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Sociologist Jodi O’Brien recently found herself the center of controversy when, on May 6, 2010, Marquette University rescinded an offer to O’Brien to serve as dean of its College of Arts and Science, fueling accusations that the university did so after learning she was a lesbian who wrote about sexuality. O’Brien is an openly gay feminist who studies gender, sexuality, and religion, among other subjects.
O’Brien, currently the chair of the Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work at Seattle University, a Roman Catholic university, accepted the offer made by Marquette, another Roman Catholic university run by Jesuits in Milwaukee. Then the offer was abruptly withdrawn.
In rescinding the offer, a Marquette spokeswoman said administrators were concerned about how some of O’Brien’s writings related "to Catholic mission and identity." The university claimed the professor lacked "the ability to represent the Marquette mission and identity."
The American Sociological Association responded with a letter from ASA President Evelyn Nakano Glenn critiquing the university’s actions. The letter is reprinted below.
Dear President Wild and Provost Pauly:
As President of the American Sociological Association (ASA), I am profoundly concerned about your decision to rescind your offer to sociologist Dr. Jodi O’Brien to become Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette University.
The ASA is the national scholarly society for American sociologists with a national and international membership of over 14,000 most of whom are employed in the academy. The ASA has a long-standing record of rejecting any policies or actions in the academy that disqualify candidates who are pursuing scholarly inquiry that is recognized as legitimate within their disciplines. The Code of Ethics of the American Sociological Association and the explicit policies of our Association also reject any exclusion on the basis age; gender; race; ethnicity; national origin; religion; sexual orientation; disability; health conditions; marital, domestic, or parental status. We regard these standards to reflect the fundamental principles of academic freedom and the core mission of higher education in both scholarship and teaching.
We condemn the action of Marquette University’s senior officials in rescinding its offer to Dr. O’Brien. By doing so, Marquette University appears to have violated its own non-discrimination policy as well as the principles of free inquiry that govern all great universities.
As a scientific discipline, sociology seeks to develop theoretical and empirical understanding of complex social structures and social processes through research and scholarship. This often means that sociologists’ legitimate lines of inquiry take them into areas that can be fraught with cultural and social conflict. The scholarship of sociology, however, cannot abandon these areas; indeed, in its search to contribute to learning and social well-being, sociology explicitly promotes the vitality and diversity of research within our discipline. The ASA has 50 special interest sections as part of our organizational structure that reflect this diversity. From sections on Peace, War, and Social Conflict and the Sociology of Education, to a section-in-formation on Altruism and Social Solidarity and the Section on the Sociology of Religion, to the long-standing Section on Sex and Gender and the Section on Sexualities, these intellectual communities reflect areas of active sociological scholarship. As the publisher of nine major scholarly journals in sociology, the ASA includes high-quality, peer-reviewed research in all these areas of scientific inquiry.
As a major institution of higher education, Marquette University should acknowledge the professional and personal harm it has done to Dr. O’Brien by rescinding its offer to her. Similarly, the university should recognize that, by its action, Marquette has broken the principles of academic freedom and professional collegiality and damaged the university’s own stature as an institution of higher education.
As President of the American Sociological Association, I request that Marquette University affirm its dedication to non-discrimination and principles of academic freedom by extending an invitation to Dr. Jodi O’Brien to be Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences that includes a statement that the University desires her leadership. We are hopeful that Marquette may still have the privilege of having this outstanding sociologist within its community of scholars and leaders.
Evelyn Nakano Glenn, PhD
President, American Sociological Association
Director, Center for Race and Gender,
and Professor, Gender and Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies
University of California, Berkeley