On Wheaton and Hawkins, by way of Percy Shelley

And now it’s the lead story over at The Chronicle of Higher Education. The new #Wheatongate continues apace and will likely continue so to do until the decision comes down from the Board of Trustees, at which point–whatever the decision–it will all flare up again until we find someone else’s business to be aghast over, or we forget. For the most part, I actually like this convtoversy for the level of conversation it has engendered. People are having real conversations about the conflicting Muslim and Christian conceptions of God; others, in response to murmurs of racism from some quarters are bringing to light Wheaton’s sterling history on race, from its earliest days as a stop on the underground railroad through the abolitionist movement, through the hiring of its new college chaplain. The great Timothy Larsen has a piece on academic freedom with which I heartily concur on CNN. Still others are being thoughtful and quiet, which I think we could use more of. 

The week, however, two faculty members broke silence to share what I believe to be erroneous readings of the situation, which I’d like to correct because it gives me a chance to bring up Romantic poets. Noah Toly has claimed and Alan Jacobs (of Baylor) has heartily seconded the following: 

to the extent that the inadequacy of Dr. Hawkins response is the rationale for not reinstating her from her administrative leave, I am convinced the decision not to reinstate her was entirely misfit to the circumstances. To the extent that the initiation of termination proceedings emerged from that impasse, then I disagree with that step, as well.

Toly is right on a number of points in his response, and I’m thankful that he has supplied links to the supporting paperwork, including Hawkins’ theological statement to the college, but I think he underestimates this last bit. In short, Hawkins is not being terminated because of the hijab, or her edgy (misinformed?) theology, or even for stirring up media controversy against the college, but for refusing to participate in the reconciliation process. This is huge. Dr. Jones has himself said that her comments are fairly innocuous. They might be forgiven, clarified, all manner of things may be well. But her dropping off a 2.5 page note which is mostly quotations, saying in effect “this better be good enough because I’m not going to explain myself further” is an offense for which I believe she should be fired. Not only because it is unkind (though it is) and unprofessional (who, having served on college committees believes PR disasters are handled swiftly and completely via internal memo?), but because it shows her once again theologically unsound: she doesn’t know how reconciliation works. 

In 1811, Percy Shelley made some similarly theologically-questionable statements in public while a student at University College, Oxford. When asked to clarify his views (to admit authorship, and likely to renounce the implications of the pamphlet) he refused to participate in the process. In a way, that’s a tragedy, because I think The Necessity of Atheism raises important questions, and because who knows what poetry we would have had from Shelley had he stayed in college? But even though the college had to eat their proverbial hat, erecting a memorial to the rebel some years later when he became the most famous alumnus of that storied institution, I think the administration was right in their decision. If you cross a line, there are ways of getting back, but one of them isn’t to reject the offering hand. 

In this particular instance, I know whereof I speak. While a student at Wheaton College, I found myself, due to some undergraduate hi-jinks, called in by this same administration for disciplinary probation. Like Hawkins, I was questioned about my theological beliefs. Part of the reconciliation process the college offered was to require me to be in conversation with a spiritual mentor on a weekly basis, presumably to ferret out exactly what my problem was, and maybe also to keep an eye on me. It was a rich experience for me, having wide-open theological discussions in which I challenged every aspect of the faith statement and my interlocutor listened and responded patiently and intellectually. I said things that would make Larycia Hawkins blush. But–here’s the key difference–I was willing to play ball. “I’m not sure what I did was wrong,” I said, “and I’m not sure I believe the same things you believe, but I’ll go to the meetings and I’ll participate in the conversation.” That is what Hawkins is refusing. 

The college has offered her a dialogue, a chance at full restitution, and the benefit of the doubt and she has responded with an ultimatum: fire me or don’t, but we’re done talking. Mind you, this isn’t after months and months of exhausting back and forth, but after one memo and one conversation. Her job, the college’s image, her students matter enough to her to warrant an afternoon’s work and no more. Her recent tone–”the college can’t intimidate me”–shows that Jones’ instincts have probably been right all along. She isn’t a team player and she doesn’t just want to get on with her work. She fires from the hip, saying un-thoughtful and divisive things, she seems to revel in tarnishing the college’s image (”you’re enrollment is going to suffer”) and will, when offered a map back into the college’s good graces, burn it, when offered the hand, bite it.  

Which is why Toly is wrong: if much of it is questionable, nothing she has actually done in the past is fire-able, but her “unsatisfactory response” to the inquiry rather is, and good riddance. The most sensible clarification I’ve seen is, naturally, on the college’s website

Finally, let me say that all these stories ended well. Shelley went on being a rebel and also managed to write some of the best poetry ever created in English; I was re-instated and allowed to graduate and later became President of the Wheaton Alumni Association of Washington. I love the school dearly. And I’m pretty sure all will work out well for Dr. Hawkins, who, if nothing else is showing a good bit of media saavy. She’ll likely be let go (what choice is she giving them?) and will likely appear on morning news shows as a victim, and she will almost certainly get an offer (probably a public one) from another university who will then look magnanimous compared with Wheaton. Likely it will pay a good deal more as well. The college will (and probably already has) suffer more than anyone else, but it will be fine, trying quietly to do its good work while the world screams and bleats around its ramparts.