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Larycia Hawkins

Getty Images / Chicago Tribune

Wheaton College in Illinois said earlier this month that it’s initiating termination proceedings against Larycia Hawkins, the tenured associate professor of political science who wore a hijab during Advent and publicized her gesture in what she said was a message of solidarity with Muslims. The evangelical Protestant college said it objected to the way she described her action on her Facebook page, specifically Hawkins’s assertion that Christians and Muslims worship the “same God,” and soon put Hawkins on leave to investigate the incident further. Wheaton eventually said it would move to fire her, as she’d violated its Statement of Faith.

Such statements are par for the course at evangelical Christian colleges. By signing them, professors voluntarily commit to living out the ideals of the institution. But what exactly does that mean? Are professors bound to just what’s on the page, or do such statements outline more implicit commitments? Are such statements compatible with academic freedom, and are they ever used as a veil for other agendas?

Statements of faith are hardly new, and Wheaton -- which is well regarded academically -- has long taken its statement of faith seriously. But the Hawkins case has attracted widespread attention from many people in and outside academe who have not heard about statements of faith and are stunned that a tenured professor could be fired in a situation like this. (Wheaton in Illinois is unaffiliated with Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., which is not a religious institution.)

The American Association of University Professors doesn’t object to statements of faith for faculty members at religious colleges. But the association’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure says that limitations of academic freedom because of “religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.” (A policy note, added in 1970, says most church-related institutions “no longer need or desire the departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the [statement], and we do not now endorse such a departure.”)

In 1999, AAUP published a report on the limitations of its statement, saying that “an institution that commits itself to a predetermined truth, and that binds its faculty accordingly, is not subject to censure on that ground alone.” But the institution “must not represent itself, without qualification, as an institution freely engaged in higher education: the institution must in particular disclose its restrictions on academic freedom to prospective members of the faculty."

In short, institutions, including in their statements of faith, must be explicit about what limits there are on academic freedom to future employees. Hans Joerg Tiede, an associate professor of computer science at Illinois Wesleyan University and a member of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said he doesn’t think his association expects institutional regulations on dismissal “to enumerate every single possible cause,” though. So it seems in line with policy that a hearing before a faculty committee determines whether Hawkins’s remarks violated the college’s faith statement, he said. That's something like the hearing before an elected faculty committee Wheaton is proposing, though its Board of Trustees has the final say regarding Hawkins's employment.

Not all academic freedom advocates and scholars agree with that position, however. John K. Wilson, co-editor of AAUP’s “Academe” blog, said he thinks statements of faith are violations of academic freedom and -- in his view -- “completely illegitimate” under the 1970 interpretive comment saying AAUP doesn’t endorse departures from its academic freedom statement.

That's a position similar to that of the leaders of the Middle East Studies Association, who this week in an open letter to Wheaton’s administration asked it not to sanction Hawkins and to affirm its commitment to academic freedom.

“As we see it, the question of whether what Dr. Hawkins may have said conflicts with Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith is irrelevant,” wrote Beth Baron, the association’s president and a professor of history at the City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and Amy Newhall, the association’s executive director and an associate professor of Middle Eastern art and architecture at the University of Arizona. “The principles of academic freedom protect the right of all faculty members at institutions of higher education to express their opinions freely, and those principles cannot be subordinated to anyone’s judgment about whether or not those opinions conform to a statement of religious belief imposed as a condition of employment.”

The American Political Science Association also weighed in in favor of Hawkins.

“Her suspension appears to be connected to public statements about the status of religion in public life -- statements that cannot be separated from her scholarly focus on religion and politics,” reads its open letter to Wheaton. “While we cannot presume to know all the facts of her contractual relations with Wheaton College, we find the overlap between her scholarly focus, her public statements and Wheaton’s resulting action particularly troubling. We urge you to continue working to resolve the situation so as to leave no doubt as to the college’s commitment to academic freedom, to freedom of expression and to its stated support for ‘a robust exchange of ideas among faculty and students on the critical issues of the day.’”

Wilson said that if the AAUP isn’t going to universally condemn statements of faith, “those statements need to be strictly interpreted. If the statement of faith does not explicitly prohibit something, then it cannot be used to punish someone.”

Moreover, he said, such statements must be interpreted “according to a rational understanding of the words, not according to what the administration thinks it should mean.” And they need to be strictly limited to personal religious beliefs, not political ones or scholarly interpretations.

In Hawkins’s case, in particular, Wilson said he saw nothing specific in Wheaton’s statement that she may have violated.

Wheaton’s statement of faith is somewhat typical among evangelical Christian colleges. It consists of 12 core beliefs, including that “in one sovereign God, eternally existing in three persons: the everlasting Father, His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life; and we believe that God created the Heavens and the earth out of nothing by His spoken word, and for His own glory.”

On an information page on its website, Wheaton says Hawkins’s suspension “resulted from theological statements that seem inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions, which she voluntarily agreed to support and uphold when she entered into an employment agreement with the college.”

Seemingly addressing the obvious question of which part of the statement Hawkins violated, Wheaton says that while Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, “we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation and the life of prayer. … We affirm that salvation is through Christ alone.”

Some are doubtful as to the authenticity of Wheaton’s claims about the statement of faith. In various media interviews, Hawkins has suggested that the college -- and its donors -- didn’t like the “optic” of a black woman wearing a hijab while expressing solidarity with Muslims. (The college denies this.) And last week, Time magazine published a story based on emails between a colleague of Hawkins’s and the college’s provost, Stanton L. Jones, suggesting that Wheaton was more concerned about public image than theology.

“I cannot tell you what a disaster this brief comment from you on Facebook is shaping up to be,” Jones wrote to one of Hawkins’s colleagues who had offered a supportive comment on her original Facebook post, according to Time. “Hawkins also meant something similarly innocuous, but her theological comments are being taken up as an endorsement of Islam and a clear and emphatic statement that Islam and Christianity are approximately the same.”

Wheaton in a statement to Time said that Jones was equally concerned about the theological implications of both professors’ comments, and that Jones “hoped that once the issues regarding the theological content of her post were brought to her attention, [Hawkins] would offer a retraction or a satisfactory clarification.” 

Wilson said Hawkins’s story reminded him of that of Joshua Hochschild, now an associate professor of philosophy and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Mount St. Mary’s University, who left Wheaton after 2003-4 for what Wilson called the “thought crime” of becoming Roman Catholic. But what’s happening to Hawkins is “even worse,” Wilson said, “because she embraces Wheaton's faith,” but apparently not some of its leaders' other views.

Hochschild declined to comment on the Hawkins case but in a brief email said he maintained that a Catholic could, in good conscience, sign Wheaton’s faith statement. He said he was surprised by the suggestion that the faith statement was incompatible with Catholicism, “but I also maintained that Wheaton had the right to exclude Catholics from teaching there,” and had reason to expect it would, based on 2000 Atlantic article called “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind.” In it, Wheaton’s president at the time, Duane Liftin, was quoted as saying that he would ask faculty members who decided to convert to Catholicism if they wouldn’t be more comfortable elsewhere.

Hochschild said he wasn’t so much forced out as taken off the tenure track, without his contract being renewed. Wheaton did not immediately respond to a request for comment about that case.

Shapri LoMaglio, vice president for government and external relations at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, said she didn’t think asking how detailed statements of faith should be was the “right question,” nor was whether Hawkins’s actions amounted to a terminable offense under Wheaton's statement.

Rather, she said, Wheaton has announced it’s engaging in a fact-finding process -- the result of which could be Hawkins’s termination -- to answer a crucial question to the college: whether Hawkins’s views were still compatible with its mission. Determining whether faculty members support a religious college's core values is part of its leaders' fiduciary responsibility, she said, and, for now, that appears to be what's happening at Wheaton.

“One of the prerequisites to a good process is that it allows itself to play out,” LoMaglio said. Hawkins “will have an opportunity to have her beliefs fully vetted and articulated. … That’s the overriding theme here, rather than attempts to parse documents.”

Asked whether statements of faith could be compatible with academic freedom, Rick Ostrander, the council’s vice president for academic affairs, said they were. All institutions arguably have certain exceptions to total academic freedom, he said, and statements of faith are attempts to provide “clear markers” for what those are at Christian colleges.

William C. Ringenberg teaches history part-time at Taylor University, a Christian liberal arts college in Indiana, and recently published The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom: Truth Seeking in Community. He said there appeared to be “mixed messages” about Hawkins’s alleged transgression, and that it was probably an “unfortunate” issue of semantics.

“If [Hawkins] had left out the word ‘same,’ as in Christians and Muslims worship the ‘same God,’ I think it would have avoided some of this confusion and still been consistent with what she believes -- it may not have raised a red flag in some quarters,” he said.

But “same” or not, Ringenberg said he didn’t see any basis for Hawkins’s separation from the college. He said it was up to both Hawkins and the administration to work together to resolve the issue, and if that left the college in a position of having to defend her academic freedom to displeased onlookers, then “I guess that’s part of their job.”

Of statements of faith in general, Ringenberg said Christian colleges have always had “explicit” or “implicit” ones, and that it’s important expectations are stated clearly at the time of employment to avoid surprises down the line. Problems develop when the institution changes or adds to the rules in the “middle of the game,” or when a professor changes his or her worldview but wants to remain at the institution, he added.

As to the explicit or implicit question, Ringenberg said he thought it was preferable for statements to involve a “few but central items,” such as Christ’s birth and resurrection. That way, he said, “the institution ideally would allow maximum academic freedom within that context.”

Ringenberg said Wheaton seeks to be both a high-ranking academic college and a “defender of the faith,” and that sometimes those goals clash. It would do well to focus on “Christian unity,” meaning collegiality, charity and community, “no less than Christian purity,” or faithfulness to primary Christian doctrine, he added.

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