Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Idea of a University

A nationally-known Catholic university in Milwaukee hires a lesbian dean...and then retracts the offer. It's a tailor-made news story for several reasons: the media embraces flashpoints in the culture wars, accusations of discrimination are always journalistic fodder, and political tensions on any university campus are always going to be regarded as interesting.

Marquette's president, Rev. Robert Wild, was quoted as saying that to discriminate against homosexuals is contrary to his university's mission, that the decision to retract the job offer was not based on Jodi O'Brien's sexual orientation, but rather that it was based on ideology that she espoused in published writings: “We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family."

To some, this probably comes across as a rather weak attempt at spin. But I tend to take him at his word. I'll admit to not having scrutinized O'Brien's writing, but as somebody who has read a fair share of academic articles, it wouldn't at all surprise me if this were an accurate description, perhaps one that O'Brien herself wouldn't dispute.

I do think that this situation came about because of a culture clash, but not necessarily the clash that every commentator is talking about (Catholicism vs. homosexuality). The clash I'm seeing here is Catholicism vs. social constructionism. Social constructionism holds that all of our institutions, ideologies, and practices (political, social, economic, religious, etc...) are formed, or "constructed," by society. These constructions are also regarded as essentially arbitrary. A job of an academic then, is to determine the origins of that construction, and perhaps to critique its utilitarian value. As somewhat of a corollary to this theory, academics are often intrigued by exploring the negative ramifications of our constructions. They regularly argue that the institutions we have constructed serve as power structures, and in fact power structures that seek to perpetuate themselves through the exploitation of certain groups that are designated as "others." Furthermore, if something can be constructed, it can also be deconstructed. Therefore, many scholars see themselves as needing to deconstruct existing social institutions in the name of justice for the oppressed.

And consequently, it seems completely likely to me that this particular academic would be seeking to deconstruct the social institutions of "marriage" and "family." And this obviously creates a tension point when the university you seek to work for believes that these institutions are not arbitrary social constructions, but divinely established.

And I'm not sure there is a way to reconcile this tension. But I do wish that at the very least the tension would be recognized. It's just too easy to look at this as a "gay rights" issue--for the general public, that at least speaks to an area of familiarity. Social constructionism is not in the vernacular of the media or the public at large. And for that, I'd put the blame on the academic world. Scholars do a good job talking to each other, but are often lacking in their ability to communicate with the masses. And if they were more skilled in this area, the discourse surrounding this recent incident would be more meaningful for everyone involved.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another excellent article - perhaps what the catholic church is seeking is a mutually beneficial relationship with the homosexual community. If the retracted dean were to come out in favor of the idea that male/female marriage is a divinely established and utilitarian practice, they could carry on this charade while including the lesbian community in the all boys club known as the catholic church.

5:30 PM  

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