Wheaton College and a former professor signalled an end this week to a highly public conflict over religious expression. But at the very same hour, students at the conservative evangelical Christian school launched a faith-based action to elevate social justice issues that they say the rift highlighted on the campus and beyond.
Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a tenured political science professor at the evangelical Christian school, will be leaving Wheaton College. Hawkins was put on administrative leave in December for comments she posted on Facebook. She cited Pope Francis in saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The school said Hawkins’s social media remarks “appear to be in conflict with the College’s Statement of Faith,” which articulates the school’s doctrinal beliefs, and which all faculty are required to sign and affirm each year.
At a joint press conference on Wednesday, where school administrators and Hawkins declined to take questions from the media, no information was shared regarding the mutual decision to part ways. But Wheaton College President Philip Ryken acknowledged that the conflict caused pain and stress for the school community over the last two months. “We are saddened by the brokenness that we have experienced in our relationship and for the suffering this has caused on our campus and beyond,” he said. “And yet we are grateful to come to a place of resolution and reconciliation.”
Ryken thanked Hawkins for developing the school’s Certificate in Peace and Conflict Studies, and announced that the college will establish an endowed scholarship to fund summer internships for students in that discipline.
“In saying that Wheaton College is reconciled to Larycia Hawkins, we are not saying that everyone on every side of this conflict is totally satisfied, nor are we saying that we simply move on without addressing the issues that brought us to this place,” Ryken said. “But we are saying that we are moving forward in genuine friendship, wishing each other well, and wanting to bless each other in our work.”
Hawkins noted that their announcement fell on Ash Wednesday, the beginning to the Lenten season leading up to Easter. “A season to reflect on where we are on our spiritual journeys, who we are, and what we are becoming,” she said. Hawkins exhorted her supporters to express their acts of “embodied solidarity” to fight social injustices.
“May we, as people, stand with all of our neighbors, and not ever categorize or demonize our neighbors. And call upon our politicians and elites in society to do the same,” said Hawkins. “From their religious pulpits, to their presidential pulpits — to call us as one. To call humans humans, and not categories of people.”
At the same hour, students, alumni and supporters from other Christian institutions gathered outside the west suburban school’s chapel, singing Christian songs. They were kicking off a nationwide 40-day Fast of Embodied Solidarity. Sophomore Esther Kao said the fast is students’ way to continue what Hawkins’s had started on campus.
“We’re not going to allow ourselves to be a homogenous community that just agrees with the administration without questioning it,” said Kao. “And I feel like this protest is—It’s a hopeful protest, and we hope for changes to happen on campus.”
The handling of Hawkins’s case prompted serious and uncomfortable discussions among students and faculty about how the school treats minorities, how it engages with outside religions and social issues, and its overall position within the evangelical Christian landscape. Hawkins was Wheaton’s first tenured, female African-American professor. A leaked memo by the school’s faculty diversity committee reportedly found that the handling of her case was discriminatory on the basis of race, gender and possibly even marital status.
Student Maryam Bighash said Hawkins created a space on the campus finally to discuss those issues. “Now it’s not about Dr. Hawkins anymore,” she said. “It’s about, really, minorities. People who are not being heard, people who don’t have a voice.” Bighash said she wants to see students engage more actively with real-world issues that haven’t penetrated what she describes as a Wheaton “bubble” — such as the Black Lives Matter movement, and treatment of Muslims in the U.S. She and other organizers of the fast kicked off the observance with a training session with activists from outside religious institutions, to begin learning the basics of faith-based organizing. They plan to continue training with those religious leaders during the remainder of the school year.
Reconciliation and questions
For many on campus, questions remain — such as, what was the role of outside players, including wealthy donors and influential cultural and political figures, in fanning the controversy? Why, ultimately, did Hawkins agree to leave the campus, and what were the terms of her departure? Will a review of the handling of the case, tasked to the Board of Trustees, be fair and honest? And what does “reconciliation” — a term used many times in the school over the past week — really look like?
Some on campus say a reconciliation has gotten off to a promising start, beginning with a campus-wide email sent by Provost Stanton Jones. In it, Jones apologized for his handling of Hawkins’s administrative leave, the “fracture” of her relationship with the school, and for “imposing administrative leave more precipitously than was necessary.”
“I believe that his email was one of the most important communications in this whole controversy,” said Noah Toly, a professor of Political Science and International Relations. “It was humble, courageous and gracious. An extraordinary act of confession.”
Toly said the school also was right to hold a “reconciliation service” this week, where Hawkins spoke to the community for a final time. He and about a dozen other faculty converged at a downtown Wheaton pub after the worship service.
“I do think that we began to do the work tonight that we’re going to need to do,” said Toly, reflecting on the service. “It may take a long time. The chaplain pointed out it could take 40 days of Lent, it could take 40 weeks, it could take 40 years to handle some of the structural institutional issues — that are real — that are behind all this.”