Marquette University students protest May 6 after the university rescinded a job offer to Jodi O’Brien as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. (Catholic Herald photo by Matt Dixon)

MILWAUKEE – Marquette University closed its search for the dean of the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences May 6 after rescinding its offer to Jodi O’Brien, chair and professor of the Seattle University Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work.

Some faculty and students at the university were upset, suggesting that the university pulled the offer because O’Brien was openly gay and questioned some of her published works and their relationship to the Catholic Church’s mission.

Nancy Snow, a philosophy professor who specializes in ethics at Marquette, said O’Brien has a long and impressive publications record from which came two articles published in 1996 and 1999 that contained the alleged objectionable content.

Snow said it was never clear from Jesuit Fr. Robert A. Wild, president of Marquette University, or John J. Pauly, provost, exactly which articles or which parts of those articles were in question. “A same-sex marriage article was mentioned,” Snow said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald. “It didn’t even mention Catholicism. It didn’t question Catholic marriage. It suggested in a paragraph – she suggested in a paragraph – that the institution of heterosexual marriage needs to be revised on issues of patriarchy.”

Snow said her own speculations lead her to believe that outside sources like donors had an impact upon Fr. Wild’s decision.

“I think outside pressure was brought to bear on Fr. Wild to rescind the offer that had been made and accepted, and by outside pressure, I mean pressure external to Marquette University,” she said.

Views related to mission, identity questioned


Jesuit Fr. Robert Wild, president of Marquette University, lights candles during an evening vigil March 20, 2003, on the campus. About 200 students, faculty and residents turned out for the “Keeping the Light” vigil. (Catholic Herald file photo by Sam Lucero)

Fr. Wild was not available for an interview, however, a May 6 letter to university colleagues signed by Fr. Wild and Pauly, stated that the search closed “without identifying an acceptable candidate for permanent appointment,” and indicated that the offer was rescinded because after further review of “cumulative published records of the candidates, particularly as they relate to Catholic mission and identity, subsequent discussion raised issues that had not been fully addressed earlier.”

In his 1990 apostolic exhortation “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” (On Catholic Universities), Pope John Paul II instructed, “One consequence of its essential relationship to the church is that the institutional fidelity of the university to the Christian message includes a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the church in matters of faith and morals. Catholic members of the university community are also called to a personal fidelity to the church with all that this implies. Non-Catholic members are required to respect the Catholic character of the University, while the University in turn respects their religious liberty.”

O’Brien told your Catholic Herald that she is not Catholic, but has participated in several Jesuit and Catholic activities sponsored by Jesuit-run Seattle University and local faith groups, including the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.

The search committee sent two names to the provost for further consideration, according to the letter, each with issues identified for further discussion.

“We did make this offer to one of the two finalists; in retrospect that was done prematurely,” Fr. Wild and Pauly stated in the letter.

O’Brien, who has worked for Seattle University for 15 years, said that the Jesuit values of a university that treasures its Jesuit, Catholic mission, have been at the center of her evolution as a teacher and scholar.

“Because Marquette is recognized as one of the nation’s top Jesuit universities, I was deeply honored earlier this year when I was offered the opportunity to help advance its Jesuit mission as dean of arts and sciences,” she said in an e-mail interview with your Catholic Herald.

“I said in my initial application letter that I believe Jesuit colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to provide an educational experience that fully prepares students for ethical leadership in our complex times,” she added.

Regarding the role of those who teach at Catholic universities, Pope John Paul wrote in “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” “Christians among the teachers are called to be witnesses and educators of authentic Christian life, which evidences attained integration between faith and life, and between professional competence and Christian wisdom. All teachers are to be inspired by academic ideals and by the principles of an authentically human life.”

Focus on mission

The May 6 letter stated that “While this person has an excellent background, a record of achievement and a strong academic track record, it was decided after further analysis that this individual was not the person who could best fill this very important position,” and that, “The person who becomes dean needs, above all, the ability to represent the Marquette mission and identity.” The letter also said that factors like a candidate’s personal background didn’t affect the decision and the decision doesn’t “in any way challenge a faculty member’s freedom to write in his or her area of scholarly expertise.”


Jodi O’Brien, chair and professor of the Seattle University Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work. (Submitted photo courtesy Jodi O’Brien)

Snow said that during her 20 years at Marquette, the role of a private, Catholic university in hiring and in overseeing the work of its employees should relate to the Catholic mission in the same way that it has done since she’s been there, and “as almost happened in the hiring of Dr. O’Brien, that is that people ask candidates as they asked Dr. O’Brien, about their perspective on the mission, how they would advance the mission.

“Dr. O’Brien answered these questions. She answered these questions to the satisfaction of people here when she visited. I suggested to Fr. Wild that Dr. O’Brien should be asked about the articles she wrote – he said that she answered the questions, but that still the articles were on her record and they are and they’re not going to be taken off, and to me they have no bearing on the mission of the university or on Catholicism,” she said.

“…being a practicing Catholic does not guarantee that an individual will contribute to the mission of this university. Being openly gay or lesbian, having scholarship on lesbian sexuality or any kind of sexuality does not disqualify a person from contributing to the mission.”

In introducing the second section of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” Pope John Paul II wrote, “The basic mission of a University is a continuous quest for truth through its research, and the preservation and communication of knowledge for the good of society. A Catholic University participates in this mission with its own specific characteristics and purposes.”

University regrets oversights in search process

Mary Pat Pfeil, senior director of Marquette University communication and spokeswoman, said the university will revise some aspects of the search process.

“There were certain oversights in the search process, and we regret that deeply,” Pfeil said in an e-mail interview with your Catholic Herald, in reply to how the search process advanced this far.

Pfeil also said that Marquette takes its nondiscrimination statement and statement on human dignity and diversity seriously.

“As a Catholic, Jesuit university, Marquette recognizes and cherishes the dignity of each individual regardless of age, culture, faith, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, language, disability or social class,” she said. “These differences help us to promote a culture of learning, appreciation and understanding.”

Although Pfeil did not state who was consulted in the search process, she said the public nature of the leadership search “means the university hears from multiple audiences, including faculty, administrator, alumni and friends.”

Jerry Topczewski, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki’s chief of staff, said in an interview with your Catholic Herald that “the archbishop was glad to know that Fr. Wild and the university leadership have a strong appreciation for the Catholic mission of the university and understand that being true to that Catholic identity while honoring academic freedom are not mutually exclusive.”

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In an interview on Wednesday, May 12 with your Catholic Herald, Archbishop Listecki confirmed that he had spoken to Fr. Wild “about two or three weeks ago” and conveyed to him what had been brought to the archbishop’s attention.

“I just considered my voice as one of many that expressed concern to Fr. Wild,” the archbishop said. “My own sense is that I responded and called him out of courtesy because I had been receiving concerns from both clergy and lay people concerning the pending appointment so I offered those concerns to Fr. Wild.”

Archbishop Listecki said his phone call to Fr. Wild was not unlike others he would make in the course of his work.

“You talk to somebody, you say, ‘Here are the concerns,’ and then the issue is dropped. I didn’t hear anything about the appointment or no appointment,” he said. “If I had some impact on it, you’d think the offer would have been rescinded the next day. I didn’t exercise any pressure. I didn’t talk to anybody else about it.”

Archbishop Listecki emphasized that his opinion on the hiring carried the same weight as those brought by others.

“I appreciate people thinking I have that type of influence (on whom Marquette hires), but in this day and age, that ability no longer exists,” the archbishop said. “The decision is Marquette’s, not mine … I play no role in their hiring or firing.”

In explaining the role of the Catholic University in “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” Pope John Paul wrote, “A Catholic university, as Catholic, informs and carries out its research, teaching, and all other activities with Catholic ideals, principles and attitudes. It is linked with the church either by a formal, constitutive and statutory bond or by reason of an institutional commitment made by those responsible for it.”

Move toward ‘greater level of inclusion and support

The Marquette University Student Government hosted a listening session about the Arts and Sciences dean search that was facilitated by the office of student affairs Tuesday, May 11. The session was open to all students upon presentation of their Marquette University school identification and was meant to give the Marquette community an opportunity to talk about the decision and invite suggestions for the future, said Pfeil.

“As Fr. Wild has said, this (is) an important opportunity to move forward from a divisive situation in a way that ‘gets us to an even greater level of inclusion and support,’” she said.

Pfeil also stated that the College of Arts and Sciences, Office of the Provost and the Office of Mission and Ministry are planning a session for faculty and staff.

“This is just the beginning of an important dialogue that we will need to continue next year and in the future,” Pfeil said. “As an educational institution, we are committed to both open discussion and to learning from each other.”

O’Brien said she will likely return to Seattle University. She said she believes in the Jesuit mission more today because of the support she’s received from the students and faculty at Marquette.

“My hope is that members of the Marquette community will continue listening to each other, caring for one another, and striving for excellence consistent with the best Jesuit tradition,” she said.