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“A reconciliation that is not”: An open letter to Wheaton College president (GUEST POST)

Wheaton asked for comments. James Skillen (and family) answered.

Photo of Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College (Illinois). Modified from original photo by Stevan Sheets via Flickr Creative Commons

In the aftermath of the events surrounding Larycia Hawkins, Wheaton College president Philip Ryken asked alumni to submit comments to the Board of Trustees that could be used as part of their review. Ask, and you shall be answered.

This is an open letter sent to Ryken from a family of noteworthy alumni. James W. Skillen (’66) is co-founder and former president of the Center for Public Justice, a Washington think-tank that “seeks to do justice from a Christian-democratic perspective by recognizing different religions and points of view and keeping the public square open to people of all or no faiths.” His daughter Jeanene F. Skillen is also a graduated from Wheaton in 1994. His son James R. Skillen ( ’96) is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Calvin College. 

Photo of Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College (Illinois). Modified from original photo by Stevan Sheets via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo of Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College (Illinois). Modified from original photo by Stevan Sheets via Flickr Creative Commons

Dear Dr. Ryken:

The disturbing affair at Wheaton College that began last December and led to the departure of tenured political science professor Larycia Hawkins in February is supposed to be winding down. In your February 22 letter, you acknowledged that the affair has involved painful circumstances that led to the “mutual agreement between the College and Dr. Larycia Hawkins to part ways.” It does seem right, then, for you to have “asked the Board of Trustees to conduct a thorough review, which will include outside perspectives and expertise.”

The college community, for which you indicate your representative role by frequent use of  “we” in your letter, is now apparently taking stock. You say, “We have entered into a time of lament, evaluation, repentance, forgiveness, and healing.” And you add, “While we are imperfect in many ways, we ask the Holy Spirit to sanctify and empower us, so that we may experience true spiritual unity and do our common work to the best of our God-given abilities.” Earlier in February, when you announced the agreement between yourself (the “we” of “the College”) and Dr. Hawkins, you spoke of a process of reconciliation in which all parties are engaged. Indeed, you explained that the College and Dr. Hawkins “have [already] come together and found a mutual place of resolution and reconciliation.”

While these communications from you are fully loaded with the language of evangelical piety and spirituality, they actually say nothing specific about what is being lamented, repented of, forgiven, or healed. In fact, if we correctly understand what the “mutual agreement” achieved, the college community, on whose behalf you spoke, may never learn anything specific at all.  Everything that had taken place since December, causing a growing swell of questions, protests, interviews, and appeals about the treatment of Dr. Hawkins, was met suddenly with your announcement of the secret agreement. Everything that was up for question and in dispute was halted, stymied, sidelined by a decision that will now remain opaque to the college community and the wider public, locked away in a black box. What kind of “evaluation” and “reconciliation” can take place in such circumstances?

The college community as a whole was in essence told to accept blindly what you did on its behalf. Besides being told that you and Dr. Hawkins had signed a sealed agreement, the faculty, students, staff, and alumni were told, in essence, that they would learn nothing more. No further steps would be taken to resolve the conflict that was crying out for answers. Every legitimate governance procedure in which the faculty were involved at the time was simply cut off, suddenly and arbitrarily pushed aside. And you offer no explanation or apology for this to the “College” in whose name you just sealed a secret agreement with Dr. Hawkins? How, then, could “the College” and Dr. Hawkins have already “found a mutual place of resolution and reconciliation”?

Dr. Ryken, we see no truth coming from the process that began with the secret agreement and continues now with the trustees conducting a review—no truth, that is, which would be adequate and necessary for reconciliation. It seems unlikely that anyone will ever know whether Dr. Hawkins was guilty of any offence for which she might legitimately have been dismissed. We will never know what you did or said to her that led (compelled?) her to sign that agreement after she had stated repeatedly that she wanted to remain at Wheaton. Shall we assume that Dr. Hawkins will never receive a public apology from you (the College) for having halted the faculty and administration governance processes under way at the time, processes that would have helped to resolve the matter transparently? And shall we also assume that the Faculty Council will never receive answers to its questions sent to you (prior to the “parting of ways” agreement) together with its request, unanimously supported, that you halt termination proceedings against Dr. Hawkins? Those questions (as reported in Christianity Today’s electronic “The Galli Report,” Jan. 21, 2016) still stand:

—Does the college have a position on what can or cannot be said regarding the question: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?”

—What is the process for determining acceptable interpretations of the statement of faith? Do faculty have a role in this process? How will faculty know if their views and/or statements are in danger of being judged unacceptable?

—Is it considered proper process to place a faculty member on leave based on public statements that could be outside the statement of faith before there is a process of interpretation?

—What is administrative leave, and how does the Employee Handbook relate to the Faculty Handbook in the case of disciplinary situations?

—What policies are in place for administration to deal with “emergency” social media situations?

The faculty committee that was proceeding by due process toward the scheduled “trial” of Dr. Hawkins on February 22 will never hear the witnesses and weigh the facts that could have led them to a reasoned judgment about her guilt or innocence. The college community, including its faculty, students, and alumni, will never learn why the administration took the steps it did. What, for example, are we to make of the fact that you announced the agreement with Dr. Hawkins on the very day that Provost Stanton Jones withdrew his earlier recommendation to terminate her contract and offered her a personal apology for his handling of the affair up to that point? Presumably, the review of the whole matter by the Board of Trustees will not include any publicly available assessment of what was contained in the secret agreement, or of how you arrived at it, or of how you and the trustees took into account Dr. Jones’ letter of apology. Everything important about this affair has now been consigned to the dark. Does that suggest that from your point of view the truth cannot be told?

While the college is not a political community, with citizens and a government bound by the rule of law, the college does have a significant array of laws and procedures that are supposed to govern it: laws for student and faculty behavior, standing committees with rules of procedure for assessing faculty performance and readiness for promotion and tenure, and more. Yet whatever those laws require, and however extensive they may be, the Hawkins affair clearly shows, or so it seems to us, that you, with the backing of the trustees, are able to take arbitrary action without regard to those laws and the responsibilities of faculty and staff. If what has transpired is not a violation, or at least a belittling, of the rule of law at Wheaton, then the trustees of the college surely owe a public explanation of your and their behavior. Just as there can be no reconciliation without exposure of the truth, so there is no assurance of justice under arbitrary and opaque governance. And without truth and justice there can be no meaningful repentance, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation.

For these reasons, President Ryken, we are submitting the following recommendations to you and the Board of Trustees for consideration during the trustees’ review of the Hawkins affair.

The president and trustees of Wheaton College should:

1) make public their lament for having failed to follow due process in dealing with Dr. Hawkins, particularly (1) for placing her on administrative leave before a thorough review of her alleged Statement of Faith violations, and (2) for not allowing the affair to reach a legitimate, transparent conclusion that could have led to her full reinstatement or to her dismissal for clearly stated cause;

2) ask publicly even now for the forgiveness of both Dr. Hawkins and the faculty for having treated them unjustly during the course of the affair;

3) take concrete steps of repentance and healing by stipulating how the administration and trustees will henceforth uphold and abide by the laws that do govern the faculty, students, administrators, and trustees and by instituting clearly stated prohibitions of any act of arbitrary, opaque governance;

4) establish the terms, where they are not already clear, on which faculty and students have the right and the authority to exercise their responsibilities without fear of arbitrary interference in any due process; and if the trustees will not do this, then they should state forthrightly the circumstances in which they reserve the right to act as arbitrarily as they judge necessary to achieve their aims even when those aims and the means employed to achieve them are kept secret.

Thank you in advance for considering this assessment and its recommendations.

Yours sincerely,

James W. Skillen (Wheaton ‘66)
B.D. Westminster Theological Seminary; Ph.D. Duke University;
President (now retired), Center for Public Justice, Washington, D.C.

Jeanene F. Skillen (Wheaton, ’94)
M.A. University of Virginia

James R. Skillen (Wheaton ’96)
M.A. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; Ph.D. Cornell University;
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Calvin College

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