Saturday, May 08, 2010

Ticket to (wild) ride

You know I have to weigh in on the rescinded job offer at Marquette... I mean, far be it from me to avoid a sexual orientation-related controversy in higher ed.

The short story is bad enough: Marquette University found a wonderful woman academic, Dr. Jodi O'Brien, to be its new Dean for the College of Arts and Sciences. The offer was made, and the candidate accepted. Shortly thereafter, Marquette President Rev. Wild reconsidered and rescinded the job offer. O'Brien was shocked and disappointed, and the search committee was taken aback and embarrassed.

The long story, of course, is more involved. The Dean's job had been open since 2007, and a prior search (which had included O'Brien until she bowed out for personal reasons) had been unsuccessful. This time, the search committee actually reached out to her to ask her to apply again, which she did. She was one of two candidates presented to the administration for the post. The provost got the recommendations and made the offer to O'Brien, who accepted.

Soon thereafter, administrators (and perhaps some faculty and donors, though that has not been confirmed) apparently read her academic writing on queer Christian identity, same-sex marriage, and the like and decided that the professor, as the Marquette spokeswoman noted, lacked “the ability to represent the Marquette mission and identity.” Indeed, President Wild stated, “We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family.”

Shortly thereafter...
Members of the search committee ...said Father Wild and the university's provost, John J. Pauly, had met with them on Wednesday and told them they had failed to scrutinize Ms. O'Brien's scholarly works adequately.
Stephen L. Franzoi, a professor of psychology who was also on the committee, disputed that characterization of the panel's work. He told the Journal Sentinel that the committee had advised senior administrators not to choose Ms. O'Brien if the university was not willing to support her, if her sexual orientation or her scholarship became targets of criticism. "To say now that we were not careful enough is ludicrous," he said. "They should have been prepared to defend their choice."
So, here is my take on this whole encounter: Yup.

I see this event as one of those light bulb, "Aha!" (or WTF) moments for people at Catholic/Jesuit schools, where they remember that being at these institutions means occasionally confronting limits related to religious dogma and practices that public schools--and some other, more loosely affiliated or liberal Christian schools--don't have. Some of my friends at Jesuit institutions have been taken aback at this reminder, having convinced themselves that, other than having a few crucifixes in classrooms and extra days off for Easter break, their schools really aren't much different from secular programs. Unlike their Big-C Catholic counterparts, Jesuit schools are often seen as progressive, activist even. Even O'Brien, who currently works at another Jesuit institution, was "stunned and disappointed" at the decision to rescind the offer.

From my perspective, the AP article probably had the money quote:
Psychology professor Stephen Franzoi, who served on a search committee for the dean post, said the university's decision couldn't be separated from O'Brien's sexual orientation. "I guess if she was a lesbian but her research was on microorganisms, she might have been acceptable," Franzoi said.
It isn't about her being a lesbian, it is about her being a lesbian who is critical of Catholic doctrine and advocates for LGBT rights. This isn't a new story. You can look way back to the story of theologian Charles Curren, who lost his right to teach theology and was subsequently fired from Catholic University of America in 1986 when then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger decided his critical writings related to the Church's teachings on women and homosexuality, among other topics, made him unfit.

I myself even had a similar incident in the late 1990s, when I interviewed for a position at a Catholic school. The faculty and students loved me at the on-campus interview, and the search committee told me that they were recommending that I be made an offer. I later found out that the Provost had put the kibosh on the offer, citing my pro-lesbian feminist writings and my inability to "adequately present Catholic doctrine." Now, there were other lesbians on faculty at this school, but none of them wrote about homophobia and heterosexism. And that is why I was a problem.

And it isn't just homosexuality--Jesuit institutions have faced other issues in the recent past. Just a few years ago, faculty and students at Creighton saw their president rescind an offer to host a speech by writer Ann Lamott because she had written poignantly about the benefits and costs of euthanasia and abortion. This even though the Creighton website explained, "[As] an authentic university, Creighton does respect other views and regularly has speakers, panelists and others who do not necessarily agree with all aspects of our beliefs. ...As a Jesuit university, Creighton is a place of intellectual honesty, pluralism, and mutual respect where inquiry and open discussion characterize the environment of teaching, research and professional development." (The missing section above, noted by the ellipses, explains the decision: "At a featured lecture like this, the degree to which the speaker's views do not harmonize with our Catholic mission becomes more salient.") So, the Creighton administration were open to dissent, just not in a named lecture.

As a lesbian who has already seen this show, I would say that there is little new with this incident at Marquette, other than that people actually heard about it. Had the administrators done their due diligence before they made the offer to O'Brien, no one would have known that they tanked a candidate because her academic writing had the potential to alienate conservative donors and embarrass the school among the "faithful."

That said, I am proud of my friends and others at Catholic and Jesuit institutions who are working to advocate for more inclusiveness, who are asking these schools to be more creative and thoughtful in balancing their Catholic dogma, their (small c) catholic ideals, their commitment to academic freedom, and their nondiscrimination statements. The intersection of these different issues represents a difficult tension for Jesuit schools, and I doubt that there will ever be a lasting resolution.

Perhaps I am cynical, but I think when you sign up as an academic at a Catholic or Jesuit school, you should know what you are in for.The Catholic Church sets the course of the academic ride, and you buy the ticket, already having seen the track laid out. When the steep drop happens, you shouldn't complain you didn't expect it.


On a separate but related note, this story also helps undermine another myth in higher education: the myth of the radical retiree. Many people assume that the best time to get the President or Chancellor to do what you want is right before s/he leaves or retires. I mean, why wouldn't they take a risk on the way out, when they know they won't have to deal with the blowback? This is an issue in this situation because President Rev. Wild is leaving Marquette University in 2011. So, why doesn't he just hire O'Brien, who clearly has administrative skills, and leave his successor to deal with the fallout?

In fact, research shows that outgoing presidents rarely take big risks or adopt groundbreaking policies on the way out, especially in the area of LGBT issues. This pattern makes sense, because current leaders usually support the status quo, which they themselves helped to create. They know this status quo and are comfortable with it. Also, many thoughtful outgoing leaders don't want to set up the next person by making some big change. Further, by the time most senior leaders have announced they are leaving, they have reached lame duck status. So, it wasn't in the cards that President Wild would go out this limb to actually hire O'Brien--guess he isn't Wild enough.

Hopefully, Dr. O'Brien will find an institution that appreciates her talents and isn't frightened by her scholarly work. She may have to venture out into the secular sphere: Perhaps she should shift her gaze across the state from Milwaukee to Madison to the experience of University of Wisconsin Chancellor Biddy Martin. Martin wrote a whole book on the significance of being a lesbian, and she got the top job anyway!


Anonymous said...

I agree with much of what you say, but here's a few places where I think you got it wrong:

"Some of my friends at Jesuit institutions have been taken aback at this reminder, having convinced themselves that, other than having a few crucifixes in classrooms and extra days off for Easter break, their schools really aren't much different from secular programs."

There's long been healthy tensions between secular and sacred and catholic and other at Jesuit institutions. These tensions can be extremely productive. We don't try to forget we're not much different, we try to PLAY UP the difference in some cases. In many many ways, Jesuit institutions are far MORE progressive than many secular institutions because they can lean on the church's social justice teachings. For this feminist and non-Catholic activist, I usually feel much more support at a Jesuit institution than I did at my previous place of employment at a state run institution. We don't have to answer to legislatures or local taxpayers and can be more rogue in some cases. This can be great or terrible, depending on the president.

"Perhaps I am cynical, but I think when you sign up as an academic at a Catholic or Jesuit school, you should know what you are in for.The Catholic Church sets the course of the academic ride, and you buy the ticket, already having seen the track laid out. When the steep drop happens, you shouldn't complain you didn't expect it."

This isn't exactly true because things are recently clamping down on what often USED to be more forward-thinking institutions. The founding advisor for the GSA group on my campus was the priest of the campus church, who is in his late 70s and continues to be one of the most radical people on campus. The Jesuit institutions are getting less progressive NOT because of the teachings of the Catholic Church, per se (which has long tolerated and encouraged the tradition of dissent and debate within its ranks, esp in Jesuit circles), but because of the recent power of right wing organizations hooked to wealthy donors who have zeroed in on Catholic universities. What's going on is not because the university is Jesuit and we should have known what we were getting into, it's a struggle for what counts as Jesuit and Catholic (both of which are dynamic concepts). Another example of this outside of academia is with nuns. Nuns have long enjoyed tremendous freedom to criticize and fly under the radar to be activist and feminist, but NOW they are being scrutinized by the Vatican like never before. Now, you could say that they should have known what they were getting into...but I would say that what they got into and lived for years has turned into something very very different.

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