Marquette University appears to have few LGBT students, and those who are out on campus face ongoing harassment in classrooms and residence halls, according to an investigation commissioned by university officials.
LGBT faculty members also face a hostile atmosphere at Marquette. One unnamed professor told the investigator, “As a lesbian faculty member, I am in constant terror that I will become the next big campus controversy, so I tend to avoid campus events and speaking out.”
Those are among the findings in a 31-page report by Ronni Sanlo, senior associate dean of students at UCLA. She visited Marquette by invitation last October “to examine campus issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity/expression,” according to the report.
Last spring Marquette caused an international stir in academia when university president Fr. Robert A. Wild made but then withdrew an offer to out lesbian scholar Jody O’Brien to serve as dean of the college of arts and sciences. News of the job retraction brought charges of anti-LGBT discrimination, spurring demonstrations on campus and raising questions about academic freedom at the university. Several major academic organizations considered censuring Marquette.
Fallout over the hiring scandal prompted Sanlo’s investigation – and overshadowed it. “That singular event has placed a pale over the entire institution and cannot be separated from the current campus climate,” her report noted.
Sanlo told WiG she was unable to comment on the study she conducted. But in her report, Sanlo said her investigation brought her face-to-face with students, faculty, staff and administrators in a variety of settings Oct. 28-29, 2010. Her interviews ranged from one-on-one meetings to discussions involving groups of as many as 40 people at a time. She also used online surveys to garner feedback.
One of the report’s most disturbing findings is that the university does not allow students to report hate incidents without being publicly identified. During her investigation, Sanlo spoke with two male students who said they were victims of an anti-gay assault but declined to report it after being told by the university’s department of public safety that their identities could not be protected. They dropped the complaint, fearing further victimization.
Sanlo’s investigation found few “substantive” support systems for LGBT students at Marquette, including no LGBT campus center. Although the university has a diversity office, its focus is on racial issues.
The few support channels that do exist for LGBT students are informal – “loosely developed” and “unaware of what the others are doing,” according to the report.
Reflecting the institution’s Jesuit roots, there’s a social justice thread running throughout the Marquette community, the report stated; but it added that LGBT inclusion generally is not included in that tradition.
Sanlo found that although Marquette has a Gay Straight Alliance, its functions are more limited than similar groups on other university campuses. And unlike other organizations on its own campus, Marquette’s GSA is not allowed to engage in activism or advocacy. The group does not even have a current website.
Sanlo found that transgender and genderqueer inclusion are not addressed at all on campus.
In the wake of the O’Brien hiring scandal, faculty members who are LGBT allies feel unsupported by the administration – and even ostracized. A number of them told Sanlo they were “on the market,” looking for new jobs. Others have simply given up trying to change things on campus.
“I regularly try to challenge and interrupt anti-gay language and actions, and have done so for a number of years, but I am very close to deciding that it is no longer worth it to try to reform Marquette’s sexist/heterosexist culture,” one faculty member is quoted as saying in the report.
“We’d like to at least have a safe campus,” said Margaret Steele, a graduate student in Marquette’s philosophy department and an LGBT ally. Steele said she’s familiar with Sanlo’s report and can attest to the hostile climate it documents.
Steele said she attended Marquette hoping to find a values-based educational environment that promotes the Jesuit tradition of social justice. But she said she’s been disappointed to find herself engulfed in a culture that seems to elevate “a couple of ambiguous statements about sexuality” over “the hundreds of scriptural injunctions about helping the poor, the sick and the disenfranchised.”
“For me, Marquette is not Catholic enough,” Steele said. “They use their Catholic identity as window dressing to attract a certain customer base. But they don’t show a true commitment to Christianity or Catholicism at is best. They talk up Catholicism when they want to defend something they’re doing to appease their conservative customers and donors.
“There’s a lot more the university could do without going in any way against Catholic teaching – just by emphasizing the shared humanity of people. The university could make the campus a more comfortable place for most people by sending the message that we might have different views but there’s nothing in Catholic teaching that says we can’t make people feel comfortable on campus.”
Among the many recommendations that Sanlo proposed for changing the culture at Marquette is extending employment benefits to the same-sex partners of university workers. Other Jesuit universities have done this, including Loyola University Chicago, Loyola Marymount, Georgetown University and Seattle University.
During the academic year 2007 to 2008, 42 percent of all universities in the nation provided such benefits, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. That was the most recent year for which WiG could find statistics.
Late last year, the administration at Marquette floated a proposal for partner benefits. But in order to avoid conflict with Catholic dogma, the benefits were positioned as being for “legally domiciled adults” – that is, the benefits would be accessible to any two unmarried adults living together in a financially interdependent relationship.
Like nearly every action concerning equality on Marquette’s campus, the LDS strategy appears to have galvanized both sides of the issue. Proponents of LGBT equality reacted negatively, saying it’s typical of the superficial half-measures that Marquette’s administration takes on equality issues. Opponents, on the other hand, said they resented the subterfuge.
“The proposal doesn’t limit coverage to gays and lesbians, although the prefatory language makes it clear that coverage for homosexuals is the real issue,” blogged Marquette political science professor John McAdams, perhaps the most outspoken conservative on campus (see story page 9).
McAdams told WiG that he’s speaking for others who are afraid to speak out when he contends that domestic partner benefits should be a non-starter at Marquette. Extending such benefits, he said, would put the university in the situation of subsidizing relationships its church considers illicit.
“For most gay and lesbian couples, there’s no reason they both can’t work – and that’s doubtless the typical case,” he said. “I think it’s inappropriate to come to a Catholic University and then try to attack or water down the Catholic nature of the university.”
Although Marquette officials declined to answer questions about Sanlo’s report, Kate Venne, director of university communications, e-mailed WiG an update of actions that have been taken to improve campus conditions for LGBT students, faculty and staff. They include:
According to Venne, some of these actions directly address Sanlo’s recommendations. She wrote that the administration’s work on improving conditions for “ALL students” is ongoing.
But Trevor Smith, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Marquette, said he’s heard promises before and “things haven’t changed at all.”
“Once in a while they make these overtures,” he said. “They have a talking session on queer issues. But none of us have any faith that it means anything. Nobody’s thoughts or feelings have changed. I have little to no faith in this administration.”
Smith said the effects of the O’Brien hiring scandal have “split (his) department in half.”
“I think if it were feasible to transfer somewhere else, a lot of people would look into it,” he said. “But for graduate students like myself, it would mean giving up years of our lives and starting all over.”
Still, some hold out hope that conditions at Marquette will improve.
Fair Wisconsin executive director Katie Belanger, whose group began working with the university to address concerns about LGBT inclusivity in the spring of 2010, sounded a hopeful note about progress on the campus.
“We were welcomed by both faculty and the administration to facilitate a meaningful dialogue to shed light on key areas for improvement,” Belanger said. “While this is a long process, I believe that Marquette University will continue to take important steps in building a more inclusive institution and community for LGBT students, faculty and staff.”