Wild admits mistake with Arts & Sciences dean offer

Jodi O’Brien

University President the Rev. Robert A. Wild says the offer made to Jodi O’Brien to become the next dean of the College of Arts & Sciences was made prematurely without “as much due diligence as was called for.”

“We deeply regret our mistakes, and we now have to go back to the drawing board,” Wild told a crowd of faculty at the annual Pere Marquette Dinner held in the Alumni Memorial Union Thursday night.

O’Brien, a sociology professor at Seattle University, was offered the dean position this spring, but upon further scrutiny of her record, concerns arose related to O’Brien’s scholarly writings on gays and Christianity. O’Brien, who is openly lesbian, was told of the university’s latest decision last week.

In an e-mail to the Tribune, O’Brien said she would prefer not to comment at this time considering the sensitivity of the situation. But she did say she is “disappointed and was very much looking forward to working with the faculty and students of the college.”

Wild said he wrestled with the decision, which didn’t come easily and “only emerged after much discussion and reflection.”

Since the College of Arts & Sciences offers many classes as part of the university’s core curriculum, the dean of that college has a “particular responsibility” for those academic disciplines that are focused “on the basic human issues that are at the heart, intellectually speaking, of Marquette’s mission as a Jesuit, Catholic university,” Wild said.

“We promise our students, their families and our alumni that we will not only talk the talk about our mission, but we will also walk the walk, actually delivering on what we promised,” he said.

Wild said the decision is not about academic freedom or sexual identity. He even said he himself has questioned the Catholic Church’s teaching about homosexuality, based on what he called a “mistaken premise” that sexual orientation may be a choice. If the decision was about O’Brien’s sexual identity, Wild said the university’s actions would not only be illegal, but also against the Catholic faith.

The search for a new dean has been ongoing since the retirement of Michael McKinney in December 2007. Two separate searches have been conducted since then. The first search was suspended in March 2009 to look for a broader group of candidates, Provost John Pauly said at the time.

Three finalists were considered in the most recent search — of which two were described by the search committee as “highly acceptable,” Pauly said in an interview with the Tribune Thursday night.

He said the best candidate was O’Brien, who had glowing evaluations and strong recommendations. He made her the job offer about three weeks ago, but in that time, further consideration had been given to O’Brien’s scholarly works. It was decided that “someone leading Arts & Sciences needed in their public record a stronger commitment to (Marquette’s) Catholic identity,” Pauly said.

O’Brien has authored papers on the relationship between religion and sexuality, namely the identity of gays within Christianity.

Neither Wild nor Pauly would say whether donors or alumni had an influence on the decision, but both did say O’Brien’s written work was available for critique.

“One of the new wrinkles about (dean) searches in the digital age is that everything is public,” Pauly said.

O’Brien’s curriculum vitae and cover letter to the search committee were posted on the university’s Web site, and a video of her open forum at Marquette from February was archived online.

As an administrator, Pauly said he has been a part of five searches for Arts & Sciences deans, including three at St. Louis University. He said O’Brien was in the “top handful” of candidates of all the searches.

Pauly said he and Wild had “long and detailed discussions” about O’Brien, but that the final decision rests with Wild.

A new dean search won’t be conducted next school year, and certainly not until a new university president has been selected, Pauly said. Wild has said he plans to retire at the end of the 2010-’11 school year.

Pauly said he will appoint an interim dean by next month. He and Wild indicated that position could be filled by a department chair within the college.

The current interim dean, Jeanne Hossenlopp, will join Pauly in the Provost Office in August, when she becomes dean of the Graduate School and vice provost for research.

Pauly met with Arts & Sciences faculty on Wednesday. Some of those who attended Thursday night’s dinner, which included an awards presentation for faculty teaching excellence, wore pink and lavender clothing in support of O’Brien.

“I think a lot of time anger comes out of hurt. People are hurt and disappointed,” Pauly said. “They so much wanted a permanent dean. They feel in limbo.”

Wild plans to meet with department chairs in the College of Arts & Sciences Friday morning to address their concerns.

William O’Brien contributed to this report.

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