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The Wheaton College Controversy: Implications for Christian Colleges

JANUARY 15, 2016

Wheaton College has moved to fire a political science professor, Larycia  Hawkins, who was placed on administrative leave following statements she made about Muslim and Christian relations.  Her statements included a claim on Facebook last month that Christians and Muslims "worship the same God."  Her comments (and gesture of solidarity--wearing a hijab during Advent) were meant to express the common bond  of the two religions "of the book."

Wheaton characterized her remarks as theological in nature and potentially at odds with the College's understanding of Christian doctrine, as expressed in its Statement of Faith and Community Covenant, which all employees must sign.  In a lengthy statement in December, the College outlined its views on the relationship between Islam and Christianity.   "While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God's revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation, and the life of prayer."

In the month since the story broke, Wheaton College has found itself embroiled in what I would describe as a public relations nightmare.  Conservative alumni and friends commend the College for remaining true to to its evangelical belief system while many academics and free speech advocates view the Institution as blatantly authoritarian, taking illegal actions to remove a popular professor.  

As a former Christian college president and as an alumnus of Wheaton College, I commend the Institution for the position they have taken and for the termination steps they are pursuing.  Despite what appears to be a fight over freedom of speech, Wheaton College is not bound by the First Amendment.  It may limit permissible speech on its campus and it does.  The Statement of Faith reaffirms the salient features of the Christian faith including the belief "in one sovereign God, eternally existing in three persons" who "has revealed Himself and His truth in the created order of the Scriptures, and supremely in Jesus Christ."  The Community Covenant warns that "if we do not wish to live under the provisions of this compact, we should not agree to it."

The Statement of Faith and the Community Covenant not only state what the Wheaton community believes, they set the boundaries for conduct and speech.    When one such as Professor Hawkins presents a belief system that is contrary to the College, she clearly risks adverse consequences in spite of arguments for free speech and academic freedom.

My interest in this Wheaton College story is both personal and professional.  I support my alma mater because of their theological convictions  and the  stand they have taken, but l also follow these developments closely knowing that the outcome of this conflict may have implications for hundreds of other Christian colleges and universities, particularly if it results in litigation.  What will this mean for Christ-centered higher education?

Larry J. McKinney
Higher Education Consultant
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