marquette university discriminates against sociologist

Marquette University has withdrawn an offer to hire sociologist Jodi O’Brien as Dean of Arts & Sciences. This is clearly an act of discrimination, though it is unclear whether it is discrimination against her as a lesbian, or as a scholar of sexualities, or as a proponent of marriage equality. The United States may have no discrimination laws to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but Wisconsin does indeed have such a law. In addition, Marquette’s own non-discrimination policy indicates that the institution will not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. And basic principles of academic freedom should cover the other two. In fact, the university already employ at least one lesbian who studies sexuality and supports marriage equality. As is often the case, this institution clearly has some internal disagreements about what makes for an appropriate representative, and Jodi’s application captured the attention of interested parties.

For her part, the NY Times article says “Dr. O’Brien said she was stunned by Marquette’s about-face and disappointed that she would not be able to serve at the university.”

I know Jodi to be one of the calmest, most thoughtful and fair-minded people I have ever met, and the reason I know her at all is because she was kind enough to strike up a conversation with me on the shuttle bus from one ASA hotel to the other. I was a grad student on the market for the first time, and she gave me some sage advice about giving people the benefit of the doubt. As seems to be the case over and over again, this act of unfairness has fallen upon the kindest person, making the injustice all the more difficult to take.

15 thoughts on “marquette university discriminates against sociologist”

  1. Jodi O’Brien is an amazing scholar, and I’m sorry to see this happen to her. Thanks for posting this, Tina.


  2. I think there’s an interesting issue of imprinting here. Many (most?) universities were started with religious foundations, in part because they were often founded during times where religion, and not science, was seen as the basis of knowledge. However, for some reason(s), the imprinting has faded more for some colleges than others. I think this sort of thing would be less likely, or not likely at all, to happen at other Catholic universities (e.g., BC, ND, G’town). In other words, perhaps the religious imprinting at some colleges has faded more than at others. I wonder there will be a lawsuit coming out of this.

    I’d guess that the leaderships, path-dependent decisions, and the competitive niches colleges occupy in the ecology of higher education influences the degree and nature of “imprinting erosion.”

    Also, I think it bears remembering that there are numerous universities (some with reasonable reputations) where Dr. O’Brien and her research would never be allowed on campus. Just because the discrimination doesn’t occur as overtly as a blatant flip-flop on an appointment, it doesn’t make it any less problematic. The ethics and legitimacy of schools which allow religious considerations to supersede academic ones, should be called into question.

    Just my $0.02


  3. Thanks for posting this, Tina. I was just about to, but you covered it far better than I would have. Do you know of any petitions to support Dr. O’Brien? Or ways to express our support for her? I know the sex and gender folks are organizing around this. I’ll post stuff as they decide on how to proceed.


  4. I’m not being snarky here, just curious. I looked at her CV and counted seven papers in refereed journals (I presume they’re refereed, anyway), none in ASR or AJS. Would this normally be enough for a full professorship and endowed chair at a place like Seattle U., and an A&S Deanship at Marquette? It looks like a fairly modest record.


    1. The answer is “yes” – given that she already is a full professor (and chair) at Seattle & was offered the job at Marquette. It’s hard to argue that someone isn’t qualified after you’ve already offered them the job (which presumably means looking at their Vita).

      I haven’t looked at her vita, and what I’m about to say doesn’t reflect at all on her work, since I don’t know it. But here goes: I would be far from surprised of Dr. O’Brien was the first person hired where people JUST looked at the vita and didn’t actually read any of the work. I’d guess that that happens all the time.


      1. Ah, Jodi O’Brien is a noted scholar who has published quite a lot and been central to editorial efforts in gender, sexualities, and group processes. I’ll refrain from being snarky insofar as that is possible for me, but Marquette is not exactly Wisconsin. It’s a minor league Catholic teaching college. I doubt that they have more then 10 PhD granting programs. What matters most is that you have a person who is able to do serious administrative work in a fair and expeditious manner.
        Of course, the conservative Christians can discriminate all they want to based on sexuality. At least for now. If discrimination based on sexuality was taken seriously, then the Christians would have to forfeit their Federal funds if they want to discriminate in hiring. No matter what, it is extremely bad form for Marquette to have even allowed this to get to the interview stage. Unfortunately, it suggests that many at Marquette want things to be different, but those people don’t matter squat in a religious college.


      2. Idle speculation, but I wonder if UWisc’s choice of an openly lesbian scholar of gender as its chancellor played into Marquette’s last-minute decision NOT to hire someone with a similar profile. With O’Brien at the helm, it would certainly be harder for Marquette to make the case to parents that it is better positioned than That Other University to guide young minds blah blah blah.


      3. “it suggests that many at Marquette want things to be different, but those people don’t matter squat in a religious college”

        If the losing side has to win to matter, so much for democracy. No wonder the Teabaggers and Taliban are so pissed off. I think it’s more interesting to see how MUCH the opposition matters at a place like Marquette – enough to come this close to barging a candidate openly out of step with the historical mission and identity of the university into one of its most visible leadership positions. Keep at it kids, you’re almost there.


  5. On the “Catholic” issue, I have it from some pretty good sources Catholic institutions are under substantial pressure to have a strong Catholic identity and are pursuing policies both of preferences for Catholics in hiring faculty and glass ceilings above which non-Catholics will not rise in administration. But I know nothing at all about the particulars of Marquette.

    Is Jodi O’Brien Catholic?


  6. My question, which is tangential to the real issue here (the withdrawal of the offer), is: What information do you use to know what kind of dean someone will be? How much does a record of publications tell you about how good a dean someone will be? When we hire a professor, we’re interested in teaching and scholarship. If someone has good teaching evaluations at her other school, she’ll probably be a good teacher at her new school. If she had good pubs, she’ll probably continue to have good pubs. But for deaning, what should you look at?


    1. I don’t know what schools do look at for deans, but I do know that once you have been a department chair at a “top” place you get opportunities to apply for dean positions. I was quite startled when this happened to me – I couldn’t imagine why anyone would think I was qualified to be a dean. It is my impression that they are in short supply.


  7. Dean’s search committees are looking for someone who can raise money for the college (about 50% of the job), who understands the unique situation of the disciplines represented in the college, who won’t play favorites but will protect the strong departments, who will be a tireless advocate for the college but can work well with central administration, who isn’t afraid to make hard decisions but doesn’t ruffle any feathers, who is a forceful leader who nonetheless leads by building consensus, who is a world-class researcher but loves interacting daily with undergraduates, and who has administrative experience in University X’s aspirational peer group but is willing to take a position at a lower-ranked institution.

    Then, when the search committee realizes this person doesn’t exist, it recommends the interim dean.


  8. My dear friend Stephen Engel is a prof in Political Science. There have been and are on-going demonstrations – there is a FaceBook page you can join that will let you know of them. Some of the local coverage indicates the offer was withdrawn when a major donor complained.

    Stephen writes:

    In recent days, the faculty, administration, and students of Marquette University have responded to a crisis of the University’s own making. This past week, Father Wild, the president of Marquette, rescinded an offer for the deanship of the College of Arts and Sciences from Jodi O’Brien, Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Seattle University, a fellow Jesuit institution. O’Brien is an out lesbian who has written peer-reviewed scholarly publications on the topics of lesbian sexuality and same-sex marriage. President Wild justified his actions by suggesting that certain of O’Brien’s writings conflict with the Catholic mission and identity of Marquette.

    Even if we put aside the issue of O’Brien’s sexual orientation, which I believe we cannot, President Wild’s justification nevertheless has a chilling effect on academic freedom. While the University may claim that deans and faculty have distinct purposes within the university community such that deans are more often the public face, it is also undeniable that faculty often become deans. As such, the research agendas of faculty are implicated in the explanation that Wild offers.

    I am an assistant professor of political science at Marquette University. Tenure-tracked junior faculty members often keep their mouths shut, preoccupied by the responsibilities of publication and teaching high-quality courses so that they can receive tenure. But there are moments when silence is not an option. For me, recent events have created such a moment.

    I came to Marquette in August of 2009, having completed my PhD in political science at Yale University in May of 2009. I came to Marquette because I was attracted to the University’s tremendous dedication to Jesuit values, which I understood to be a commitment to diversity, scholarly inquiry of all types, and social justice. While these values may not clearly resonate with the recent actions taken by President Wild, they are deeply evident in the reactions of many of my faculty colleagues, administrators, and students who have stood by O’Brien and protested the actions of the Wild administration. At this moment, Marquette is engaged in a profound dialogue and self-reflection sparked by an action deeply offensive to any university’s commitment to academic freedom, but particularly troubling from a Jesuit commitment to social justice. I value being part of this conversation. We, the faculty, administration, and students of Marquette, must now decide what we mean when we proudly shout our chant of “We Are Marquette!” Recent events have compelled me to question, whether I, a gay Jewish member of the Marquette faculty, am truly included in that “we.” I do not yet know the answer to that question. I hope that my faith that the Marquette community will live up to its ideals is not ultimately misplaced.

    Stephen M. Engel

    Stephen M. Engel is an assistant professor of political science at Marquette University and is author of The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement (Cambridge University Press, 2001) and The Political Problem of Judicial Power: The Development of Loyal Opposition and the Imperative to Harness the Court (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming)


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