In grad school at the U of Hawai`i I found far more dogmatism than I found in my undergrad at conservative, Catholic, Jesuit Marquette. At UH there were simply ideas that were off the table, or that were considered too inflammatory to discuss.
At Marquette? We talked about reporductive rights in one of my very first classes on campus, Phil 050. I was shocked. I knew the Church's position, and here we were talking about other ideas and viewpoints. Here were people who thought a woman had a right to choose whether or not to end her pregnancy! I was shocked - I'm not kidding, I'd never met anyone who had espoused that viewpoint before. And while it was a minority opinion in that classroom, it was discussed and considered and people who thought differently from you were treated with respect, even as you disagreed with them.
I learned about academic freedom, and that one of the things that the Jesuits held dear was that there must be a free exchange of ideas for there to be education - not training, but real education - to happen.
MU didn't always live up to its lofty ideals. One chilly morning in 1989 I was stunned when I realized what the maintenance workers were doing with a high pressure hose outside LaLumiere Hall - they were pressure washing the sidewalks. Someone had gone around campus the night before and had chalked "Gay is okay" at various points around campus.
At that time, chalking sidewalks was done by nearly every organization on campus - advertisements for happy hours on Wells Street; study abroad meeting notices; campus ministry volunteer opportunities - they were all broadcast by chalk. (There was no email or texting or cellphones then, remember, so groups had to chalk boards or sidewalks to get news out.) In Milwaukee in the spring, they'd last a few days and then it would inevitably precipitate in some form and there was a tabula rasa for new notices ready and waiting. And there had never been any movement by anyone at the school to wash anything off before. It had been okay to tout 50 cent tappers at the 'Lanche, Ladies night at O'D's, frat parties and poster sales at the Union.
So why was the University power washing sidewalks to remove "Gay is okay"? I was stunned. And went home and thought about it, decided it was illogical, wrote a letter to the Marquette Tribune, and started coming out by showing my letter to one of my roommates and asking his thoughts.
All this was in my mind on Friday when our alma mater got mentioned in the NY Times. Not for great undergraduate education, however, or professorial research, or even for men's basketball, but for discrimination.
As reported in the NY Times and in more depth in the Journal Sentinel, Dr. Jodi O'Brien, a soiciologist and professor at Seattle University, was offered a position at Marquette University to be Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, accepted the offer, and then had the offer rescinded after intercession by the President's Office.
Dr. O'Brien is an out lesbian who did nothing to hide her orientation during the interview process. I don't know how she could have, given her scholarly writings. The search committee made it an explicit point that she was lesbian. From the Journal Sentinel:
Psychology professor Stephen Franzoi, who served on a search committee for the post, said faculty members forwarded two candidates to Marquette President Father Robert A. Wild and Provost John Pauly. In their recommendation, committee members warned Wild and Pauly not to pick O'Brien if the university was not willing to support her if her sexual orientation or if her scholarship were criticized, Franzoi said.
So now Fr. Wild, who has done a ton of good work for Marquette in moving the institution beyond some of its more shameful past and positioning it as a place that's affirming of GLBT students, says, effectively, "We didn't read her work closely enough and she's anti-family"!?
First, this discriminatiion has a personal side, as discrimination always does. The woman at the heart of the story, Dr. O'Brien, was offered a significantly bigger job, across the country. Have you ever had that experience? I have - it's exciting! You look at neighborhoods, you tell loved ones, you look at cost of living calculators, you start planning all of the thousands of details that go into a move like this. You give your landlord notice or you put your house up for sale; you make an announcement at work; when is your last day and when will be your first, and if you can afford a vacation in between; you wonder if it's the right thing to do. You wonder who's a good dentist, where the bus routes go, who has a decent cup of coffee... it's exciting and stressful and becomes all-consuming.
This woman, it now looks like, will be staying in Seattle at least another year, with colleagues who know she was looking and had an offer. Awkward at best. She has a secure position so unlike the thousands and thousands of queer Americans who are discriminated against every day in this country, she won't be out in the cold - but she had in her hands an offer for what was likely a significant salary jump, and she had it pulled from her. How must that feel? I'd be enraged, insulted, and on the phone with a lawyer.
What about MU? What had they hoped, with this decision? Everyone on campus is now talking about discrimination, everyone is thinking about the role of queer folk in the life of religious institutions, the campus is being engaged in discourse about the visibility of queer folk, how to live up to the official University position of Cura Personalis.
A university is an open place, a place for ideas and discourse and for all ideas being on the table. A Jesuit university, at its best, is a place where everyone can engage in the conversation and at which every idea can be examined, held up to scrutiny, weighed and debated and evaluated and tested.
MU at its best truly educated me. I can only hope this ham-fisted, clumsy attempt to disregard its intellectual heritage and to turn its back on a hire that could further help lead it to intellectual excellence will not stick, any more than pressure washing sidewalks did a generation ago.
Marquette knows better, and the resulting conversation may yet prove that to be true. In the meantime, for all those questioning GLBTQ in the Marquette family, now's a great time to have the conversation with your loved ones. And for those of us who are already out, it's a great time to challenge our school to be the best it can be.
And Dr. O'Brien, I hope to see you in Marquette Hall at some point!