Wheaton College's board of trustees have admitted that the evangelical school erred in judgment when it placed political science professor Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave last winter after she posted on Facebook that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
As first reported by The Christian Post, Hawkins, the first African-American female tenured professor at the Illinois higher-education institution, took to Facebook last December to announce that she was wearing a hijab throughout the Advent to show her solidarity with Muslims. In the Facebook post, Hawkins asserted that Muslims are also people of the book and "worship the same God."
Shortly thereafter, the school placed Hawkins on administrative leave pending a review of the "theological implications" behind her comment. After conducting a review and having a theological discussion with Hawkins, it emerged that reconciliation efforts had reached an impasse after Hawkins refused to continue the theological dialogue with the school's administration.
Provost Stanton Jones then recommended to the school's president, Philip Ryken, in January that the school begin Hawkins' for-cause termination proceedings.
Although Jones later rescinded his recommendation to begin termination proceedings after being pressured by faculty members, it was announced in February that Hawkins and the school would part ways. Hawkins was later hired at the University of Virginia.
The whole debacle caused much unwanted media attention and scrutiny to be directed at Wheaton College and Ryken asked the school's board of trustees to review the events associated with Hawkins' departure. In response, the board created a task force to review the events. On Tuesday, the board's task force released a 15-page final report highlighting its findings. The report was hindered somewhat by the fact that Hawkins declined to be interviewed by the task force.
"The Review Task Force and the Trustees affirm that the confessional identity of Wheaton College made it necessary to engage Dr. Hawkins about these [Facebook] statements – and especially those about human origins and the relationship between Christianity and Islam," the report states. "We note that the College did not oppose Dr. Hawkins' decision to wear a hijab during Advent and commended her gesture of care for Muslims in the face of discrimination. While her Facebook posts and media interviews seemed primarily intended to invite others to join her in this gesture of solidarity with Muslims who were unfairly associated with violent terrorist acts, her theological statements in support of this solidarity could be interpreted in ways that were inconsistent with the College's Statement of Faith."
The task force could not decisively conclude whether or not Hawkins theological views aligned with the school's statement of faith.
"While Dr. Hawkins did submit written responses to the Provost's initial questions, she declined to engage in further theological conversation creating an impasse between her and the administration," the report adds. "Furthermore, the mediated agreement between Dr. Hawkins and the College to separate ended the process to determine whether her theological views were consistent with the Statement of Faith."
Ultimately, the report admits that Jones' decision to place Hawkins on administrative leave after their first face-to-face meeting was an "error in judgment, especially since she agreed to prepare a written response to his concerns."
"Publicly announcing the imposition of administrative leave exacerbated the conflict and was distressing to Dr. Hawkins," the report continues. "She should have been informed that the administration believed a public response to the situation was necessary and given adequate notice of the public announcement that she was being placed on administrative leave."
Also the report contends that Jones should have reached out to Hawkins again before issuing his recommendation for termination proceedings.
The report also explains that Jones and Hawkins already had a difficult history and strained relationship before the debacle that might have led to the challenges of the situation.
"While acknowledging their strained relationship — and thus the wisdom of inviting others such as her Dean or the President into the conversation with him when issues arose in December 2015 — we also note that Provost Jones was at many times a strong advocate for Dr. Hawkins," the report explains.
Considering that Jones revoked his recommendation to begin termination proceedings and issued an apology to Hawkins, the report states that there were many actions taken by the school administration that were regrettable.
The report suggests that Ryken could have taken a more active role as president to encourage Provost Jones to seek more counsel from his senior leaders and the director of human resources before acting so quickly to suspend Hawkins.
"However, President Ryken's active engagement with Dr. Hawkins following the Notice of Termination effectively facilitated a resolution of the conflict," the report reads. "Following the mediated agreement to part ways, his emphasis on lament in acknowledging the pain experienced by the community set a gracious and appropriate tone for both the reconciliation service at the College and the press conference in Chicago."
The report advises that the institution should set "clear and transparent protocols" to ensure that "theological boundary conversations related to the intersection of theology, research and scholarship" can take place in a respectful manner.
"This would go a long way toward encouraging both theological rigor and academic freedom within a vibrant intellectual community," the report states. "Thoughtfully engaging in conversations about our core theological beliefs must take into account concerns about academic freedom and a clearly understood process."