Why Wheaton Matters – and Why I Need to Move On

The Larycia Hawkins story at Wheaton continued to develop over the weekend, as Time published an article by reporter Elizabeth Dias (herself a Wheaton alum) that raised further concerns about how the school’s administration had handled the situation. (See, for example, political scientist Tobin Grant’s analysis, which raised six big questions about the process.) Dias’ report also quoted several Wheaton faculty who spoke in favor of Hawkins — e.g., theologian George Kalantzis, director of the school’s Center for Early Christian Studies: “Anyone who reads the document where Dr. Hawkins clarified her theological position to the administration can see that it is deeply rooted in the Statement of Faith that all Wheaton College faculty are asked to affirm annually.” When the new semester started yesterday, some faculty (by wearing academic regalia) and some students (by wearing black) tried to show solidarity with Hawkins.

McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving
I’ll be teaching Tracy’s “The First Thanksgiving” again this spring…

I’ve also appreciated Wheaton professors who have taken to social media, not so much to defend the school’s particular handling of this episode, but to rearticulate their love of their community and their commitment to the kind of education Wheaton provides. Excellent examples of the theme: my fellow History Department chair Tracy McKenzie, historian of Christian thought Timothy Larsen, and art historian Matthew Millinerd, who shared what he planned to tell his students yesterday in class.

So why does all this matter so much? I’ve seen no better summary of the significance of this case than what Spring Arbor University sociologist John Hawthorne posted Sunday night at his blog. While academic freedom was part of it, John wrote that “My concern goes to the overall academic reputation of Christian liberal arts institutions.” Weaving the Wheaton story among other threads from the past weeks and months, John explained the stakes:

When the news breaks about the latest Christian college outrage, that bright high school student will decide to opt for the state school instead of embracing the Christian College his parents attended. Maybe that bright graduate student, whose academic and personal life were deeply shaped by her alma mater, will think twice before applying for that vacancy in her home department.

(In this context… John also discussed at some length the forthcoming book that suggests that graduate admissions committees at elite universities may discriminate against alumni from religious colleges.)

So yes, what happens at Wheaton matters. And I don’t regret writing about it: an initial response in mid-December and then a couple more last week.

But as this month continues, know that my plan is largely to move on.

I’m sure I’ll continue to share updates and other commentary via Facebook and Twitter, which is where I tend to do more curation of other people’s content. But barring dramatic new revelations or some other change, I don’t plan to write at any great length about this for a while.

Even if I could be convinced that I have anything new to say here (and at this point I’m pretty sure I’m reaching the limits of what I can say about a situation that I’m observing at a distance), I’m not happy how much this story has consumed my attention of late. I spent most of the wee hours of Saturday night and Sunday morning caring for a sick daughter and then taking her to the emergency room. (She’s doing much better!) And yet even there, in a hospital room at one in the morning, I tried to distract myself by checking Twitter to see what people were saying about the Time article!

That’s ridiculous, and needs to stop.

Billy Graham Center at Wheaton
The Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College – Creative Commons (Christoffer Lukas Müller)

It’s not just Wheaton. I think there are some larger problems here that I need to pay attention to — before too long, I want to share a longer reflection on what I’m wrestling with as a blogger.

But it’s also about Wheaton. Or rather, the idea of “Wheaton.” One more telling quotation from John’s really excellent piece:

If Wheaton is known as the “Evangelical Harvard“, then it must be the gold standard for Christian Universities.

Now, unlike many fellow evangelicals, I grew up without ever hearing about Wheaton, let alone yearning to attend it. (I was more interested in the actual Harvard, which — fortunately for my parents’ bank account — wait-listed me.) But having encountered Wheaton over and over in adulthood, I’ve only ever been impressed by the faculty I’ve met, and by its alumni — a stellar group that includes my own school’s presidentseveral of my esteemed colleagues, and fellow church members. And I don’t think John is wrong to assume that people focus on Wheaton because it occupies such a central position in the imagination of people — outside and inside the Christian college world.

But frankly, that’s almost as troubling to me as anything else.

What is happening with Larycia Hawkins might be symptomatic of larger concerns at similar institutions — or it might be shaped by particular factors that aren’t likely to repeat elsewhere in the same way. But if I was right last fall that the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities “is not… synonymous with ‘Christian higher education,'” then the same is true certainly here:

Wheaton does not define “Christian higher education.”

For example, if I can let a bit of institutional pride peek through…

I want to people to hear “Christian higher ed” and think of what’s happening where I work, a Christian university whose commitment to the breadth of intellectual inquiry is reflected in the recent news that we’ve been awarded two half-million dollar grants, one to help high school students “explore theological traditions, ask questions about the moral dimensions of contemporary issues, and examine how their faith calls them to lives of service” and the other a National Science Foundation grant that adds further luster to the well-deserved reputation of our physics program. At a time when the name Wheaton, alas, evokes concerns about how Christians relate to Muslims (and to each other), I want people to associate “Christian higher ed” with the work of my colleagues Sara Shady and Marion Larson (Wheaton ’82), who spent last fall finishing the manuscript for what promises to be the book on how Christian colleges and scholars can participate in interfaith dialogue and service. (Get a preview in their contribution to the book I edited last year, or listen to my April 2015 interview with Sara and my fellow Bethel historian Amy Poppinga). In a time when colleges of our sort and size all over the country are struggling with the “crisis of the humanities,” I expect this spring to be able to announce that our department has hired the coordinator for a groundbreaking new program that will fuse studies in history, literature, and philosophy with training and experience in coding, design, and other digital age skills.

I’m sure that all of you who work at other Christian colleges can trumpet similar successes, and that those of you who attended such schools can tell of their impact on your life. (If you belong to either group, please feel free to use the comments section to share those stories!)

And in a time when information is so widely, readily available, there’s no reason that a category as subjective as “reputation” ought not to be interrogated rigorously. U.S. News, for example, might still say that Wheaton is the best evangelical school in its list of National Liberal Arts Colleges, but prospective students would be foolish to simply accept that. They can seek out information and evaluations from many other sources about many other schools. (Though there’s certainly inertia to overcome, as John’s concern about the larger impact of Wheaton’s current troubles illustrates.)

Billy Graham, Raymond Edman, and their wives
Edman (far right) with one of his most famous former students – C.S. Lewis Institute

Finally, let me point out that Wheaton didn’t become “the Evangelical Harvard” until a certain point in its history. That development represented a change over a certain period of time, and it was historically contingent, owing both to the visionary leadership of presidents like Raymond Edman and professors like Richey Kamm and to Wheaton’s prominent role in the rise of post-WWII neo-evangelicalism.

Now, that had all sorts of important — mostly positive, I think — effects on other Christian colleges, who learned lessons from Wheaton and hired its people. But the rise of Wheaton to the status of “gold standard” wasn’t inevitable. (At least, insofar as a historian can judge — I’ll let theologians hazard more providential interpretations.) So there’s also no reason to think that, in more recent history, similarly striking developments haven’t been taking place elsewhere.

Perhaps even as we speak, other Christian colleges are seeing a similar convergence: of internal reform and renewals timed to match the changing needs and mood of the world beyond its campus. I just don’t expect — or desire — that any single Christian college or university will achieve in the 21st century the status of “gold standard” — which, like the actual gold standard, may end up being a relic of the 20th century.

6 thoughts on “Why Wheaton Matters – and Why I Need to Move On

  1. Thanks Chris, especially for your closing ‘shout out’ for your current academic place of service. I have always thought of Bethel University as one of the best ‘hidden secrets’ of the Christian College world. Teaching there with some of the best the academic world has to offer was a distinct privilege. But it is hard to overcome what I also believe is a bit of Swedish ‘reserve’ left over from Its roots – Swedes are not supposed to be conceited or pushy.

    1. Absolutely, Eleanor. Of course, I could have gone on at much greater length to sing Bethel’s praises… e.g., by citing the excellence of the program that you did so much to build!

  2. Given that this has become an international incident contributing to questions and tensions between Christians and Muslims, and that this friction represents one of the greatest challenges for Western Christianity in the 21st century, I don’t think we can just move on. Let’s remember what other colleges are doing, but let’s not move on and leave this in our rear view mirrors.

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