Milwaukee- Marquette University has pulled an offer to hire a new dean for the College of Arts and Sciences from a lesbian who has written scholarly works on gender and sexual orientation, a move that is sparking criticism from faculty and a protest by students.
A university spokeswoman said the decision to withdraw an offer to hire Seattle University professor Jodi O'Brien wasn't about her sexual orientation or the quality of her scholarship. It did have to do with some of O'Brien's published writings "relating to Catholic mission and identity," Marquette spokeswoman Mary Pat Pfeil said.
"This was a decision based on a totality of factors, specifically related to the fit for the candidate to the college," she said in an interview.
In the end, the Jesuit school determined O'Brien was not an "acceptable candidate for permanent appointment," Pfeil said in a statement released Thursday afternoon by the university.
"At this time, the only comment I can offer is to confirm that I was offered the position of Dean and I accepted it, but there was an intercession by the President before my appointment was announced officially," O'Brien said in an e-mail Thursday evening. "I'm stunned and disappointed."
Several faculty members said the decision raised concerns about academic freedom and the university leadership's discomfort with the subject of O'Brien's published work - including a sociological study of vignettes on lesbian sex - rather than any issues of quality.
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.
Nancy E. Snow, a philosophy professor, helped O'Brien hunt for houses in Shorewood last month. She said the discussion of O'Brien's work is a smokescreen.
She sent an e-mail to several faculty members saying that she suspects donors criticized the hire and that Wild feared losing their support.
"This is a travesty that will have long-term impact for our ability to retain and hire high quality faculty," Snow said. "It's a public disgrace and an embarrassment."
Pfeil said she didn't know of a donor threatening to pull a donation from Marquette because of the hire.
About 100 students, some carrying signs, protested the decision in front of Marquette's Alumni Memorial Union, blocking part of Wisconsin Ave. on Thursday afternoon just before an award dinner for Marquette faculty. Some faculty members wore pink and lavender clothing and flowers in protest.
Margaret Steele, a doctoral student in philosophy department, said the decision "was made behind closed doors and very quietly" and seemed to be a "violation of MU values."
Marquette has been searching for an arts and sciences dean since December 2007, when then-dean Michael McKinney retired. Three finalists for the post were brought to campus in 2009, but the search was called off. Pauly said the university wanted to wait for better economic times that would attract a larger field of candidates.
This time, the committee of nine faculty, an alumnus and a staff member chose its two finalists in March.
O'Brien, who has a doctorate from the University of Washington, was hired as an assistant professor at Seattle University, a Jesuit school, in 1995, and was named chair of the department of anthropology and sociology in 2002. She became a full professor of sociology in 2005, according to her resume.
The committee also nominated Howard Brown, former chair of the history department at Binghamton University.
Wild and Pauly met with committee members Wednesday and said Marquette was considering pulling the offer to O'Brien. Committee member Scott Reid, a chemistry professor, said the committee was told that members didn't scrutinize O'Brien's scholarly works.
"We had people who were very familiar with her work," Reid said, and the others read her writings before recommendations were made, Reid said. He said criticism about O'Brien's writings weren't raised earlier.
"To say now that we were not careful enough is ludicrous," Franzoi said. "They should have been prepared to defend their choice."
Pfeil maintained that Wild has a well-deserved reputation of being inclusive of gays and lesbians, and that Marquette has made notable strides in the area of diversity in the past decade.
"We have on our faculty and staff individuals of various faiths, ages, ethnicity and sexual orientation," she said. "These differences help us to promote a culture of learning, appreciation and understanding."