In memorium

Today is Harvey Milk Day.

Day Four: MUProtestMay6 still anonymous

Four days ago, a circle of Marquette students and grad students announced their intention to seek legal and academic sanctions against the university for percieved discrimination against Jodi O’Brien. Despite this public announcement of a public endeavor that will touch the lives of everyone connected to Marquette, the students have not made their names public, or answered basic questions about their case (e.g., is Jodi O’Brien involved in this in any capacity?). If they cannot discuss the case for legal reasons (unlikely, because one has been interviewed by the Shepherd Express), they also have not explained this.

This is unacceptable. You made a public statement about a public action that will affect the lives of everyone connected to Marquette, yet you refuse to take on the responsibilities of a public figure–responsibilities transparency, accountability, and a willingness to engage in meaningful questions about your work. I am asking you nothing more than to accept your actions as your own.

This is getting redundant.

Name yourselves now.

Things I failed to do before graduating college

-Read Don Quixote

-Study Aristotle at any length

-Get drunk

-Quit blogging

-Achieve a sufficiently adequate understanding of the theory of relativity, so that I would be able to to accurately explain it to someone else

-Lean to socialized with my peers outside structured events, like student groups or classes

-Write a novel

-Achieve a sufficiently adequate understanding of McTaggert’s A series and B series of time, so that I would be able to able to accurately explain them to someone else

-Get arrested for a worthwhile cause

-Read anything of Mark Twain’s

-Complete a second major in a humanities subject (I’ve only an English minor to show for)

-Lose the weight I gained in college

Day Three: MUProtestMay6 still anonymous

Three days ago, a circle of Marquette students and grad students announced their intention to seek legal and academic sanctions against the university for percieved discrimination against Jodi O’Brien. Despite this public announcement of a public endeavor that will touch the lives of everyone connected to Marquette, the students have not made their names public, or answered basic questions about their case (e.g., is Jodi O’Brien involved in this in any capacity?). If they cannot discuss the case for legal reasons (unlikely, because one has been interviewed by the Shepherd Express), they also have not explained this.

I understand that the litigants are seeking to rectify an injustice. But justice without accountability, transparency, and the possibility for public redress is not justice. It is vigilantism.

If you believe yourselves to be in the right, if you think discrimination is something to be stood against with pride, stop hiding in the shadows like one ashamed. MUProtestMay6 organizers, name yourselves now.

Donations of blankets, books and stuffed animals sought for homeless children

Via the Newsbriefs:

Committee on Staff is collecting donations of blankets, books and stuffed animals for homeless children in shelters. Project Night Night packages are given to children, newborns to pre-teens, to help feel secure, ready-to-learn and significant. Each “Night Night” package contains a new security blanket, an age-appropriate children’s book and a stuffed animal in a new canvas tote bag. Monetary donations are also accepted. The project is supported by Simmons Religious Funds. For more information contact Kathy Hawkins, administrative assistant in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences, at 8-6838.

Scientists create first synthetic cell

(above) The first manmade cell. Via the Natl'l Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research University of California, San Diego.

Via the WSJ:

Heralding a new era in biology, scientists for the first time have created a synthetic cell, completely controlled by man-made genetic instructions, which can survive and reproduce itself, researchers at the private J. Craig Venter Institute announced Thursday.

“We call it the first synthetic cell,” said genomics pioneer Craig Venter, who oversaw the project. “These are very much real cells.”

Created at a cost of $30 million, this experimental one-cell organism opens the way to the manipulation of life on a previously unattainable scale, several researchers and ethics experts said. Scientists have been altering DNA piecemeal for a generation, producing a menagerie of genetically engineered plants and animals, but the ability to craft an entire organism offers a new power over life, they said. The accomplishment, documented in the peer-reviewed journal Science, may stir anew nagging questions of ethics, law and public safety about artificial life that biomedical experts have been publicly debating for more than a decade.

“This is literally a turning point in the relationship between man and nature,” said molecular biologist Richard Ebright at Rutgers University, who wasn’t involved in the project. “For the first time, someone has generated an entire artificial cell with pre-determined properties.”

David Magnus, director of the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics, said, “It has the potential to transform genetic engineering. The research is going to explode once you can create designer genomes.”

Leery of previous moral and ethical questions about whether it is right to manipulate life forms—raised with the advent of cloning, stem-cell technology and genetic engineering—other researchers groped for neutral terms to describe the experimental cell. “I don’t think it represents the creation of an artificial life form,” said biomedical engineer James Collins at Boston University. “I view this as an organism with a synthetic genome, not as a synthetic organism. It is tough to draw where the line is.”

Although the new cell, a form of bacteria, was conceived solely as a demonstration project, several biologists were certain that the laboratory technique used to birth it would soon be applied to other strains of bacteria with commercial potential. “I think this quickly will be applied to all the most important industrial bacteria,” said biologist Christopher Voigt at the University of California, San Francisco, who is developing microbes that help make gasoline.

Already several companies are seeking to take advantage of the new field, called synthetic biology, which combines chemistry, computer science, molecular biology, genetics and cell biology to breed industrial life forms that can secrete fuels, vaccines or other saleable products. Indeed, Synthetic Genomics Inc., a company founded by Dr. Venter, funded the experiments and owns the intellectual property rights to the cell-creation techniques. The company has a $600 million contract with Exxon Mobil Corp. to design algae that can capture carbon dioxide and make fuel. Although patents on single genes now face legal challenges, Dr. Venter said he intended to patent his experimental cells. “They are pretty clearly human inventions,” he said.

The announcement Thursday was the culmination of a project Dr. Venter and his colleagues have pursued since 1995. In a series of peer-reviewed papers, the group has openly published the interim technical steps. So far, that research has withstood scrutiny. The latest research was reviewed by a panel of independent scientists and the research materials are made public as a condition of publication in the journal.

To make the synthetic cell, a team of 25 researchers at labs in Rockville, Md., and San Diego, Calif., led by bioengineer Daniel Gibson and Dr. Venter essentially turned computer code into a new life form. They started with a species of bacteria called Mycoplasma capricolum and, by replacing its genome with one they wrote themselves, turned it into a customized variant of a second species called Mycoplasma mycoides, they reported. To begin, they wrote out the creature’s entire genetic code as a digital computer file documenting more than one million base pairs of DNA in a biochemical alphabet of adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. They edited that file, adding new code, and then sent that electronic data to a DNA sequencing company called Blue Heron Bio in Bothell, Wash., where it was transformed into hundreds of small pieces of chemical DNA, they reported. To assemble the strips of DNA, the researchers said they took advantage of the natural capacities of several types of existing cells to meld genes and chromosomes: They used yeast and e. coli bacteria to stitch those short sequences into ever-longer fragments until they had assembled the complete genome, as the entire set of an organism’s genetic instructions is called. They transplanted that master set of genes into an emptied cell, where it converted the cell into a different species.

“We make a genome from four bottles of chemicals; we put that synthetic genome into a cell; that synthetic genome takes over the cell,” said Dr. Gibson. “The cell is entirely controlled by that new genome.”

The cells reveal nothing of their novelty to the naked eye. They are so primitive they even lack a cell membrane. The scientists didn’t give the new organism its own species name, but they did give its synthetic genome an official version number, like the prototype of a computer software operating system. The genome is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0.

To set this novel bacterium—and all its descendants—apart from any natural creation, Dr. Venter and his colleagues wrote their names into the creature’s chemical DNA code, along with three apt quotations. “They put some poetry into the genome,” said Dr. Voigt. The scientists also encoded an email address and the name of a website, so that anyone who successfully deciphered the quotations hidden in the genome could notify the scientists.

Day Two: Why haven’t the May 6 litigants given their names?

Yesterday, some organizers of the May 6 protesters against Wild announced they were seeking legal and academic sanctions against the university. However, they only did so anonymously. Only one of them, Emma Cotter, has had her name printed in a public forum, an online edition of the Shephred Express:

[Lisa Keiser] spoke with Emma Cotter, who said that if any academic organizations censured Marquette it would be “really damaging.”

“If any of the academic associations agree to censure it would be a huge black mark on the university,” Cotter said. “It would limit our ability to post jobs, to host a lot of speakers. It would be really damaging. We would really like to not go through with this. But at the same time if Fr. Wild doesn’t take ownership and responsibility for his decision then we are left with Marquette taking the brunt of it. So this is an attempt to pressure Fr. Wild to take responsibility to help Marquette’s name.”

But the other organizers still remain silent and nameless. This strikes me as inescapably illiberal. If people are engaging in a widely publicized activity that could have catastrophic consequences on the reputation of the university we have so much invested in, it is the bare minimum decent thing that they make themselves open to redress, criticism, and questioning. Moreover, public naming is in their own interest. Commenter April Schniften explains:

The “May 6th” group has no institutional affiliation with Marquette University, and it is not a recognized student organization within the university. As such, any legal or academic claim to represent Marquette to outside organizations is nil. It is akin to 15 undergrads whose disappointment with the performance of the basketball team leads them to write a formal letter of complaint to the NCAA.

As such, any basis for their complaint comes from their status as individual students enrolled at Marquette. These outside organizations can only consider their complaints on this ground. In this regard, it is interesting that the one student willing to go on record with her name in the Express story is a senior, who will — one would guess — be graduating soon. Is this because she figures she is beyond disciplinary action for these activities?

Given that their effort is an attempt to do real damage to the interior academic and intellectual life of the university (again, please refer to the article to see the *intentions* of this group), they have an obligation to make their names known to their fellow students …whose lives will be affected by this effort.

Of course, all of this presumes that this is serious, which it is not. When is the last time a dozen or so unnamed undergraduate and graduate students had their university censured by the AAUP, APA, or APSA? If this could occur, every university in the US would be operating under some cloud of censure. One can always find a dozen people at a college with a problem of one kind or another with their administration.

MUProtestMay6, you have protested Wild’s decision, in part, for its lack of transparency. Now, you yourselves have errected an even more opaque wall around yourselves. At least with Wild, people knew whose phone to call, what address to write to. But you present yourselves as a shadowy cabal refusing to openly face the students and faculty whose lives and livlihoods you are, by your own admission, trying to affect for the worse.

Name yourselves now.

Some opinion pieces on the O’Brien controversy

Joel McNaly, writing in the Shepherd Express, mulls over the O’Brien controversy:

At issue was Marquette President Father Robert Wild rescinding a job offer to Seattle University professor Jodi O’Brien, who was actively recruited by Marquette—not once, but twice—to become dean of its College of Arts and Sciences.

There have been a lot of hollow rationalizations offered publicly to try to explain away Marquette’s 180-degree reversal, but the real reason for denying the job to O’Brien two weeks after she signed and returned a contract is obvious. It’s also against the law in the state of Wisconsin. O’Brien is the gay chairwoman of the anthropology and sociology department at Seattle University, which like Marquette is a Jesuit university. Her academic research has included studying ways in which discrimination affects lesbians and gay men. The public explanation for refusing to employ O’Brien clearly is not true. It’s that somehow her academic research into gay discrimination conflicts with Marquette’s Catholic mission.

If that were true, O’Brien would not have been employed at another Catholic university for the past 15 years.  If that were true, two different Marquette search committees made up of MU theologians, administrators and faculty would not have actively recruited O’Brien.

Were there actually theologians on the search committee? That seems easy to believe, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a definitive list of names of members of the committee. Is that public information?

In 2008, O’Brien was a finalist of the first search committee, but she declined a job offer at that time. When the first search failed to attract any of its top candidates, recruitment was reopened. When the second search committee began its work, Marquette leaders, including a representative of Wild’s administration, traveled to Seattle to encourage O’Brien to apply again.

It’s sad Wild looks so bad going into the final year before his retirement. By all accounts, Wild has made great strides not only in building a first-class physical campus in downtown Milwaukee, but in opening up the university intellectually to more diverse students, faculty and academic pursuits.

Under previous presidents, student newspaper editors would get replaced for daring to print opinions on contraception or abortion and the administration would come up with outrageous proposals to wall off the university from the community by closing down Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee’s main street. Wild’s leadership has been much more progressive than that. And it’s simply inconceivable Wild doesn’t know that, for nearly three decades now, it has been illegal in Wisconsin for employers to refuse to hire someone based on the applicant’s sexual orientation. Since Wild has hired gay faculty and administrators in the past and allowed gay student organizations to meet on campus, what has suddenly changed at Milwaukee’s Jesuit university?

Well, here’s one big change: The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has taken an even sharper turn to the far right.  The last archbishop, Timothy Dolan, was far more conservative than the man he succeeded. Dolan’s predecessor, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, was an international advocate for increasing the activism of the Catholic Church on issues of poverty and inequality.

Does McNaly really want to be cheerleading for Weakland? The man was was a degenerate. He paid nearly half a million dollars in church finds for hush money to a former lover. He shredded weekly briefings on child abuse within his diocese rather than hand them over to police, presumably including those pertaining to Lawrence Murphy, the rapist of upwards of 200 deaf children entrusted under his care.

But Dolan also was a smiling, jolly fellow who avoided political controversy. After Dolan moved on to slap backs in New York City, he was succeeded by Archbishop Jerome Listecki. No more Most Reverend Nice Guy. Listecki appears eager to jump into every public political debate, staking out the most extreme right-wing position. He is one of those church leaders with the hubris to presume to decide on behalf of God which Roman Catholic politicians have voted sufficiently in lockstep with the church’s lobbyists to be allowed to partake of communion.  Although the archbishop has no real authority over Catholic universities, Listecki is not shy about overstepping his bounds to try to impose his right-wing ideology on academia.

Listecki was one of the national Catholic leaders who embarrassed the church by opposing the University of Notre Dame’s invitation to the first African-American president of the United States to speak at commencement a year ago. Listecki objected because President Barack Obama did not agree with the church’s opposition to a woman’s right to choose whether to have a child. Notre Dame chose to ignore conservative extremists. Sadly, Marquette did not when Listecki and his judicial vicar, Father Paul Hartmann, who teaches at the Marquette law school, raised objections to the hiring of O’Brien.

The good news is, even though Wild caved in to the Archdiocese, students have received sufficient moral education at Marquette to recognize illegal discrimination when they see it. Hundreds of them took time out during finals week to demonstrate over something other than the cost of tuition.

I take issues with the use of the word “hundreds.” There were maybe 120 people at the largest demonstration, the Academic Senate sit-in; the word “hundreds” suggests plural hundreds, viz. than 200, a which none of the three on-the-ground protests have broken, or come close to breaking. Moreover, there was a huge degree of overlap between attendees of the Senate sit-in and initial May 6 demonstration. Though thousands have students have protested Wild’s decision on Facebook, it’s only been the same hundred or so people actually taking to the street.

Jesuit and theologian Bryan Massingale has become the latest  current and past faculty member to have an opinion piece in the Journal Sentinel. Massingale’s research interests are theological ethics and African-American theology. He’s also shown a conspicuous interest in LGBT issues, though he’s always taken care so as not to explicitly cross Catholic orthodoxy. He’s taught an honors seminar on homosexuality and Christian ethics, spoke on a GSA-sponsored panel on the film “For The Bible Tells Me So,” and written an essay against amending Wisconsin’s constitution to preclude same-sex civil unions (though his primary arguments centered on the harm it would inflict on straight couples, and its redundancy, as gay marriage was already illegal in the state). All of this suggests Massingale wishes to argue for individual LGBT causes, but in such a way that he does not actually endorse them and violate the letter of Catholic doctrine. In a word, it suggests he is an esoteric, in the sense that Leo Strauss used the word.

The possible trend continues this editorial, wherein Massingale again makes a very, very cautious endorsement of LGBT causes by claiming the rescinding appears to be a moment when “Catholicism is not at its best.”  He claims discussion of the O’Brien decision has been obscured by the “red herring” of Listecki’s involvement, which he claims we are not in a position to make definative statements on; and “false dichotomies” between “faith commitment” and “intellectual integrity” :

First, the red herring: that Milwaukee Catholic Archbishop Jerome Listecki acted improperly in voicing concerns to Marquette President Father Robert A. Wild over a leadership hire. As the leader of the local Catholic church, the archbishop is a significant stakeholder in any institution that has the title “Catholic.”

We should remember that this is not the first time a Milwaukee archbishop contacted the administrators of Catholic colleges or health care institutions. The issue, then, is not whether the archbishop was out of line to express his views to Marquette’s leaders. Rather, the question is whether such an intervention compromised the integrity of the university’s decision-making processes. I cannot answer that question definitively, but from what I know of Father Wild, I have to believe that is unlikely.

Now to the false dichotomies. A lot of the discussion assumes that Marquette has to make a decision between irreconcilable choices. Either “faith commitment” or “intellectual integrity.” Either “Catholic identity” or “academic freedom.” Either “Catholic institution” or “research university.” Either “doctrinal fidelity” or “liberal secularism.” What each of these choices assumes is that there is something fundamentally incompatible with being both a research institution committed to the free pursuit of knowledge while also being a university inspired by a faith heritage rooted in the Jesuit tradition.

Such thinking, I contend, misunderstands the genius and spirit of Catholicism. One of the hallmarks of the Catholic faith is its insistence upon the fundamental harmony between discoveries based upon the reasoned pursuit of truth and those illumined by the act of faith. To have to choose between “faith” and “reason” is inherently un-Catholic.

Thus, academic freedom in the pursuit of knowledge is consistent with and even demanded by Catholic faith. Catholicism, at its best, is not afraid of the marketplace of ideas and the arena of open discussion. This is why the modern university is a direct descendant of the medieval ones founded by Catholic scholars. Furthermore, if truths affirmed by Catholicism cannot withstand free debate and dispute, then they should be purified, nuanced or even changed.

This is not a “radical” idea, nor is it a dangerous capitulation to secular relativism. The church’s appreciation for human rights and democratic forms of government; its views on the sinfulness of slavery; its growing appreciation of the equal dignity of women – all of these were formed in dialogue with and in response to currents of ideas both within and beyond the church itself. That the church has much both to learn from, and contribute to, the modern world was affirmed and settled in 1965 with Vatican II’s declaration, “The Church in the Modern World.”

But notice that I said this marks Catholicism at its best. At times there will be tensions – even strains – between faith commitment and intellectual integrity. It is not always immediately obvious how new discoveries and ways of thinking can be affirmed by the faith community. (Remember that even Thomas Aquinas’ thought was held suspect for decades before being vindicated).

But such tensions cannot be resolved through suppressing or disparaging ongoing discovery. For the only institutions without tensions are dead ones. Tension is essential for the vitality of any dynamic organism.

This means that we cannot, and should not, expect Catholic universities and their faculty members to offer uncritical allegiance to every faith dictum proposed by church leaders. As long as religious faith is embraced by fallible human beings, there will be limitations and even errors in every expression of faith. And the correction of such inadequacies, Catholics believe, is evidence of God’s spirit at work. In the words of Thomas Aquinas, “Every truth, without exception, and whoever may utter it, is from the Holy Spirit.”

What Marquette and other Catholic universities can expect, and even demand, in the pursuit of knowledge is that the Catholic faith be respected, that its convictions be taken seriously and that disagreements with those convictions be expressed seriously, rigorously and responsibly – in other words, the same qualities that should mark any intellectual dispute in an academic environment. I do not know what pushed Marquette’s administrators to decide that O’Brien’s work disqualified her from leadership at a Catholic university. I do know that without a fuller explanation, many will continue to feel that this was a moment when Catholicism was not at its best. And red herrings and false dichotomies will continue to fester.

Aquinas is probably the best person to be quoting to defend academic freedom. He might have said “Every truth is from the Holy Spirit.” But he also said

With regard to heretics there are two points to be observed, one on their side, the other on the side of the Church. As for heretics their sin deserves banishment, not only from the Church by excommunication, but also from this world by death. To corrupt the faith, whereby the soul lives, is much graver than to counterfeit money, which supports temporal life. Since forgers and other malefactors are summarily condemned to death by the civil authorities, with much more reason may heretics as soon as they are convicted of heresy be not only excommunicated, but also justly be put to death.

But on the side of the Church is mercy which seeks the conversion of the wanderer, and She condemns him not at once, but after the first and second admonition, as the Apostle directs. Afterwards, however, if he is still stubborn, the Church takes care of the salvation of others by separating him from the Church through excommunication, and delivers him to the secular court to be removed from this world by death. (ST II:II 11:3)

Dan Maguire, in a new letter-to-the-editor,  echoes Massingale in arguing Wild’s actions goes against the supposedly robust tradition of free inquiry within Roman Catholicism:

In places such as Paris, Catholics in the 13th century pioneered the idea of a modern university where, as Cardinal Newman said, many minds could “compete freely together.” Its statutes approved by Pope Innocent III declared the university independent from “bishops, king, and parliament.” Archbishop Listecki needs instruction on the nature of a university. He has enough to do with the current church problems without meddling in university decisions that are beyond his competency or responsibility.

Again, I think this framing freedom of thought as an essentially Catholic virtue is a torturous arguement. As I’ve contended before, Catholicism, as a paradigm of academic inquiry, has built-in features discouraging its own questioning.

Sure, Medieval Catholic monks might have invented the first proto-universities. But just because the Wright brothers invented the 1900 Glider doesn’t mean they could take credit for the Space Shuttle, if they were alive to see it. The early monastic universities were inherently limiting to academic freedom, established to support a very specific array of presuppositions rather than engage in a disinterested, dialogical, and spirited interrogation of reality. The value of inquiry uninhibited by church or state interests was a notion that only gained widespread appeal after the Enlightenment–a movement whose legacy was and is opposed by no institution as vehemently as the Catholic church.

Anyway. On the same page as Maguire’s new letter, one Bill Lange, an alumnus, fingers the true villain in all this: NAFTA.

Republican influence

Don’t be fooled. The Marquette University flap over hiring a dean for the College of Arts and Sciences is not about Roman Catholic theology or philosophy, as claimed by the Most Rev. Paul Hartman, the archdiocesan judicial vicar (Page 1A, May 12). The complaints from the Archdiocese are an attempt to identify Roman Catholics with right-wing Republican Party politics and money.

It’s embarrassing to me as an MU graduate that the Notre Dame administration was able to resist pressure from the hierarchy during the controversy over President Barack Obama’s invitation to speak at the university. Marquette and Father Robert Wild caved in.

If the bishops were really concerned about Roman Catholic theology and philosophy, they would insist that Roman Catholic universities present undergraduate and graduate courses on Pope John Paul’s encyclical “Laborem Exercens.”

John Paul’s encyclical, based on Roman Catholic theology and philosophy cited in previous encyclicals, states that labor unions are indispensible and that labor is prior to capital. Wouldn’t you think that a concerned Archbishop Jerome Listecki would demand that the College of Business Administration at MU have a video for students showing John Paul II in Cuba denouncing “neo-liberalism,” the economic policy that spawned such things as the North American Free Trade Agreement?

There’s more to this than poor personnel administration or bad press; it’s about Roman Catholic identity in a free society.

Bill Lange

Other than the fact that Listecki isn’t pressuring MU to teach ideologically slanted classes on “neo-liberalism,” he provides no evidence suggesting Republican influence on the archbishop or the university itself. The GOP and Roman church both oppose acceptance of homosexuality, but that’s a coincidence (Paul of Tarsus wrote some letters that would eventually find defense in a Scholastic artifice of “natural law” presupposed by modern Catholic moral teaching, and the GOP would experience a mass influx of evangelical Protestants in the 1980′s).

Moreover, Lange’s criticism that MU’s culture is not adequately opposed to “neo-liberalism” is baseless. The Peacemaking Center and student groups like JUSTICE annually host an array of anti-globalization, protectionist, pro-labor speakers at their annual “teach in,” and maintain a robust relationship with the anarcho-syndicalists at the local Catholic Worker house.

Now, I wouldn’t say I have an abiding viewpoint or label on questions of political economy. Rather, I would say my thought runs as an ever-evolving dialectic between classical liberalism and social liberalism. I think the state needs to safeguard against starvation and homelessness, but also needs to encourage work and high employment. Business owners ought to have robust rights, and am reflexively skeptical of regulation; but, as the recent coal-mining and offshore drilling disasters–to say nothing of the gory excesses of the Gilded Age–illustrate that regulation is sometimes the least of many evils. I believe unions have a place in society, but often need checks and balances on their power, like any other institution does. I’m for free trade between nations, and accepting of the realities of globalization. I feel a certain affinity for The Economist. And, as a non-right wing defender of capitalism, I’ve felt my views have absolutely no representation in the political awareness/action groups at Marquette. There is a consensus in Marquette’s left-of-center politically active community, and it is strongly against “neo-liberalism.” This opposition is usually framed within the context of Catholic social teaching. JUSTICE is an acronym, with the “J” standing for “Jesuit.”

BREAKING: May 6 movement seeks legal sanction against MU

Via their website:

Today, the May 6th Movement informed Marquette University President, Rev. Robert Wild, S.J. that they have contacted various legal and academic organizations calling for academic censure and legal action against Marquette for rescinding an offer of Deanship to Dr. Jodi O’Brien, a sociologist and the Louis B. Gaffney Endowed Chair at Seattle University, a Jesuit, Catholic school.

The May 6th Movement is a coalition of undergraduate and graduate students at Marquette, named for a student and faculty movement begun on May 6th, the day it was announced that Marquette would not fulfill its contract with Dr. O’Brien.

Dr. O’Brien was offered the position of Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences after a two-year search, which included two separate applications from Dr. O’Brien, one explicitly solicited by Marquette. O’Brien accepted the offer, but before the appointment was officially announced, O’Brien was informed that Fr. Wild and Provost John Pauly would not execute the contract. The University has cited O’Brien’s academic publications on lesbian sexuality, gay partnership and the nature of the family as evidence that she would not fit in with the Catholic mission and identity of Marquette.

The decision to rescind the offer of Deanship to O’Brien was made on the basis of the content of her academic writings, which is a clear violation of Marquette’s commitment to academic freedom. In addition, the inclusion of her sexuality in the hiring decision is a violation of Marquette’s commitment to diversity and human dignity, as well as a violation of Wisconsin and Federal Law. Although Marquette is a private institution, the University receives federal funding for scholarships and grants, and therefore is bound by federal statutes of non-discrimination.

In a student forum on May 11, Fr. Wild announced that there was no outside influence on the decision to rescind the offer to O’Brien. On May 12, a letter from Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki was made public, in which Listecki expressed concern about the offer to O’Brien, between the time the contract was offered and when it was rescinded. In the wake of this news, the May 6th Movement requested a meeting with Fr. Wild multiple times, and he refused to meet with students in a timely manner. This refusal prompted the May 6th Movement to contact these academic and legal organizations, in order to illustrate how this decision has affected and will continue to affect Marquette’s standing in the community of higher learning.

The organizations contacted by the May 6th Movement include the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the American Civil Liberties Union, Campus Progress, Lambda Legal, the American Association of University Women, the American Association of University Professors, the American Philosophical Association, the American Political Science Association, the American Sociological Association, the American Anthropological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association.

Students released the following excerpt from correspondence with Fr. Wild today:

Dear Father Wild,

You taught us to listen to reason, to be open to discourse and to show concern for all on whom our actions will have impact. You taught us to respect the dignity and the inherent, unassailable value of every single human person. You taught us to love learning and to value the free and open expression of ideas. You taught us to be responsible and loving men and women for others. You taught us to follow our hearts and our consciences. You taught us to be the difference. You taught us well, and we will live these lessons, even when you fail to do so. We are who you taught us to be. We are Marquette.


Concerned Students

Wow. For weeks I’ve been hearing vague, unsettling chatter about “escalation,” but nobody mentioned any lawyers. Wow.

This is a hell of a big thing to process. Right now, I have three questions, listed not in descending importance, but in the order they occurred to me:

First Question: How are students going to pay legal fees?

Second Question: Is MUProtestMay 6 in any way in contact with Jodi O’Brien herself? Has she herself expressed an interest in filing suit against MU? None of her post-rescinding interviews have indicated such an intention. Has she just never publically discussed the possibility? Or are the students acting alone?

Third Question: The letter and blog post–and for that matter, the MUProtestMay6 Twitter account–have no names attached to them. Which individual students, of the 3,414 who have expressed opposition to the rescinding, are the ones actually pursuing the suit ? (Can it even rightly be described as a lawsuit?) I have some guesses, but that’s not the point. I think in the interest of transparency, accountability, and openness, the students behind the legal action ought to name themselves. Like, immediately.

(Open identification might also curb the movement’s populist streak. If we know who they are, they will have to acknowledge they are merely someone and not everyone on their side of this issue, and acknowledge they speak for themselves and no one else.)

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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