Report: Evangelical College Needs To Recognize Unconscious Bias | WBEZ
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Report: Evangelical College Needs To Recognize Unconscious Bias

The Wheaton College Board of Trustees has released a report on how the Evangelical school handled the controversial departure of a tenured political science professor.

Larycia Hawkins, the school’s first female African-American tenured professor, left in February after a debate over whether her views about the relationship of Christianity and Islam aligned with the views of the school. 

The debate prompted some faculty, students, alumni and outside observers to question whether Islamophobia, racism or gender bias contributed to the administration’s decision to scrutinize Hawkins.

The controversy also raised concerns the liberal arts school restricted academic freedom.

The report, based on an investigation by a 15-member task force, scrutinized the actions of former Provost Stanton Jones, who has since returned to a faculty position.

The report acknowledged errors in how Jones notified Hawkins she would be placed on administrative leave, and in how he began the termination proceedings. It noted Jones should have invited others into the process early on because of their strained relationship.

The investigation also found Wheaton College President Philip Ryken should have gotten involved earlier in the conversations between Jones and Hawkins, although the report overall commended Ryken’s leadership.

Brian Howell, Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College, said he was “pleased” with the report.

Howell said faculty were invited to a presentation on the findings Tuesday. He said the findings aligned with his own feelings.

“Certainly the announcement of it and the way that it was put into the media, put into the press, contributed to a lot of the snowball effect that I think we saw … The investigation that has gone into this, I think, was done with integrity, and so I’m optimistic,” Howell said.

Others thought the report was a missed opportunity.

“I hoped that it would lead to greater insights and awareness on the part of the administration -- and particularly the trustees -- of the need for change in terms of systemic racism and sexism at the institution,” said Michael Mangis, a former Wheaton College psychology professor. “And I didn’t really see evidence of that at all, which was really disappointing."

Mangis left the school last year after he ignited further controversy when he proved a reporter with e-mails he exchanged with Jones. Mangis said he believes that as a white man he was treated more leniently than Hawkins. 

Hawkins had posted to her Facebook page that she decided to wear a hijab in the weeks leading to Christmas to express solidarity with Muslims who felt oppressed.

“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” she wrote in the post. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

The report claimed the college took no issue with her decision to wear a headscarf, but her written statement prompted questions of whether her theological beliefs about Christianity and Islam matched those of the school.

The report “found no intentional racial or gender-based discrimination,” but acknowledged unconscious bias may have played a role.

It recommended the school increase diversity, and train Wheaton campus members to recognize and overcome unconscious biases. It also rejected findings of a faculty diversity committee, which reportedly asserted the school’s scrutiny of Hawkins was discriminatory on the basis of race, gender and marital status.

For others, the report failed to deliver an answer to a fundamental question.

“I still don’t know what made them ask Dr. Hawkins to leave, which is so frustrating,” said Wheaton College undergraduate Maryam Bighash. “What did she really do that was so against Jesus’s teachings?”

Bighash said she worried the recommendations, which include a call to create a social media policy, may presage policing of what faculty share.

“Is this really about peace and reconciliation?” Bighash asked. “Or is it about making the rules stricter so that things you don’t want out there from your faculty don’t get out there?”

Wheaton College alumnus Jay Johnson, now a theologian at Pacific School of Religion, said the report alarmed him as well.

Johnson said he followed Hawkins departure and was struck by how closely the administration questioned her alignment with Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith, which faculty must reaffirm each year.

“In my day, the Statement of Faith really served as a guideline for faithful exploration, not these severe limits to what can be explored,” Johnson said.

He added that he is concerned school administrators and trustees may now be using the Statement of Faith “as if it has now become a kind of doctrinal litmus test.”

Hawkins, who is now visiting faculty at the University of Virginia, did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, Wheaton College said it is moving quickly to implement recommendations in the report and that the school is committed “to fair and transparent processes and a relentless pursuit of Christ-centered diversity.”

Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.

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