A Tale of Two Searches

Adventures in hiring and not hiring at Marquette and Seton Hall

Although we are very far from the “best of times” for Catholic higher education, things seemed to be moving away from the worst, at least for a few weeks this spring. Marquette University’s decision to withdraw an administrative appointment to an openly lesbian faculty member whose publications have denigrated Catholic teachings on marriage, sexuality, and the family gave faithful Catholics a glimmer of hope that those running Catholic colleges are beginning to notice the problems there. And in a search for a new president this year at Seton Hall University, it was encouraging to learn that a finalist for the position was a faithful priest, Msgr. Stuart Swetland, who has been directly involved in revitalizing Catholic identity in higher education.

Unfortunately, the outcome of this presidential search has ended badly. Though Seton Hall officials deny it, strong resistance from some on the faculty to hiring an orthodox Catholic to lead the school had an impact on the outcome. Still, that an orthodox candidate even made it that far is noteworthy in today’s climate.

Marquette University’s decision to withdraw an offer to Jodi O’Brien, a self-described “sexuality scholar,” to become dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the Jesuit-led institution continues to divide the faculty. Ms. O’Brien reached a settlement with the university, but her supporters maintain that she is the victim of homophobia. Those on the faculty who have openly criticized her hiring say that it is not her sexual orientation that disqualifies her, but rather the fact that her publications disparage Catholic moral teachings on marriage, sexuality, and the family.

In a post-settlement letter sent to the Marquette community, Marquette President Father Robert A. Wild wrote, “we have apologized to Dr. O’Brien for the way in which this was handled and for the upset and unwanted attention that we have caused to this outstanding teacher and scholar.” But Father Wild also added that he stands by his decision to rescind the employment offer “which was made in the context of Marquette’s commitment to its mission and identity.”

While the male finalists for the dean’s position had led departments like O’Brien, they also had grant-writing success and prestigious publication records, whereas O’Brien—a sociology professor at the Jesuits’ Seattle University—had published articles such as, “How Big is your God? Queer Christian Social Movements” and another on “gender switching,” which described online lesbian and gay sexual behavior, that was entitled “Changing the Subject.”

Some have claimed that Marquette’s president rescinded the offer because of O’Brien’s sexual orientation, but the far more likely reason is that O’Brien has promised in her writings to smash the “culturally accepted definitions of family.” The O’Brien fiasco has brought the usual tired claims of homophobia against Catholic higher education. Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed asks, “Do gays face a stained glass ceiling at Catholic colleges?”

Seton Hall Professor W. King Mott claims they do. As an openly gay man, Mott claims that there “is no way the current hierarchy will allow a gay person to hold a position of authority unless they are closeted and self-loathing. They will never permit a scholar who publishes a point of view promoting gay equity to hold a position of real authority.”

A tenured full professor of political science, Mott has also served as chair of Seton Hall’s faculty senate—the most powerful position a faculty member can hold. Hardly a marginalized man, Mott also served as one of 12 members of the prestigious Search Committee for Seton Hall’s next president. But Mott reminds everyone that in 2005 he was asked to step down from his associate dean position the day after he wrote a letter to the editor of the New Jersey Star-Ledger in which he claimed the Catholic Church was using gay men as scapegoats in the sex abuse scandal. Thomas White, Seton Hall spokesman, maintains that Mott was asked to step down because he signed his letter to the editor as a Seton Hall administrator and thus appeared to be speaking for the school.

Continuing his commitment to testing the boundaries at Seton Hall, Mott is scheduled to teach a course on same-sex marriage in the fall. Although he claims that it is not an “advocacy” course, it is clear that Professor Mott has been open in his criticism of Catholic teachings on marriage and sexuality in the past. There are concerns that he will do so again. The Rev. John J. Myers, archbishop of Newark, has denounced the course for seeking “to promote as legitimate a train of thought that is contrary to what the Church teaches.” The course is currently under investigation by the university’s Board of Regents, who met in early June to discuss the course but made no decision at their board meeting.

Despite Mott’s assertions that gays cannot achieve high status on Catholic college campuses, the truth is that there are many gay men and lesbian women in leadership positions, some of them leading theology departments. In 2005, Jeffrey Trumbower, a gay man and a Unitarian, was appointed dean of St. Michael’s College in Vermont. According to interviews with Professor Bill Grover, chair of the search committee for dean, “we were very fortunate to have two terrific people apply and Jeff rose to the top.” Grover said that “religion was not a factor in choosing the dean and that the committee wanted a candidate who fit with the overall mission of the college.” In a recent interview for Inside Higher Ed, Trumbower said his being gay is a non-issue. He had been a faculty member at St. Michael’s before becoming dean and “everyone knows my partner,” so there was never any question about his being gay. Trumbower brings his partner to campus events to which others bring spouses. He also noted that scrutiny of his work is limited because his research is on religion but is not about sexual orientation.

That may not be entirely true. Just last September, Dean Trumbower participated in a conference at the University of Vermont that examined “through personal narratives and discussion how lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, and other queer identities have found religious or spiritual liberation in their quests for meaningful lives.” Trumbower himself led a session at this conference titled: “Why are there so many queers in academe studying religion? The intersection of identity and vocation.”

It seems that Jodi O’Brien is not the only openly gay scholar from Seattle studying gay and lesbian issues who had been offered a senior level administrative job at Marquette University. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Isaiah Crawford, an openly gay man and currently Seattle University’s provost—the highest ranking academic officer at the university—was offered the same job of dean of the College of Arts and Sciences several years ago. In an articled published in 2001, Crawford argued that, contrary to Church teachings, there is nothing “disordered” about gays and lesbians.

In published interviews, O’Brien claims to have been recruited by representatives of Marquette. For Marquette Professor John McAdams, who writes at the Marquette Warrior blog, the news that the university sent a representative to Seattle to encourage Ms. O’Brien to apply for the dean position confirms his belief that she was “pushed by some faculty and administrators as adding the right kind of diversity to the school.”

In the same month that Marquette faculty have decried the “homophobic” attitudes that led to withdrawing the offer to O’Brien, the Catholic campus ministry and the Gay/Straight Alliance at Marquette co-sponsored two screenings of the film For the Bible Tells Me So. This is a film that is critical of Christian teachings on homosexuality and presents gay sex as life-affirming. According to Marquette’s bloggers, Catholic teachings on sexual morality were not supported in the film or in the discussion following the film.

Marquette has a long history of coddling scholars who undermine Church teachings on their campus. Daniel Maguire, a longtime, tenured Marquette University theology professor, continues to call abortion a “sacred choice” and writes that “sometimes ending incipient life is the best that life offers.” Erroneously claiming support from the Catholic Church for his assertions, Maguire’s pro-abortion book titled Sacred Choices maintains that the Church not only allows abortion but celebrates it by rewarding some pro-choice individuals with sainthood.

The same is true at Jodi O’Brien’s home university, Seattle University. In their book titled A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion, two professors of philosophy at Seattle University, Robert Deltete and Daniel Dombrowski (both signers of a full-page ad in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel supporting O’Brien), argue that the fetus at the earliest stages is analogous to “plant life.”

It is clear that the real problem at Marquette is not insufficient academic freedom or homophobia. The real problem is that many of those teaching on Catholic campuses simply do not support Church teachings. Some work actively against the Church. Leadership is a problem because those who love the Church and her teachings are not often hired for leadership positions on many of these campuses. As Marquette Professor Emeritus Christopher Wolfe recently wrote, “Marquette University has moved quietly but consistently away from its distinctively Catholic roots…. Whether it hires as dean a person whose scholarship is informed by a morally disordered sexual inclination is minor, compared to the fact that the university has over the years built up a faculty that takes her fashionable scholarship seriously.”

Ms. O’Brien’s faculty supporters have responded to the president’s decision to rescind the appointment with anger. Marquette’s Academic Senate approved a resolution condemning the president’s decision and recommending a vote of no confidence in the fall if the president fails to reassure faculty members that their advancement will not be hindered by the topics they research. About 100 members of the faculty (out of a total of 1,061 faculty members) published a full-page ad in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel demanding that the university apologize and award the position to Ms. O’Brien. The ad says that they “reject an intellectual litmus test for our faculty, staff, and leaders in the administration.”

In describing her settlement and resolution with Marquette, Ms. O’Brien released a statement indicating that she hoped that the agreement would lead to a “legacy of community betterment at Marquette, including research and education regarding issues of gender and sexuality.” It is likely that Marquette’s faculty will be offering additional courses on gay and lesbian issues in the future.

Korn-Ferry, a professional and highly respected national search firm, was employed to shape and manage the Marquette dean search. They must be embarrassed. One of their promises is to “bring a diverse pool” to the search—and they certainly delivered in this case.

Although search firms bring a professional “non-partisan” perspective to campus, it is obvious that they have become part of the problem. Like car dealers, search firms have an inventory of candidates from which to choose. And like eager car salesmen, academic recruiters come to campus to understand exactly what the members of the search committee are looking for.

Like Marquette, Seton Hall relied on a search firm—Issacson-Miller—to manage their search for a new president. Ironically, Seton Hall’s Professor Mott, the same Professor Mott who continues to maintain that Catholic colleges are not welcoming of gays and lesbians, helped to lead the search for the new president. As chair of the faculty senate, Mott was one of the 12 members of the Presidential Search Committee working closely with Issacson-Miller to identify candidates and help with hiring.

In early April, Seton Hall announced two finalists for the position: Msgr. Stuart Swetland and Father Kevn Mackin. Mackin, who is currently the president of Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh, New York, withdrew his name from consideration in mid-April, leaving Msgr. Swetland as the only candidate.

But signs of doom for Swetland were clear when a headline in the New Jersey Star-Ledger appeared: “Anticipated Seton Hall President Thought to be a Conservative Choice.”

Msgr. Swetland, a Rhodes Scholar who graduated first in his class (out of 900 students) from the US Naval Academy, has been an EWTN host since 2005. He has been a professor at Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland and served as vice president for Catholic identity and mission there.

In addition to his academic experience, he has studied Catholic campuses closely. Each year he presents 13 EWTN episodes about “Catholicism on Campus,” an overview of “best practices” on college campuses. He has been candid about some of the problems on these campuses—and this evidently hurt him in the search.

The Star-Ledger advised readers that in one EWTN segment on student life, Msgr. Swetland said that at his school (Mount St. Mary’s) discussions about sexuality focus on chastity rather than, say, sexual identity or the distribution of condoms: “We’re going to talk about sexuality at Catholic colleges, but in the terms of virtue, not in the terms of anything goes and it’s all up to you. We believe God has revealed a way of using our sexual powers.”

These kinds of statements made him an unacceptable candidate to some on the faculty. Yet instead of directly attacking Msgr. Swetland’s support for Catholic moral teachings, campus critics ignored his résumé and claimed that they were concerned about his lack of university administrative experience. According to the Setonian, Seton Hall’s campus newspaper, the faculty senate issued several resolutions including one that was passed the day before Msgr. Swetland’s official campus visit began. That resolution called for a “new search” and deemed the current one “incomplete.” After Msgr. Swetland’s campus visit, the faculty senate passed yet another resolution which urged opening presidential searches to include non-Catholic-priest applicants.

When Msgr. Swetland withdrew his candidacy, Thomas White, the Seton Hall spokesman, told the Star-Ledger, “This is probably best for both parties…it’s important we get it right…Msgr. Swetland is tremendously talented and will go on to great things, I am sure.” Unfortunately, the Star-Ledger also reported that (unnamed) Seton Hall “officials” said that Swetland was “seeking a long list of perks, including a three-year severance package.” In an interview with a Star-Ledger reporter, Msgr. Swetland denied making any of those demands and said he was disappointed that details of the talks had been openly discussed. This sort of backlash is common when well-qualified orthodox Catholics apply for faculty and leadership positions on Catholic campuses. The reasons for not hiring them are never attributed to their faithfulness or to their orthodox beliefs. Rather, they are portrayed as unable to collaborate, too rigid or intolerant, inexperienced, or as in this case, wanting “too much money.”

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About Anne Hendershott 101 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020)