WHEATON, Ill. (RNS) Protests and prayer marked the first day of the spring semester at Wheaton College after an acrimonious holiday break during which the evangelical school pushed ahead with termination proceedings against a tenured professor who said Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
Despite wind chills dipping below zero, several dozen students gathered on the steps of the evangelical school’s Edman Memorial Chapel Monday (Jan. 11) with signs reading, “Academic Rigor = Academic Freedom.” Others chanted “Reinstate Doc Hawk” over the ringing of the chapel bells.
Wheaton administrators did not permit media onto the suburban Chicago campus to allow students to reconnect with the campus without distraction, but a handful of reporters and photographers gathered on the sidewalk just outside the gates.
Last week, the college confirmed it had started termination proceedings against Larycia Hawkins who wore a Muslim headscarf during the Advent period preceding Christmas as a sign of solidarity with Muslim believers. Her case now goes to a faculty review board.
The political science professor, who has taught at Wheaton since 2007, also posted a photo of herself wearing a hijab on her personal Facebook page.
Wheaton has said it took issue not with the professor’s photo, but with her justification for it. She wrote on Facebook, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
Hawkins stood by her belief that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, something the college has said seems “inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions.”
On Sunday, Hawkins again took to Facebook, this time encouraging supporters not to "demonize" Wheaton or its administration, but to shower all concerned, particularly Provost Stan Jones, "with thoughts and prayers and actions that emanate love, grace, peace, and if necessary, forgiveness."
“Students still believe that reconciliation is possible by reinstating Dr. Hawkins with tenure immediately, ending the termination process, and issuing a public apology to Dr. Hawkins,” reads a statement from students identified as "supporters of #reinstatedochawk."
Both students and faculty dressed in “a sign of embodied solidarity” with Hawkins, posting pictures of themselves wearing all black on social media using the hashtag #ReinstateDocHawk.
The college responded with a statement, saying: "College leadership continues to listen to the concerns of its students expressed through social media, a peaceful demonstration and meetings with the administration. While we appreciate this feedback, since this is a personnel issue, the administration will continue to approach it through the established process put in place to handle such matters."
But it was not only students protesting. Wheaton psychology professor Michael Mangis said “quite a few” faculty planned to wear their full academic regalia to class -- some, until Hawkins is reinstated.”
That doesn’t mean those faculty members all are taking a side, he said, but simply expressing solidarity with a professor under siege.
Mangis had expressed his support for Hawkins in a comment on her original Facebook post. An article published Saturday on the Time magazine website suggested Mangis and Hawkins received a different response from Jones, who admitted to Mangis privately that Hawkins' statement was “innocuous.”
Mangis said race and gender may have played a role in Hawkins’ case, however unintentionally. Hawkins is Wheaton’s first-ever tenured black female professor.
“Wheaton has been so long entrenched in the white male American evangelical group mindset, it’s hard to shake out of it,” Mangis said. “Wheaton has to bring in fresh voices. It’s not right to say to the fresh voice, ‘You don’t sound like a white male American evangelical.’”
Additional protests are expected to continue throughout the week. Students are planning a sit-in in the offices of President Philip Ryken and Jones, according to the release. Several faculty members also are planning “teach-ins,” in which they will present information to students about the college’s actions.
(Emily McFarlan Miller is a contributor to RNS)