What Wheaton College faces in firing or retaining professor

  • "I have never wavered from my commitment to the Christian doctrines elucidated in this statement of faith," Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins said earlier this month during a news conference in Chicago.

      "I have never wavered from my commitment to the Christian doctrines elucidated in this statement of faith," Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins said earlier this month during a news conference in Chicago. Dan White | Staff Photographer

 
By Sarah Pulliam Bailey
Washington Post
Updated 1/27/2016 5:24 AM

In deciding in the coming months how to handle a controversy over a professor's comments about God, Wheaton College leaders face a conundrum.

If they fire political science professor Larycia Hawkins, it will upset many who feel the college is unnecessarily narrowing its boundaries.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

If the college reinstates Hawkins, it risks backlash from those who feel that boundaries should be outlined and protected.

Hawkins is at the center of the debate for saying Christians and Muslims worship the same God, leading college officials to question her adherence to Wheaton College's statement of faith and sparking a debate in the evangelical community.

The school announced this month that it has begun a termination process for Hawkins, who drew attention when she posted on Facebook in December that she would wear the hijab in solidarity with Muslim women during Advent and made the comment about sharing the same God.

Hawkins' past

Hawkins, 43, was raised in the Oklahoma City area in a Baptist church that was part of the National Baptist Convention, a black denomination. When she was getting her bachelor's degree from Rice University, she was involved in the popular evangelical ministry Campus Crusade, now called Cru.

She joined Wheaton in 2007, becoming the college's first black, female tenured professor in 2014. Hawkins was a member of a Presbyterian Church in America congregation in Hyde Park in Chicago for seven years before she resigned her membership in November to attend church with family. Now she splits her church attendance between the nondenominational church Soul City and St. Martins, a predominantly black Episcopal Church.

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When news first emerged about her administrative leave, media outlets descended on Wheaton and television trucks parked outside Hawkins' house. Initially she declined most media requests. But since the college began releasing statements to the media, she has spoken openly to media.

"I don't have any regrets about what I've said or done or how I've carried myself in response to what Wheaton has done," she said. "The kind of culture that Wheaton is creating on campus is a culture where people are going to be afraid to do what academics do."

Hawkins said faculty members are watching this process closely.

"The question is, is Wheaton going to hang its hat on this issue and go down the very difficult road of making all kinds of theological clarification?"

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Hawkins was asked to affirm the college's statement of faith on three other occasions before she received tenure.

After she wrote an academic paper about what Christians could learn from black liberation theology, according to Hawkins, Wheaton Provost Stan Jones said it seemed to endorse a kind of Marxism. She said she submitted a follow-up theological statement, they had lunch, and they moved on. Jones did not return requests for comment on this meeting.

She was also called in to defend a photograph someone else posted on Facebook tagging her at a party inside a home on Halsted Street the same day as Chicago's Pride Parade. She said she was attending at the invitation of a friend.

Last spring she was asked to affirm the statement again after she suggested the college curriculum should include sexuality as a facet of diversity.

The post's aftermath

Hawkins said her initial Facebook post wasn't supposed to start a theological debate.

"I found the response shocking because it missed the point," she said. "My call was really toward human solidarity. It's about being in solidarity with anyone who is in suffering and pain.

"If people want to extrapolate that I'm affirming Islamic theology, they can extrapolate that. But I'm saying I view this as a noncontroversial statement. What I'm saying is that Jews', Christians' and Muslims' object of affection and devotion is the God of Abraham."

Hawkins said she first heard that the college had publicized her administrative leave to media outlets from a Chicago Tribune reporter before she had time to notify friends and family.

Hawkins said she rejected multiple proposals by Jones, including revoking her tenure during two years of ongoing theological discussions or remaining on paid leave until June 30 before moving on quietly.

Several Wheaton professors have openly questioned whether Hawkins should have to continue defending herself after submitting a theological statement in which she acknowledges differences between the religions.

"I think there needs to be a point at which the college has to say, 'Yes, your theological statement is approved,' or 'No, it isn't and you're fired,'" said anthropology professor Brian Howell. "There can't be something like, 'Say it another way.' If tenure is something real, then there is a trust."

Many Wheaton professors have felt a lot of freedom under its current president, said theology professor Vincent Bacote, but this latest case has some professors wondering whether the school is narrowing its theological boundaries.

"Some would say there's been a rightward turn," Bacote said. "I don't see it that way. That would be massive speculation."

Spotlight on college

When Wheaton adds or removes standards, other Christian schools take notice. When in 2003 it removed a prohibition against dancing on campus and eased a ban on alcohol and smoking for faculty and staff members, it made national news.

Many observers have simplified the debate over Hawkins: Some are worried that Wheaton would allow a professor to say that Islam and Christianity are the same. Others are worried that Wheaton regularly bows to its conservative alumni who donate, ones who hold both the purse strings and theological direction of the college.

Wheaton College has been in the national spotlight for a number of issues, but its dispute with Larycia Hawkins is bringing it the most attention.
  Wheaton College has been in the national spotlight for a number of issues, but its dispute with Larycia Hawkins is bringing it the most attention. - Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

The debate created a public-relations nightmare for a college that protects its image very carefully.

But through social media, news travels quickly among its constituents, including alumni, many of whom have written letters of protest or support.

The college had a difficult year in the news in 2015. In August, the college dropped student health insurance after it could not win court battles over the White House's Obamacare mandate on contraception.

Wheaton alumnus Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the House, resigned from the board of advisers of the school's center named after him after he was indicted and later pleaded guilty to federal charges of evading bank reporting requirements.

None of those stories drew the attention Wheaton faced when it put Hawkins on administrative leave in December. For a school that was ranked eighth in "Best Undergraduate Teaching" by the U.S. News & World Report for national liberal arts colleges in 2016, the slew of negative stories in one year was unusual.

Many eyes are planted on the campus to see how the theological and personnel issues will play out in the coming weeks. What happens at Wheaton doesn't stay at Wheaton, a school carefully watched by evangelical institutions across the country.

• Kirkland An contributed to this report.

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