Another faculty letter on the O’Brien case

As always, from McAdams. This one is from Kristy Nielson of the psychology department:

From: Nielson, Kristy
Sent: Sunday, May 09, 2010 10:04 AM
To: [distribution list deleted]
Subject: A message to my Senate colleagues

Dear Senate Colleagues,

I write to you in what I consider to be the darkest hour of my time at Marquette. I came here 14 years ago starting on the same day that Father Wild began his role as President of Marquette. I respect him and I have learned from him; hopefully I have helped him learn too, at least a little about shared governance. However, today, I find that I must speak out against the actions that he has taken regarding the Arts and Sciences dean search. It is a decision that will have very lasting negative effects on the faculty, staff and students of Marquette, as well as for shared governance here. For the Senate, I see no alternative than a vote of censure of Fr. Wild to object to the actions and process that have been undertaken in this matter. I do not suggest this lightly. But in our role as leaders in the university and as representatives for our fellow faculty, we must firmly object to the failure of leadership that allowed the events to unfold in this manner. As we are reminded in all matters of shared governance, Fr. Wild has the final word and responsibility. Thus, we must hold him responsible.

Fr. Wild has been clear in multiple statements that he rescinded the offer to Dr. O’Brien because scholarly writings by her caused him to doubt whether she could effectively represent the College on matters of “Catholic identity.” The two topics repeatedly mentioned about such writings regarded challenges to ideas about marriage and family definitions, and sexuality or sexual behavior discussed in a way that “could be interpreted as autobiographical.” These are issues that are relevant to vetting a candidate in the early stages, but not to withdrawing an offer after it is made. This candidate has been under consideration for the position since the initial onset of the search for this deanship. These works have been available the entire time. The Search Committee asked all of the relevant questions about whether there would be any issues with her candidacy early in the process and noted in their summation that she would have to have the necessary support at the top to be effective if she were chosen.

They did not dodge the sensitivity of her area of scholarship. After this final report and until the rescinding of the offer, it is clear that neither the Search Committee, the Chairs of the College, the Senate or any other faculty body was involved in any way in the process. If there were doubts or issues to resolve, none of the appropriate faculty stakeholders were involved. Obviously, other stakeholders were involved given the late reversal of the decision, but not those of us who clearly identified as having a role.

This debacle will certainly cost Marquette considerably in financial terms, as well as in reputation, research, and in recruiting, retaining and placing students and faculty. Indeed, such effects can already be observed. Colleagues whose scholarship directly involves work with lesbians have experienced cancellations from participants on the grounds that they will no longer involve themselves in any work affiliated with Marquette.

Students have been voicing their sadness that these events reinforce the non-inclusivity of our institution. Graduate students’ external placements are threatened because inclusiveness in training programs is an important factor considered in the competition for such placements.

Junior faculty have already exhibited great alarm about what they can and cannot pursue in scholarship. While Fr. Wild maintains that we have academic freedom to pursue any line of scholarship, he also maintains that our leaders are to be held to a higher standard. This means that anyone who might eventually seek a position of leadership must know early in his or her career that scholarship not fitting with Catholic ideology is quite dangerous. (You might note that Dr. O’Brien wrote most of the “concerning” pieces as an Assistant Professor). That speaks pretty loudly about the reality of academic freedom at Marquette.

Financially, there are many donors who would be encouraged by this decision. Perhaps they are even the largest donors. But there are also many, many alumni and MU-affiliates who are equally discouraged and will decide that Marquette will never receive their donations. The great irony is that those most closely affiliated with the College of Arts and Sciences likely represent the highest proportion of those who will be discouraged, just at the time when we seek to extend better reach to our alumni as donors. In that event, the damage will be felt for a long time to come.

This process also makes a mockery of our diversity statement. We all look to our leaders as models of our society; whether or not they want to be, they are role models. If our leaders must pass litmus tests, so must the rest of us. We cannot achieve a culture that respects diversity of thought and being if we cannot allow it in our leaders.

In this centennial year of co-education at Marquette, we need to be reminded of the courage it took to reject outdated ideas and loud opposition at the time to pursue progress and openness. This is nothing different. As a scholar, Dr. O’Brien has evaluated issues from a perspective that is not traditional and can cause discomfort. But that is the path of progress. When once educating women along with men seemed outrageous, at least most of us cannot fathom that today. It is through the examination and free discussion of such issues that we progress — an approach fitting with Jesuit ideals.

Regardless of your personal opinion on the candidacy of Dr. Jodi O’Brien as the Dean of Arts and Sciences, and regardless of your opinion on her scholarly work or her ability to represent Catholic identity at Marquette, as a Senator, it’s hard for me to believe that any of you would not support a strong vote of censure on Fr. Wild for how this situation was handled. This is where we find out if we do or do not have the courage to fight for shared governance. All of these events are attributable to the manner in which this decision was made — had it been decided early that Dr. O’Brien was not the best person to lead our College for “Catholic identity” reasons, I would have been disappointed and perhaps angry, but not surprised at Marquette. But to handle it in this manner is far more injurious to all parties and is poor leadership. More, given the supposed role of the Senate to “evaluate and endorse” administrative decisions with academic impact, yet the lack of role of any of the faculty bodies in the reversal of the decision, shared governance is in doubt at Marquette. Meetings and listening sessions only after the fact are fitting examples of the perpetuation of secrecy and top-down control of all meaningful aspects of our institution. It is our responsibility to assure that shared governance is a reality, not just a convenient fiction that can be pointed to when it is convenient.


Kristy Nielson
Professor and Chair, Psychology
Former Chair, University Academic Senate


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