Marquette University ended an exhaustive two-year search for a new dean of its college of arts and sciences in April, when officials offered the position to out lesbian scholar Jodi O’Brien. The search committee interviewed her several times, reviewed her academic record and decided she was the best candidate for the job.
But shortly after O’Brien accepted Marquette’s offer, university president Robert A. Wild abruptly withdrew it, making vague references to writings she’d published in peer-reviewed academic journals about lesbian sex and same-sex marriage. These writings, already well-known to the search committee, were deemed incompatible with Marquette’s Roman Catholic mission.
As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last week, Wild’s change of heart came after pressure was exerted by new Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki. His opposition to O’Brien is hardly surprising, given the hard-line activism he demonstrated as head of the Diocese of La Crosse.
But diocesan politics have no place at a research institution. Listecki’s interference has opened deep wounds within the Marquette University community and cast a shadow over the university’s reputation.
All Jesuit universities face a difficult balancing act. They must provide the academic freedom needed to produce ground-breaking scholarship without collapsing the framework of Roman Catholic theology that hovers just overhead.
For years, Marquette University managed to successfully navigate these sometimes conflicting interests. But Listecki has thrown the state’s largest private university seriously off course, sending shock waves throughout academia.
Listecki’s action will cost the university in terms of the quality of faculty it will be able to attract in the future. The insinuation of church intervention into scholarship coupled with the shockingly unprofessional manner in which O’Brien’s job offer was handled will deter the best and brightest from seeking positions at Marquette.
Many of the most gifted and ambitious students will also be wary of applying to a school whose name on their degrees might be associated with academic controversy. LGBT students especially will be turned off.
In one misguided application of homophobia, Listecki has immeasurably tarnished the Marquette University brand.