By Ryan T. Woods
In a matter of days, news of Wheaton College’s suspension of Larycia Alaine Hawkins had spilled out of the rusticated corridors at Blanchard Hall, named for the abolitionist founder of the school, and into media outlets around the country. The affair furnished irresistible material for journalists and pundits: an evangelical college had placed a tenured professor on leave after she posted a picture of herself in a hijab on social media glossed by an expression of solidarity with Muslims. Supporting details – that Hawkins is a woman of color, that she cited papal dicta as justification for her activism on this stalwartly Protestant campus, and that she claimed Muslims and Christians worship the same God – only made this episode more attractive to commentators. But much of the coverage has missed the point, confusing the acute symptoms for the underlying tensions. What the affair has exposed is not necessarily Islamophobia, but the fragile status of diversity, academic freedom, and tenure at Christian colleges.
To understand why Hawkins’s Facebook post stirred controversy, one must take into account the unique position of evangelical institutions like Wheaton. Although many American colleges have religious foundations, most have relaxed their church affiliations or abandoned them altogether. Of those who maintain religious identities, few still require students and faculty to sign a statement of faith or a covenant regulating their conduct within the university community. This waning of commitment reflects the gradual displacement of character formation by knowledge production as the governing purpose of higher education. Forced to choose between these two seemingly incompatible ends, most faculty, students, and administrators decided to model their institutions on the ideals of the research university rather than on the paradigm of the religious college. So completely did the academy secularize these institutions that religious chroniclers of this development seek to outstrip each other in metaphors of decay: James Burtchaell ends up raging against the dying of the light, and George Marsden laments the total eclipse of the American university’s soul.
Yet the institutional retreat from evangelical conviction has not quite been inexorable. By any metric, Wheaton is a remarkable outlier to the trend of religious divestment among prestigious colleges. Kiplinger’s, Princeton Review, Forbes, and U.S. News and World Report all rank it in the top tier of liberal arts colleges. It attracts students with impressive credentials: the median standardized test scores for its admitted students rival those of their counterparts at Bucknell, Occidental, or Oberlin. It retains them at even higher rates. A conspicuous number of its graduates earn advanced degrees. Nor does this achievement come at the expense of piety. First Things, the publication of note for Christian traditionalists, recently placed Wheaton at the pinnacle of its rankings for its integration of faith and learning. Noting its reputation as the evangelical Harvard, Loren Pope suggests in his Colleges That Change Lives that this flattering sobriquet actually sells the institution short, since Wheaton is “head, shoulders, and heart above Harvard in its concern with good moral compasses and strong value systems, as well as in the percentage of future PhDs it has turned out.” The values fostered at Wheaton can be debated; its success in amalgamating academic rigor with its own brand of spirituality cannot be ignored.
And yet there are cracks in the edifice that the recent contretemps with Hawkins has exposed. Buried under the headlines and screenshots of the selfie-in-headscarf was a striking detail that has not received much scrutiny: Hawkins is the only black woman with tenure at Wheaton. Not only is she the lone tenured African-American woman; she is also the first. It took nearly one hundred fifty years for a college founded by an outspoken abolitionist to promote a black woman to the ranks of associate professor. This century and a half void took place on the outskirts of one of the most concentrated populations of African-Americans in the country. While underrepresentation of minorities on faculties is a problem of national dimensions, the inability of a respected institution in the Chicago suburbs to recruit black female professors raises disquieting questions about the college’s valuation of minority voices.
Buried under the headlines and screenshots of the selfie-in-headscarf was a striking detail that has not received much scrutiny: Hawkins is the only black woman with tenure at Wheaton.
To their credit, administrators at Wheaton have made significant strides in diversifying its professoriate from the monochrome homogeneity of two or three decades ago. They recognize that becoming a first-rate institution requires diversity, and have tried to cultivate it. Hawkins is the poster child for these efforts, the thumbnail photograph next to a bar graph quantifying their success. But what the chart leaves out is revealing: the ethnic complexion of this growth seems relatively uniform. Asian-Americans, who have come to assume a noticeable stature in American evangelicalism in recent years, account for most of the faculty of color at Wheaton. Their inclusion is a welcome development for those who value diversity. But other disparities persist. Blacks and Latin@s have failed to make gains commensurate with their demographic importance in evangelical communities and in the nation at large.
Numbers tell only part of the story. If it is to transcend a token presence in bar graphs and pie charts, diversity must serve deeper purposes. The educational imperative for creating a diverse faculty turns on the observation that teachers of different backgrounds enrich the learning environment – and particularly benefit minority students. In underscoring such contributions, however, this justification also points to their subversive potential. Women, people of color, and other underrepresented minorities often have experiences and ideas challenging to the dominant narratives that structure everyday life. So long as minority professors conform to expectations, matters remain predictable. Yet nonconformity can rapidly escalate controversy and invite intensified and disproportionate responses.
When Hawkins posted a photograph of herself in a headscarf and maintained that Christians and Muslims worshiped the same God, she was departing from the script of expected behavior, if not from the text of the college’s confession or moral code. At the same time, it is probably not coincidental that a person of color adopted this gesture of solidarity with members of another community that is encountering marginalization. Nor was it the first time Hawkins had courted controversy at Wheaton: her seeming embrace of leftist politics and more expansive views of human sexuality had alienated some at the college over the years.
It is worth considering to what degree race has amplified consternation in this episode. Other faculty members who acted in this way have also elicited disapproval, to be sure. In fact, as Time reported, Hawkins’s colleague Michael Mangis drew an enquiry from Provost Stanton Jones when he posted a supportive comment on her Facebook page noting that he would be leading his students in Muslim prayers in a spring class. English professor, Tiffany Eberle Kriner, ran afoul of the administration for a statement of reverence “for the same God” appearing in a note on college letterhead to a nearby Muslim center. Yet both were spared further scrutiny after further exchanges with Jones. By contrast, Jones placed Hawkins on leave after discussing the matter with her. The last faculty member sanctioned in this way had been charged with possessing child pornography. Hawkins’ own attempts to bring her position into conformity with the Statement of Faith were deemed insufficient, despite endorsements from her colleagues. She flatly rejected an offer of two years of probation, during which tenure would be revoked while an administrative committee evaluated her theology. Each circumstance was different, and Jones seemed to have lingering questions after his conversations with Hawkins. Still, the racial question is unavoidable: Mangis and Kriner are white.
These concerns seem more serious when one considers how unremarkable her actions were by community standards. Donning a hijab may make for poor optics at a Christian college, but it violates no sacrosanct community standards. This is where some of the national media and the commentariat got it wrong: Wheaton never claimed it had suspended Hawkins for donning a hijab or expressing concern for the treatment of American Muslims. Public rationalizations may differ from private machinations, but her sympathy for Muslims seems unexceptionable. A few pundits have scorned her for drawing attention to Muslim victimization while her coreligionists endure dangerous conditions in the Middle East, but theirs is a debate about how to prioritize sympathies. No one at the college seriously contends that Hawkins is wrong to care about how Muslims fare in our current political climate.
The official explanation for placing Hawkins on administrative leave cites theological grounds: asserting that Christians and Muslims serve the same God violates the statement of faith that each faculty member signs as a condition of employment. The notice to initiate termination proceedings follows this point: the provost recommended dismissal for the “unqualified assertion of religious solidarity with Jews and Muslims”.
While it sounds impressive, this religious justification seems threadbare on further scrutiny. Her affirmation that Muslims and Christians worship the same God was too amorphous to count as deviant. The statement of faith is devoid of provisions forbidding such statements, and the administration’s interpretation by no means follows as a necessary corollary. As Tobin Grant, a Wheaton-trained political scientist pointed out, Hawkins had violated a shibboleth that the administration had just introduced.
That acknowledged, few commentators have questioned her framing of the issue in these terms. In this sense, they have reproduced the administrator’s interpretation of the episode, focusing on questions of permissibility rather than utility. At Wheaton, this contentious claim about both faiths serving the same God was a tactical misstep that unnecessarily muddied the waters. Had she stuck with her headscarf selfie and a few anodyne expressions of support for American Muslims, she would have raised a few eyebrows but not focused the eyes of the nation on her college. Hawkins continues to insist that the politics of the “same God” controversy has been a distraction from her purpose and has obscured her intention of demonstrating solidarity, but she bears some responsibility for her failed gambit. Her appeal to comparative theology created fatal ambiguities that overshadowed her gesture, throwing into sharp relief the differences that separate Muslims and Christians rather than the commonalities that unite them. It also revealed how monolithic evangelical interactions with Islam tend to be. A better approach, as Joshua Ralston points out, would have focused on how these traditions know God, not what they deduce about God’s being from their canonical texts. Administrators correctly pointed out the unqualified character of her position; they might have also criticized its irrelevance to her concern for Muslims.
Yet if her assertion of religious solidarity with Jews and Muslims is unqualified, so too are the administration’s assumptions about her position. The evidence permits a variety of opinions, even among evangelicals. Jews, Christians, and Muslims share Abrahamic roots. They may disagree about which Scriptures to canonize, but their common ancestry includes historical reverence for a single God. Consequently, Christians believe three persons participate in this divine nature, but debate whether this understanding undermines the conviction that Jews and Muslims serve the same God. As Bruce McCormack observes, this debate turns on the question of whether one emphasizes the unity of the Godhead or the diversity of its persons. Some, such as Albert Mohler and Nabeel Qureshi contend that Hawkins’s “same God” ecumenism remains irreconcilable with the Christian understanding of God as Trinity—although both consider Judaism a closer relative than Islam. Others maintain that Muslims and Jews gesture toward the same God as through a glass darkly, even if they differ on their appraisal of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Affirming this latter position need not nullify Christian particularity or dissolve religious differences among these faiths. This is the stance of postconciliar Catholicism, and the argument of Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, who was invited to lecture on Wheaton’s campus in 2011. In her theological statement in response to the enquiry, Hawkins also references Timothy George (a lifetime advisory trustee of Wheaton) and John Stackhouse (a Wheaton alumnus and guest speaker) – each of whom possesses unimpeachable evangelical credentials. There is, then, reasoned disagreement within evangelicalism on this question. Presumably, she considered her statement compatible with the confession of faith; plausibly, she considered the thesis of an honored guest an acceptable model for her own thinking, even if others disagreed. Provost Jones apparently agreed: in a private email, he called her comments “innocuous.”
Even so, it must have been a calculated provocation on her part. Only eight years earlier, former President Duane Liftin and Provost Stanton Jones removed their signatures from an interfaith charter entitled “Loving God and Neighbor Together.” This prelude to the Hawkins affair followed a similar trajectory: an expression of solidarity with Muslims, alleged lack of theological nuance, and call for clarification or recantation. Liftin’s reflection reads like a template for the termination proceedings against Hawkins:
To speak unqualifiedly of “our common love for God,” as if the Qu’ran’s Allah and the God
and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ are one and the same, and as if what it means to “love God” in these two faiths means the same thing, is to say more than I am willing to grant. I do not criticize others who do not share these qualms. But as for me, I needed to back away.
Now charged with chairing the termination proceedings, Jones must be recalling Liftin’s statements and his own actions. Perhaps Hawkins is too. She had just accepted a tenure-track position at Wheaton when Liftin and Jones published their retractions.
What sets Hawkins apart from Jones are the protections that academic freedom and tenure confer – protections this episode has exposed as increasingly tenuous. Here again, Christian colleges must navigate unique challenges. They strive to maintain fidelity to confessional commitments while honoring scholarly enquiry. To achieve this equilibrium, they must maintain unity on central articles and permit latitude on peripheral issues. Perhaps most importantly, they must have discretion to know when freedom trumps the desire for purity or uniformity. In the Time exclusive, Gary Burge, a senior New Testament scholar at Wheaton, sagely observes, “Christian colleges like Wheaton write statements of faith to protect what is essential, but they also need to discern where faculty are free to express private views. This is the very essence of academic freedom.” Historically, the ideals Burge enunciates have been hard to come by. Founded as a bulwark against liberalism and cultural accommodation, evangelicalism has struggled to find a place for intellectual freedom within the bounds of orthodoxy.
As curious as these doctrinal scruples seem to outsiders, concerns about religion have always shaped discussions of academic freedom. In Germany, where the modern understanding of academic freedom originated, its architects championed the autonomy of research and teaching. Friedrich Paulsen, a professor at the University of Berlin, offered this lapidary definition in 1902: “For the academic teacher and his hearers there can be no prescribed and no proscribed thoughts. There is only one rule for instruction: to justify the truth of one’s teaching by reason and the facts.” For Paulsen and his retinue, the purpose of the university was not to transmit dogma, but to pursue research without coercion or censorship.
Founded as a bulwark against liberalism and cultural accommodation, evangelicalism has struggled to find a place for intellectual freedom within the bounds of orthodoxy.
Paulsen nonetheless hedged this ideal with provisions. He expected the state to suppress politically subversive teachings, and he directed professors of theology to maintain positive relations with religion and the church. For all his rhapsodies over courageous enquiry, then, Paulsen’s vision of the university as an incubator of state functionaries overshadowed his desire for academic independence. The disparities that resulted from these limitations nettled critics and religious dissenters: the professor of theology had to conform to ecclesiastical authority in a way that a professor of philosophy or natural science need not. What was good for the goose might not be good for the gander, at least when combustible topics of religion and politics were under consideration.
In adapting this principle to their context, American champions of academic freedom dramatically expanded its scope while also licensing religious colleges to regulate the beliefs and behavior of its faculty. Historic protections of speech and religion made these twin developments possible; their historical entanglements have made them controversial.
The evolution of the canonical charter of academic freedom, the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, illustrates this tension. In 1940, the framers of this statement enshrined the right of a religious school to maintain the integrity of its mission by limiting the exercise of academic freedom – so long as the school disclosed these determining purposes and religious tests at the time of employment. The point of this limitations clause was to protect employees from the tyranny of contracts with hidden standards. On this understanding, a faculty member who agrees to work at a college requiring a confession of faith freely consents to horizons of expression circumscribed by these formulae. Yet this proviso hardly protects against arbitrary interpretations of a broadly-framed statement of faith by administrators and trustees – precisely what defenders of Hawkins have charged Wheaton of doing. Mindful of this, the AAUP abandoned its earlier support for this exceptional clause in 1970, reporting laconically in a footnote, “Most church-related institutions do not need or do not desire such a departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the 1940 Statement.”
For their part, Christian colleges like Wheaton prefer to redefine the contours of academic freedom as opportunities rather than to see themselves restricting it through religious tests. Recently, Azusa Pacific University promoted its confession as a means to deepen spirituality in the classroom, a privilege distinctive to academic communities united by common beliefs. They have a point. For those interested in pursuing religious enrichment, the integration of faith and learning many religious colleges feature can be liberating. But this consideration has more to do with religious devotion than with academic freedom. In cases where scholarly enquiry seems to conflict with religious commitments, faith usually trumps freedom. Consequently, the pivotal question becomes how much latitude professors have to investigate within the bounds of orthodoxy. The answer to this query varies, but turns on the consideration of which power brokers get to construe the statement of faith. “It has to do,” a representative of the AAUP observed, “with who’s the majority, who’s the minority.”
Neither Hawkins nor her foremost apologist, theologian Miroslav Volf, challenges the right of religious institutions to require a signed statement of faith from employees. On their understanding, Christian colleges must preserve the integrity of their learning communities by creating boundaries. Rather, a capricious reading of the statement of faith, the policing of discourse on a controversial topic, and the intransigence of administrators when presented with ringing affirmations of faith concern them. Strikingly, Hawkins has praised Wheaton’s ideals throughout her ordeal. She has expressed appreciation for the support of students and faculty. Even when speaking to the press, she has favored the language of theology, interpreting this controversy as part of the historical arc that bends toward justice. Absent from her pleas is any shred of antagonism toward religious conviction as retrogressive or incompatible with academic pursuits. Although she and the administration have their differences, they share the common ground necessary for continued dialogue, a fact that was not lost on observers hoping for reconciliation.
As termination proceedings opened, a rapprochement seemed in the offing. Citing procedural irregularities, administrative overreach, and even racial inequity, a swelling chorus of faculty called on administrators to reinstate Hawkins. Students collected petitions to reinstate “Doc Hawk,” started a hashtag, and massed in prayer and protest along with faculty. The college’s diversity committee alleged discrimination “on the basis of race and gender, and, to a lesser extent, marital status” tainted the episode. A number of professors indicated concerns about their job security as well as the college’s continued ability to attract talent in light of this treatment of one of its own. Michael Mangis, the psychology professor who had made similar comments about serving the same God as Muslims, donned academic regalia to teach his classes until administrators rehabilitated Hawkins. When a council comprised of nearly half the college’s tenured professors issued a unanimous recommendation to rescind the suspension and vacate termination hearings, it became clear that faculty sympathies lay with their beleaguered colleague.
Wheaton’s trial of Larycia Hawkins concluded as theatrically as it had begun, with all the reversals of a tragedy – or a farce. From the outset, administrators had maintained a steely resolve to conduct proceedings on their own terms: impervious to media scrutiny, faithful to the college’s mission, and suffused with the discourse of piety. Then, quite unexpectedly, Provost Jones withdrew his recommendation for terminating Hawkins, seeking forgiveness from the community for his treatment of his sister in Christ and his fracturing of the community. Although he acknowledged mishandling her case, he stood by his earlier concerns about her statements. Still, Hawkins seemed vindicated.
But any hopes of reconciliation Jones stirred by apologizing and revoking his charges ended in disappointment, papered over by legal and theological obfuscation. Hours after Jones abandoned his prosecution of Hawkins, the embattled professor and the college jointly announced they had reached a confidential agreement to part ways. While both sides offered compliments and best wishes in bidding farewell, the language of nondisclosure suggested a legal architecture underpinning these expressions of mutual respect. More jarring was their declaration that this denouement represented “resolution and reconciliation.” The sides organized a ceremony for “public reconciliation” at a Chicago church, but declined to discuss the matter beyond this event. In evangelical communities like Wheaton, it is not uncommon to exploit the lexicon of theology to gloss conflict, but describing what happened in this idiom seems inappropriate. This is like signing divorce papers and calling it reconciliation – an abuse of language. Moreover, the theological discourses of reconciliation and the legal discourses of nondisclosure compete with each other, producing a contradictory effect. The first rule of reconciliation, after all, is that you have to talk about reconciliation.
Whatever language and ritual is used to interpret it, the penumbra of deeper structural questions looms over this episode. Concerns over academic freedom at confessional institutions persist. Practical realities complicate questions about how religious colleges accommodate differences of opinion. As Mark Noll points out in his preface to a history of Protestant higher education, conservative points of view tend to be better funded at Christian colleges, tilting the balance of campus discussion. Perhaps most disquieting are the questions this incident raises about race and religion. Whatever their stated ideals, the custodians of academic freedom make distinctions of color in practice. A black woman expressing solidarity with Muslims will encounter more friction than a white activist. Diversity may be a boon to a university with ambitions of prestige, but it brings danger, too. This is evident from the administrators’ response. Suspending a tenured professor is the academic equivalent of filing for divorce. It was a disproportionate response to an open question, one that signaled discomfort with difference. Their perceptions of threat issue from what theologian Willie Jennings calls “extraction theology”: the mining of minorities’ experiences to affirm identity rather than allowing it to transform individuals and institutions.
Arguments like these test the mettle of an institution and reveal the depth of its commitments. This is as it should be. As a gloss on the AAUP Statement puts it, “Controversy is at the heart of free academic enquiry.” But how an institution deals with acute controversy often matters less than how it deals with systemic issues. A public relations campaign can reframe a narrative, and a compromise can alleviate immediate tensions. Structural problems are harder to deal with, and less glamorous, but ultimately more important. The trajectory of Wheaton’s status will depend on how effectively it remedies these issues. Its history proves how difficult and intractable this can be. But it also provides ample resources for engaging with difficult problems in a winsome way – starting with the founder, Jonathan Blanchard, the fiery abolitionist whose eponymous hall now houses the administrators charting the course into the future.
Ryan T. Woods earned his doctorate in religion at Emory University in 2013. As an undergraduate, he studied at Taylor University, a Christian college in Indiana. He now teaches at Georgia Gwinnett College, and serves as an Associate Editor for Marginalia Review of Books. His interests range from early Alexandrian Christianity to Cleveland sports.