Marquette controversy reveals conflict between status and Catholic identity, writer says

Anne Hendershott
Anne Hendershott


The controversy over Marquette University’s offer and subsequent withdrawal of a deanship to a homosexual university professor helps show the present conflict in Catholic academia between status and Catholic identity, one writer on Catholic higher education says.

In a Friday essay in the Wall Street Journal, Anne Hendershott, a professor at The King’s College in New York, discussed the case of Jodi O’Brien, the Seattle University professor who was initially offered the deanship of Marquette’s College of Arts and Sciences.

According to Hendershott, the deanship was withdrawn not because O’Brien is homosexual but because she showed a “minimal” publication record.

Hendershott, author of the book “Status Envy” on the politics of Catholic higher education, said that although O’Brien’s supporters maintain that she is “the victim of homophobia,” critics of the job offer cited not her sexual orientation but rather her writings which disparage Catholic teachings on marriage, sexuality and the family.

While each of the other two final candidates had received funding for many major research grants or had published an award-winning history book, O’Brien published articles such as “How Big is your God? Queer Christian Social Movements” and a piece on “gender switching” which described online homoerotic behavior.

After Marquette withdrew the offer to O’Brien, the university said the offer was made “prematurely” and the appointment process “should have had more careful scrutiny.” However, the school reached a settlement with O’Brien.

In reaction to the university’s decision to withdraw the offer, About 100 Marquette faculty members out of a total of more than 1,100 took out a full-page ad in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel demanding that O’Brien be appointed dean.

According to Hendershott, the publication Inside Higher Ed published an article asking whether homosexuals face “a stained glass ceiling” at Catholic colleges. The essay quoted homosexual Seton Hall University political science professor W. King Mott, who claimed “There is no way the current hierarchy will allow a gay person to hold a position of authority… unless they are closeted and self-loathing.”

Hendershott pointed out that Prof. Mott is “hardly a marginalized man,” being a tenured full-professor and former chair of Seton Hall’s faculty senate. Prof. Mott also serves on the search committee for Seton Hall’s next president.

“There are openly gay men and women in leadership positions at a number of Catholic universities and colleges,” she reported.

She also said that Marquette has “a long history of respect for academic freedom.” As evidence, she noted that tenured philosophy professor Daniel Maguire has defended abortion as “a sacred choice” and has suggested that sometimes “ending incipient life is the best that life offers.”

For Hendershott, the O’Brien case showed the “upside-down world” of Catholic academia. She remarked that some observers see faculty members with views dissenting from Catholic doctrine as “a kind of fashion statement.”

“There is more status in hiring a sexuality scholar who denigrates Catholic teachings on sexuality and marriage than in choosing a serious scholar who might actually support Catholic teachings,” she charged.

She quoted Marquette University professor John McAdams, who claimed O’Brien’s appointment was “pushed by some faculty and administrators as adding the right kind of diversity to the school.”

Meanwhile, Marquette emeritus professor Christopher Wolfe has lamented that the school has moved “quietly but consistently away from its distinctively Catholic roots.”

Hendershott closed her Wall Street Journal essay by saying that unless Marquette addresses the question of whether candidates for senior leadership need to respect the identity of Catholic higher education, hiring decisions like O’Brien’s will continue to be contested.

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