News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

Who wants to teach at Wheaton College?

The conservative Christian school’s plan to terminate professor Larycia Hawkins puts a spotlight on what’s different about working there.


Larycia Hawkins at her press conference - RICH HEIN/SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Rich Hein/Sun-Times Media
  • Larycia Hawkins at her press conference

Earlier this month, in the wake of her own attention-grabbing press conference, Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins was worrying about something besides the fact that the school is trying to dump her.

She was concerned about that, of course. Has been ever since last month, when it came to the college's attention that Hawkins, a tenured political science professor, had posted a photo of herself in a hijab on her Facebook page, along with an explanation that she was wearing it during Advent to show her solidarity with Muslims, because "we worship the same God."

On December 15, Hawkins was placed on administrative leave and asked to submit a clarification. She did, explaining that as descendants of Adam and Eve, we're all brothers and sisters—but administrators weren't satisfied. They wanted further theological discussions. Hawkins objected, and on January 4, the college announced that it was initiating termination proceedings.

Not because of the hijab, the college said on a statement on its website, but because of that comment about Muslims, Christians, and one God, along with "other theologically confusing assertions."

Since then, students and faculty at Wheaton and other schools have been protesting on her behalf; 67,000 supporters have signed a petition seeking her reinstatement, and the school has attained a certain notoriety. That's what was foremost on Hawkins's mind.

"The way Wheaton is handling this has generated a very negative impression," she said in an interview. "That's lamentable, because Wheaton is an amazing institution of higher learning."

Albeit, she added, one with "a lot of peculiarities."

To the secular world, steeped in concepts of intellectual and religious freedom, the most obvious "peculiarity" is the requirement that every employee must annually sign the college's 12-part statement of faith and agree to live by its "community covenant."

"Are faculty members aware, before they begin to work there, that Wheaton is an institution that restricts academic freedom?"

—American Association of University Professors’ Hans-Joerg Tiede­

If you want to teach (or do any other job) at Wheaton, you must promise to live according to "biblical standards." That means you'll not only pledge to be kind, righteous, and honest, along with many other virtues, but you'll also swear off a long list of "sinful behaviors" that include vulgar language, homosexuality, recreational drugs, and sex outside of marriage.

You'll also have to affirm a literal belief in the biblical story of creation, the existence of Satan, the sinful nature of mankind, and the ultimate bodily resurrection of the dead.

If that sounds like blatant discrimination—well, it is. Most employers wouldn't be able to get away with it. Josiah Groff, one of Hawkins's attorneys, says that in most situations the law protects against workplace discrimination on the basis of religion: "But there's an exception if the employer is a religious institution. The religious employer can choose to employ people who agree with its religious beliefs."

This exemption also leaves the usual concepts of academic freedom in the dust. If the college wants to revoke Hawkins's tenure for suggesting that Muslims and Christians have the same God, the relevant question will be "whether that's consistent with Wheaton's religious beliefs or not," Groff says. And if it is, "whether it's the same standard that they apply to everyone."

How does this play with that stalwart guardian of professorial rights, the American Association of University Professors? According to Hans-Joerg Tiede, senior program officer at the national headquarters, "the AAUP would prefer that institutions in general don't place these kinds of restrictions on academic freedom, but we have historically recognized the right of religious institutions to do so." Given that, the main question becomes "are faculty members aware, before they begin to work there, that Wheaton is an institution that restricts academic freedom?"

So if you choose to teach at religious college, you'll be walking away from a big chunk of your civil rights. Why would anyone as eminently employable as Hawkins—who says this is the fourth time in her nine years at Wheaton that her faith has been questioned—do that? A story she shared at the press conference suggests an answer.

Growing up in Oklahoma, Hawkins said, she was "raised in church"—not just any church, but the black Baptist church where her grandfather was the presiding pastor. When she was baptized, at age 11, she recalled, "I walked the aisle . . . in what we call the 'come to Jesus' moment."

"I walked into the arms of my grandfather, at the front of the church, who said, 'You do not know how happy you made Papa's heart.' He baptized me with water that night and said, 'The old has gone and the new has come.' His actual, physical heart gave out two days later. The waters of baptism did not save me, Jesus saved me."

On the phone after the press conference, Hawkins had this to say: "People wouldn't work at Wheaton if they weren't committed to the ideal. We teach about political science, but we also think about Jesus's politics, about how we live out our Christian faith. That's the unique nature of Wheaton that I love. And what saddens me is that this has cast doubt on what kind of Christian commitment the statement of faith embodies. It's a wonderful doctrinal statement, but it can't be perverted and twisted to be used as a weapon against faculty who might do something that people on the outside or even on the inside deem controversial."

The next step in Wheaton's termination process will be a hearing before a nine-member faculty personnel committee. Both the committee and the provost will then make recommendations to the college president, who in turn will make a recommendation to the final decision makers, the board of trustees.

Last week, more than 800 Wheaton alumni signed a letter to the administration and trustees demanding Hawkins's immediate reinstatement and making it clear that anything less will have consequences: "Until full restoration and reconciliation are reached, each of us will prayerfully re-consider our commitment to financially support the mission of Wheaton College." v

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