Opinion: Marquette’s O’Brien About-Face Shows Lack of Faith in Liberal Education

Jodi O’Brien

It must have looked good on paper. Marquette University wanted to hire Seattle University’s sociology professor Jodi O’Brien, chair of the sociology department, to be dean of arts and sciences.  They extended her a job offer, O’Brien accepted. The signed contract was in the mail, the Seattle University Spectator says, when she got the take-backsies phone call.

AP reports that: “The archdiocese acknowledges [Milwaukee] Archbishop Jerome Listecki called Marquette President Father Robert Wild about the university’s offer to Seattle University professor Jodi O’Brien,” though the university stoutly insists its unprofessional behavior is its own doing. Citing worries that the openly gay O’Brien’s hiring would “create dichotomies and cause tensions,” Marquette’s administration managed to vault itself–dichotomous, tension-filled–into the national spotlight

Wayback Machine: That’s MvB on the left and John Drabinski on the right. Center guy is from Portland, which you can totally tell.

I was curious what a (mostly) unaffiliated academic would think of this story so I trundled off to Facebook to look up a Xavier Hall dormmate from my own Seattle U years, John Drabinski, who teaches in the Department of Black Studies at Amherst. 

First, is this an embarrassing kerfluffle or a major issue? Good for Seattle U, bad for Marquette?

Well, Catholic schools are at a crossroads, I think: Either you continue along with mainstream higher-education, which really does value diverse forms of critical inquiry, or you throw your lot in with the fundamentalists and the religious right.

For Seattle U, I think this is good. And Seattle U is also good for Catholic universities generally, because this goes against the growing narrative about Catholics and Catholic schools as indifferent to child abuse, backwards, out of touch, equivalent to the religious right. Bad for Marquette because now, no matter what the school does, it is branded a right-wing outpost. Sadly, because Marquette is a perfectly fine school with solid academic standards.

I feel terrible for the MU students. Seriously. They must be incredibly embarrassed. For quite awhile, they’ll have to explain how they are not like Marquette, even though they went to Marquette.

Is this purely a Catholic (or more broadly, religious) college issue, or something that speaks to a growing social conservatism?

Like I said, Catholic schools are at a crossroads. MU and SU go different routes. The social conservatism, in society in general, seems more like one big, last reactionary moment to me–not a real shift. Younger people don’t get the heaving, moralizing breath about LGBT issues. But when you embed these sorts of things in a Catholic institution, creating habits and policies, it tends to outlive generational change. That’s part of being a tradition, not just a handful of people making a decision at a particular time.

So I really do think these are key moments for Catholic schools. It ends up saying something about the tradition as it will develop. Since the Jesuits are at the very foundation of the idea of liberal arts education, I’m glad to see at least SOME Jesuits take a stand against bigotry and top-down administration of ideas. Better to let the best ideas win in the arena of debate and dispute than decide it all ahead of time–as per the liberal arts tradition (!).

It seems to me that a gay chemistry professor isn’t going to get the same treatment as a teacher whose job is to inspect and criticize social mores. But is that even relevant for a dean position? 

I think that’s true, that a chemistry professor will get less, if any, scrutiny. At the same time, given the flexibility and open-endedness of social theory debates, it is all the more crucial to expand the world of ideas in the social sciences, rather than close them off. Otherwise, you’re not doing education. You’re doing passive-aggressive indoctrination, which is not just anti-intellectual, but also very boring.

Mostly, though, she was to be a dean. The job of a dean is to administer, and to endure the scorn of, faculty at key moments. (Yes, division of labor and resentment are in academia too….) So the intervention at MU seems all the more mean-spirited and authoritarian. Did I mention that being authoritarian is contrary to liberal education, where the best ideas win out in the arena of debate and dispute? I did? Great, because that’s the real point here.


Hooray for Seattle U in making it clear that MU’s judgment is mean-spirited, authoritarian, and backwards. And hooray for the MU students who took a stand against this whole thing, because, really, they are the ones who have to answer for the bigotry. Look, I’m from Idaho. I get this. Everyone asks me, when I say I’m from the Gem State, about the neo-Nazis. I’m not a Nazi. Promise. I just grew up in a state where some neo-Nazis were particularly loud.

MU is now the academic manifestation of the same sort of thing. All MU faculty and students have to answer the weird, wandering query…are you an anti-gay bigot or authoritarian about the discussion of ideas? Unfair. But while the administrators sit back and hope to watch the endowment grow (Insert a twss joke here) via gifts conservative donors, the rest of the school has to slink around and hope nobody asks and everybody forgets. For what, really? To ensure that the new dean writes the right sorts of things, falls in love the right way, and bumps uglies with the right kinds of people? I wonder, really, if it is all worth it for MU.

One thought on “Opinion: Marquette’s O’Brien About-Face Shows Lack of Faith in Liberal Education

  1. Great points. The Catholic Church is truly at a crossroads here in America. I’ve heard of movements within the church that may eventual divide the church into different branches. I don’t know how realistic this is, but situations like this make me think that it could happen.

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