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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Young Know Better

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An inventive singer-songwriter named Peter Case wrote a great line: “We were too young not to know better.”

That came to mind recently as many of the supposedly responsible grown-ups at Marquette University were making fools of themselves while their students demonstrated against discrimination and hypocrisy.

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.

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?

Listecki’s Wrong Turn

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.

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. Marquette faculty members supported them by voting to condemn the university action.

Instilling such moral values is the real Catholic mission.

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