Marquette’s Strained Relationship with Freedom of Expression

By May 11, 2010

Marquette University made headlines recently for offering the job of Dean of Arts and Sciences to sexuality and gender scholar Jodi O’Brien. Marquette is a major Catholic university, and although O’Brien is open about being a lesbian, there is no evidence that this was an obstacle for either the search committee or Marquette administrators. Marquette, after all, has an anti-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation as a protected status.

But that’s not why the appointment made headlines. The reason the story is in the news is that, shortly after offering O’Brien the deanship, Marquette rescinded the offer.

Marquette President Father Robert Wild and Provost John Pauly were at great pains to explain that the rescinded offer came about not because of O’Brien’s sexual orientation, but because of her "published record":

Some of the concerns identified in the process should have had more careful scrutiny. After examining the cumulative published records of the candidates, particularly as they relate to Catholic mission and identity, subsequent discussion raised issues that had not been fully addressed earlier. We did make an offer to one of the two finalists; in retrospect that was done prematurely. While this person has an excellent background, a record of achievement and a strong academic track record, it was decided after further analysis that this individual was not the person who could best fill this very important position. This decision was not based on any candidate’s personal background nor does the decision in any way challenge a faculty member’s freedom to write in his or her area of scholarly expertise.

If you think it’s strange that problems with her adherence to "Catholic mission and identity" in her record of writings were not detected before she was chosen for this "very important position," you’re not the only one. One would presume that the published record of candidates for dean would be one of the most heavily considered parts of the hiring process. The Marquette faculty, unsurprisingly, is not happy about this decision, and is even contemplating scheduling a vote of no confidence in President Wild for next fall if the university does nothing to reassure faculty members that their potential for advancement will not be hindered by their freely pursued research.

How did Marquette get itself into this mess? Simple—a lack of commitment to principle.

To be more specific, Marquette evidently has chosen to present itself as an institution that values freedom of expression and inquiry so it can attract the best students and faculty. But once students and faculty have arrived on campus, Marquette is seemingly happy to abandon the guarantees it makes of academic freedom and free speech when presented with views that are unpopular with the administration, in this case using its "commitment" to Catholic principles as an excuse.

How does FIRE know that Marquette lacks principle? In 2006, Marquette banned a Dave Barry quote from a graduate student’s office door because it was "patently offensive." As Dr. James South, chairman of the philosophy department, wrote in an e-mail,

I’ve taken the quotation down. While I am a strong supporter of academic freedom, I’m afraid that hallways and office doors are not ‘free-speech zones.’ If material is patently offensive and has no obvious academic import or university sanction, I have little choice but to take note.

Here’s the shocking quote to which he was referring: "As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government." This happened despite Marquette’s guarantee of the "right of the members of the university community freely to communicate, by lawful demonstration and protest, the positions that they conscientiously espouse on vital issues of the day." Marquette has never admitted wrongdoing in that case, despite ridicule from Dave Barry himself.

FIRE recognizes that Marquette is a private, Catholic university and as such is not obliged to appoint either openly lesbian women or people with views not fully in accord with Catholic doctrine to administrative positions like that of Dean of Arts and Sciences. It is also not obliged to allow harmless Dave Barry quotes to be posted on office doors. But here’s the rub: Marquette does promise free speech. It does promise academic freedom. And having made those promises, it has no moral right to go back on them any time they become inconvenient for the university. A principle is not a principle if you feel free to ignore it when it is easier to do so, and you don’t have to be a Jesuit scholar to know that—an elementary school education will do.

As a side note, this case also provides some fodder for the "what goes around comes around" file. As mentioned above, the Marquette University Academic Senate has taken a strong position against the administration’s action. And who should we find on the Executive Commitee of that body but—surprise!—Dr. James South, last seen equating a mild joke about the government with hardcore pornography on his way to banning speech. Let’s hope that Dr. South has had a change of heart when it comes to freedom to dissent on campus.

Schools: Marquette University Cases: Marquette University: Political Quote Banned from Office Door