It has been a Wild-kind of month for faculty, staff, and students at Marquette University and Seattle University. After President Wild of Marquette University tore up a signed job contract with a woman who would be their first “out” Lesbian administrator (Jodi O’Brien, of Seattle University) many faculty, staff, and students on both MU and SU campuses have been left in turmoil.
Although Marquette has managed to “resolve” this conflict with a negotiated settlement, President Wild’s actions call into question a number of basic academic assumptions including: 1) the honesty of Marquette University’s statements on commitments to diversity and anti-discrimination, 2) the assumption that GLBTQ people are welcome community members within Jesuit institutions (unlike conservative Catholic and Evangelical Protestant institutions, Jesuits are known for their tolerance, encouragement of fearless intellectual curiosity, and commitment to social justice), and 3) the assumption that University faculty have the rights and responsibilities of sharing the governance of their institution.
The recommendation to hire Dr. O’Brien as Dean of Arts & Sciences at Marquette came after two years of committee searches, interviews, and deliberations. The President and Provost of Marquette also met with committee members and all job candidates, and signed on with the decision to offer the job to O’Brien. This extensive vetting process was obliterated after two local conservative Catholic leaders (neither of them faculty or staff members at Marquette) caught wind of O’Brien’s hire. Somehow, unbelievably, these two men (Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki and Father Paul Hartmann, the archdiocese’s judicial vicar) were able to trump the entire academic administrative vetting process at MU. The search committee and was abruptly informed that their input — as well as O’Brien’s administrative leadership skills — was neither needed nor welcome.
Despite the strong suspicion among many that this is a clear case of discrimination based on sexual orientation, President Wild has maintained throughout the aftermath of his rescinded offer that this is simply about a mismatch between O’Brien’s scholarship and Marquette’s mission. Wild has yet to adequately specify how and where O’Brien’s scholarship is anti-Marquette, anti-Jesuit, or anti-Catholic, but Father Paul Hartmann (one of the two local church officials who complained) explains that O’Brien investigates a particular “subject matter” that may create “dichotomies,” “tensions,” and “contradictions.” According to the Milwaukee Sentinel (May 12, 2010):
“Hartmann sent a March 3 letter to the chair of the search committee that said the gender studies professor “pursues subject matter that seems destined to actually create dichotomies and cause tensions (if not contradictions) with Marquette’s Catholic mission and identity.”
As long-time colleague, mentee, and friend of Jodi O’Brien, and as a former lecturer at Seattle University (a place I still hold near and dear to my heart) I am very familiar with O’Brien’s work, as well as her commitment to Jesuit education. Ironically, what the conservative church leaders fear is actually what makes O’Brien a successful Jesuit scholar and administrator. Namely, O’Brien’s ability to embrace (rather than denounce or deny) contradictions and tensions— may in fact be a pinnacle Jesuit model of intellectual and spiritually complexity.
In her 2009 Presidential address to the Pacific Sociological Association, Professor Jodi O’Brien describes the personal growth that comes with wrestling religious and spiritual contradictions:
My research with queer Christians led me to understand and define the social self as a process of wrestling contradiction. We are in a constant state of becoming. This “becoming” is shaped through processes of interaction and revealed through the internal dialogues in which we observe, feel, comment on, and try to make sense of our own complexity. The process of self-understanding is a dialectical process of definition, a continual interplay between personal experiences and attempts to fit experience into existing conceptual categories and representations. All of us struggle to make sense of ourselves, to find ways of self-expression, and to be heard and understood. Our sense of self undergoes constant revision as it encounters friction, contradiction, and conflict along the various boundaries that constitute meaning (O’Brien 2009, Pp. 15–16).
She continues to describe how the intellectual process of finding connections in the face of conflict provides an opportunity for personal as well as professional transformation:
Isn’t this what we’re doing as sociologists when we strive to practice scholarship that matters: finding connections, revealing patterns, striving to bridge seemingly contradictory perspectives by offering deeper, richer frameworks of understanding? My suggestion is that when we experience fully the contradiction, conflict, and pain of engaging with our own teaching and research, we can’t help but be transformed …. This produces an epistemology of contradiction that, together with the principles of the “sociological imagination,” enables us to navigate through complex personal and professional terrain in ways that both resonate and inspire (O’Brien 2009, P. 20 )
Rather than embracing the powerful teaching moments of such everday contradictions, Marquette University officials have chosen to rescind them, putting themselves closer to the edges of rigidity, fear, and fundamentalism, rather than intellectual curiosity, creativity and, I would argue, spiritual vitality.
I will leave it to Jodi O’Brien to describe the nuances and evolution of her thinking throughout her illustrious scholarly career. However, for those interested in reading more about how stereotyping and prejudice works, O’Brien’s own social psychology textbook, The Production of Reality is a great resource. In this text as well as in the dozens of lectures she’s given to churches and universities around the country, including other Jesuit Catholic universities, O’Brien teaches us about the subject matter of “permissible prejudice” – in other words, prejudice that is deemed ok if those in positions of authority justify it as such through their actions or non-actions.
And it is this critical perspective on prejudice and power that is the deeper “subject matter” at hand. This is the kind of subject matter that creates critical reflection on all forms of power relations, including but certainly not limited to that pertaining to religious institutions. This is precisely why those invested in maintaining an uncritical stance on particular power relations within the larger Marquette community needed her to leave; this is also precisely why Gay Catholics and religious academics need leaders like O’Brien now more than ever.
Referenced and recommended sources:
O’Brien, J. (2009) “Sociology as an epistemology of contradiction.” Sociological Perspectives 52, 1, 5-22.
O’Brien, J. (2007).”Queer Tensions: The Cultural Politics of Belonging and exclusion in same gender marriage debates.”” Pp. 125-149 in Interdisciplinary Readings on Sex and Sexuality. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
O’Brien, J. (2005). The Production of Reality: Essays and Readings in Social Interaction, 4th Edition. Newbury Park, CA: Pine Forge Press (Sage).
O’Brien, J. (2002). “Heterosexism and Homophobia.” Article length entry for the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Oxford: Elsevier Publishing.
While this case underscores timeless clashes between religion and sexuality—particularly in the form of gay and lesbian “permissible prejudice” within religious institutions — some argue that this discrimination is rising in a backlash movement against the fight for equal rights by gays and lesbians. For example, On March 6, 2010, the Washington Post reported that Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative Republican, advised Virginia’s public colleges and universities to revoke policies protecting employees on the basis of sexual orientation.