'Brien and her partner around the campus in mid-April before the offer was rescinded.
Snow called the university's reversal, "a public disgrace and an embarrassment." She said Marquette officials were "absolutely" aware that O'Brien was gay.
"[O'Brien] was very distinguished, a full professor with an 11-page CV and 17 edited books," said Snow. "She is an amazing scholar and highly qualified."
Anti-Gay Remarks at Marquette
"I think the [atmosphere] here is still kind of uncomfortable," said Snow, though she said attitudes toward gays had improved in her 20 years at the university.
"There is a gay-straight alliance, but there are still problems with students being disrespectful and making offensive comments like, 'That's so gay,' which is so hurtful," she said. "There are some right-wing Catholics here who think being gay or a lesbian is sinful and satanic.
"The university is not vocally supportive of them," she said. "The students are really the leaders here with the moral conscience."
Rachel Stoll, a 22-year-old gender studies and anthropology double major who was proud of her eight years of Jesuit education in high school and in college, said many students have bonded over the O'Brien incident.
"The reason a lot of us took offense in terms of our Jesuit identity," said Stoll, who graduated this week. "We were raised to believe in social justice and working toward equality for all people and for human dignity. We saw this as an affront to our core Jesuit values."
Stoll, though she is not gay, said she has faced "gender-based" bias as a woman on campus.
"Every year, we try to do the 'Vagina Monologues' to raise money for charity, but they never let us do it on campus," she said. The administration often gives "vague answers or don't answer the question asked," she said.
But Paul Milakovich, Marquette's associate vice president for university advancement and an openly gay man, said the university has been a "very comfortable place to work."
"I am completely out and they knew when they hired me," he said. "My partner attends basketball games with me and everyone is very accepting."
Milakovich sees no contradiction between Catholic teachings and his own sexuality.
"I would be offended by the idea of discriminating against [O'Brien]," he said.
As for the differences between Jesuit universities like Seattle and Marquette, he said, "Schools take on their own culture and how the teachings of the Catholic Church are understood."
Seattle University, on the other hand, has rehired O'Brien after she resigned in anticipation of the dean's post at Marquette.
"We welcomed her back, of course," said Seattle spokeswoman Laura Paskin.
There, the university has recently embraced Eve Ensler's "Vagina Monologues," an annual feminist tradition at many American colleges.
"I certainly don't know about Marquette, I have never worked there, but the environment at Seattle has always been very open and accepting for everyone, whether it's race or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation," said O'Brien's colleague La Voy.
"I've taught human sexuality in psychology department panels, about gay pride and the transgendered, on and on, and it always been open and accepting," she said. "Our gay-straight alliance is a strong group and not some people hiding in a corner somewhere in the university.
"Jesuits have always been very open," La Voy said. "Really, social justice is the bottom line around here and they live it."