Backing Their Colleague

At Wheaton in Illinois, faculty members are asking the college to drop its case against a professor who said Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Will the administration listen?

January 22, 2016

Wheaton College in Illinois can try to fire the associate professor of political science it put on leave for saying that Christians and Muslims worship the “same God.” But the faculty won't back its decision.

That was one message conveyed to Wheaton’s administration Thursday evening during a meeting on campus. The event followed a letter sent by the Faculty Council to Wheaton’s leaders, objecting to their actions regarding Larycia Hawkins. The professor was suspended before the holiday break as the college investigated what it said was Hawkins’s violation of its statement of faith: a message of solidarity with Muslims she put on her personal Facebook page, explaining why she, as a Christian, had chosen to wear a hijab, or head scarf, during Advent (and at a time of anti-Muslim rhetoric triggered by the San Bernardino shootings, in which the killers were Muslim).

"I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book," Hawkins wrote, captioning a photo of herself wearing a scarf in mid-December. "And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."

Wheaton, an evangelical Christian college, said those comments clashed with Hawkins’s declaration in 2007, upon hire, that the only path to salvation is through Christ. And in early January, the college announced it was moving to terminate her for the alleged violation of its statement of faith. The college said that process would involve a hearing before an elected faculty body, in accordance with widely accepted standards suggested by the American Association of University Professors, but the college’s Board of Trustees would have the ultimate say in her professional fate. Moreover, AAUP recommends that faculty members facing possible disciplinary action only be removed from the classroom immediately if they’re a possible safety threat to their students. (Wheaton in Illinois is not affiliated with Wheaton College in Massachusetts, which is not a religious institution.)

While Wheaton alumni have made their views on the matter heard -- earlier this week, 815 alumni threatened stop giving to the college unless Hawkins is reinstated, according to the Christian Post -- the Wheaton faculty has remained largely quiet on the Hawkins matter thus far, at least publicly. That’s due in part to the timing of the incident, just prior to and during the break, when many professors were away. But the silence stands in contrast to widespread public debate over whether the college was within its rights to punish Hawkins for supporting Muslims as she did.

The Faculty Council letter changes that, and gives new insight into how divisive the issue has become internally at Wheaton. The letter, written on behalf of the council by Lynn Cohick, a professor of biblical and theological studies, says the body unanimously recommended to the administration that Hawkins’s leave and notification of termination for cause be withdrawn due to “grave concerns about the process.”

The letter outlines five questions the council has for the administration, some of which echo the broader public debate over Hawkins’s case -- such as whether statements of faith need to be explicit about what constitutes a violation, and who decides:

  1. Does the college have a position on what can or cannot be said regarding the question: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?”
  2. What is the process for determining acceptable interpretations of the statement of faith? Do faculty have a role in this process? How will faculty know if their views and/or statements are in danger of being judged unacceptable?
  3. Is it considered proper process to place a faculty member on leave based on public statements that could be outside the statement of faith before there is a process of interpretation?
  4. What is administrative leave, and how does the Employee Handbook relate to the Faculty Handbook in the case of disciplinary situations?
  5. What polices are in place for administration to deal with “emergency” social media situations?

Prior to the listening session on Thursday, Wheaton released a statement saying it had received the letter and respects the viewpoints of the council. But it said it was following an established procedure under its Faculty Handbook for tenured faculty members, and that the next step would be for a separate Faculty Personnel Committee to hear Hawkins’s case, both from her perspective and that of the administration. The statement said President Philip Graham Ryken has spoken with members of the council and advised them that this is the process through which Hawkins’s future at the college will be addressed. Again, although the faculty committee will make a recommendation to Ryken, the college’s board has final say.

Michael Mangis, one of Hawkins’s supporters and a professor of counseling at Wheaton, said there’d been a “hopeful mood” around campus Thursday, ahead of the listening session. He said he thought many faculty members’ concerns about Wheaton’s actions against Hawkins centered on process -- such as whether she should have been put on leave and notified of possible termination before any peer-based review of her case -- but also the case against her in its entirety.

“Based on the conversations that I’ve had with a lot of people, the feeling is that there was room within the boundaries of the statement of faith to have said what she said and it’s not clear, the logic the administration is using to say that it wasn’t,” he said. “We all expect that as tenured faculty, especially, the administration would give us space to explore and investigate and have conversations without being jumped on.” The matter has had a “stifling effect” on other faculty members’ sense of academic freedom, he said.

Mangis added, “I’ve given 30 years of my life to this place. I want to believe that it has the potential to be more than this.”

Thursday's meeting began with statements from Ryken and Provost Stanton Jones in which they expressed a desire to restore collegiality and trust within the faculty, Mangis said. Ryken also expressed frustration that what should have remained an internal issue became a public event.

Similar to Wheaton’s earlier statement, the administrators said they didn’t intend to reverse their decision, despite the council’s recommendation, Mangis recalled. But Ryken noted that the outcome of the dismissal process was not a foregone conclusion, and said he intends to take seriously whatever recommendation the faculty committee provides.

In response, some faculty members voiced strong disapproval, Mangis said -- in particular several members of the Bible and theology department, who said they saw no problems with Hawkins’s statements on a theological level.

When asked “how we as a faculty can continue to teach when we do not know where the invisible land mines lie that might lead to suspension or termination,” Mangis said, “the administrators responded that these things would become more clear as the process came to resolution.”​


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