Wheaton’s official story collapses

Wheaton’s official story collapses January 11, 2016

Over the weekend, Wheaton College administrators lost their last defense of their choice to discipline the school’s popular political science professor, and first black woman with tenure, Dr. Larycia Hawkins. Since December, when Hawkins was first suspended, administrators of the white evangelical school had been claiming that this action was based on theological concerns, but two recent reports revealing internal administrative discussions have shown that was never the case.

Both of those reports, by the way, were written by Wheaton College alumni — Elizabeth Dias for Time magazine (“Exclusive: Wheaton College Provost Called Suspended Professor’s Muslim Comments ‘Innocuous’“), and Tobin Grant for Religion News Service (“Wheaton’s move to fire Larycia Hawkins turning farce into a fiasco“). Both reports draw on sources within the Wheaton community, revealing that the administration’s actions lack support there. Both also come as many Wheaton professors head to class today wearing their full academic regalia — robes and mortarboards and floppy hats — as a symbol of solidarity with their colleague, Dr. Hawkins.

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Horrors: It seems math majors at Wheaton College study the non-Trinitarian Islamic mathematics of al-jabr. And I’ve heard their astronomy students also learn the Arabic names of stars.

Dias’ Time report, in particular, pulls the rug out from under the public claims made by Provost Stanton Jones and the administration of Wheaton President Philip Ryken:

The Wheaton College provost overseeing an expulsion trial against a tenured professor who said Christians and Muslims worship the same God wrote in a private email last month that her comments were “innocuous” but that they had created a public relations disaster for the Illinois college.

“Articles are already being written in a variety of news sources, and the media are pounding on our door asking for comments about our faculty who are endorsing Islam,” wrote Provost Stanton Jones, in a December 11 email obtained by Time to Wheaton Psychology professor Michael Mangis. “We are being asked to defend why we have faculty openly rejecting with (sic) the institution stands for.”

… In interviews this week with Time, several of her fellow faculty spoke out against the administrative proceeding against her. “I have seen no theological argument from the college that would deem her commitments unacceptable,” Gary Burge, professor of New Testament, tells Time. “[Hers] is a clear, compelling affirmation of what we believe in Wheaton’s Statement of Faith.”

In the comment section under Hawkins’ original Facebook post, Mangis, the psychology professor, had written to defend Hawkins’ statement in early December. “If you get any grief at work give me a heads-up because I’ll be leading my spring psychology of religion class in Muslim prayers,” he wrote.

Hawkins was not contacted by the administration with concern about her post until Dec. 15. But four days earlier, Provost Jones wrote to Mangis, giving him an opportunity to withdraw and apologize for his Facebook post. “I cannot tell you what a disaster this brief comment from you on Facebook is shaping up to be,” wrote Jones. “Larycia Hawkins also meant something similarly innocuous, but her theological comments are being taken up as an endorsement of Islam and a clear and emphatic statement that Islam and Christianity are approximately the same.”

In the emails obtained by Time, Mangis initially pushed back. “I personally don’t usually give much thought to how someone’s paranoia might lead them to draw inappropriate conclusions from simple statements,” he wrote to Jones, saying he respected what Hawkins was doing. In the same email, he said he understood the college was vulnerable and he wanted to help.

This is extraordinary for several reasons (and not just because of the startling revelation that Time magazine is still capable of timely and relevant original reporting).

First, this clearly demonstrates the disingenuous pretense of the administration’s focus on “theological concerns” about Hawkins’ remarks. They recognized that her statement was theologically “innocuous,” yet sprung into action — the extreme measures of suspension leading toward termination of a tenured professor — under the pretext that those innocuous words presented some grave theological concern.

Second, this also shows that, yes, the white administrators treated the black lady differently than they treated white male professors who said similar things.

Both of those — the duplicity and the differing weights and measures of racial and gender discrimination — are indefensibly ugly and dishonest.

But the main dynamic here, I think, is summarized by psych prof Mangis’ email reply to the provost and his remark about “how someone’s paranoia might lead them to draw inappropriate conclusions from simple statements.” Mangis, rightly, does not think that a college should be governed by defensive responses to perverse, hostile, and dishonestly willful misinterpretations of its statements. Provost Jones, apparently, thinks that’s exactly what should shape the college’s public face.

Consider Jones’ initial description of the supposed firestorm created by Hawkins’ Facebook post: “Articles are already being written in a variety of news sources, and the media are pounding on our door asking for comments about our faculty who are endorsing Islam.” That’s not even close to being accurate. The majority of media reports on Hawkins’ expression of solidarity were positive stories — upbeat, hopeful, Christmas-season reports of peace and goodwill to all during the most wonderful time of the year. Those reports followed a similar string of positive stories praising the Wheaton students who had published an “open letter” to Jerry Falwell Jr. criticizing his violent condemnation of all Muslims. Reporting on both incidents reflected media and a public who were eager for stories like these that reminded us all that we can be better than the vicious ugliness of a Trump rally.

But it seems like none of those positive stories — or their positive potential as a public relations bonanza for Wheaton — registered with Jones or the other top white administrators. They were more concerned with how these stories might play for the angry mob at that Trump rally. They didn’t seem to see those positive media stories because they were focused on the handful of negative reports from what Jones inaccurately describes as a “variety of news sources.”

There is no variety at all in those news sources. Fox News, the Blaze, Charisma, and the direct-mail fundraising letters of the religious right are not a “variety of sources.” They are a singular echo chamber. It’s not clear whether that echo chamber represents the only media Jones consumes, or whether it merely represents the only media that he cares about. But either way, that’s a problem.

It’s particularly a problem in that Jones seems to realize that his favored media outlets are disingenuous and dishonest — that they are, as Mangis described, paranoid and intent on drawing “inappropriate conclusions from simple statements” that everyone involved know to be “innocuous.” Yet, realizing that, he was determined to treat these patently disingenuous “concerns” as worthy of respect — to the extent of joining in their inappropriate conclusions, and firing a tenured professor without cause to placate the echo chamber.

That’s not brave, honest, or civil behavior on his part. It’s dismaying and disqualifying behavior even before we start considering the even uglier implications of his different treatment of black women and white men. Frankly, this whole thing stinks.

This entire fiasco is made even more disappointing when we consider the enormity of the missed opportunity here. Wheaton’s mission is education. It’s motto is “for Christ and His Kingdom.” Both the positive stories from the legitimate media and the negative attacks from the right-wing echo chamber directed attention to Wheaton College, and that attention created an opportunity to educate and to demonstrate the meaning of Christ and his kingdom. Wheaton muffed that opportunity, desperately seeking, instead, to do whatever it had to do to just make all that attention go away.

So in the next post on this topic, let’s consider what Wheaton College might have done instead, to have seized this opportunity and attention and turned it into something positive for all concerned.


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