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Wheaton College Shows What a ‘Warning’ School Looks Like

By December 17, 2015

Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian college in Illinois, made itself the center of controversy this week when it suspended political science professor Larycia Hawkins after she stated that Muslims and Christians believed in the same god.

Hawkins made the comments on Facebook while explaining her decision to wear a hijab during the Advent season to express her solidarity with Muslims, saying: “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.”

Her post was not well received by her college’s administration. On Tuesday night, Wheaton’s administration published a statement distancing itself from Hawkins’ remarks and the idea that Christianity and Islam share the same deity:

In response to significant questions regarding the theological implications of statements that Associate Professor of Political Science Dr. Larycia Hawkins has made about the relationship of Christianity to Islam, Wheaton College has placed her on administrative leave, pending the full review to which she is entitled as a tenured faculty member.

Wheaton College faculty and staff make a commitment to accept and model our institution’s faith foundations with integrity, compassion and theological clarity. As they participate in various causes, it is essential that faculty and staff engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the College’s evangelical Statement of Faith.

As FIRE’s Samantha Harris explains in USA Today this morning, Wheaton—a private institution that explicitly places other values above the right to free speech—was within its rights when it punished Hawkins:

“Private institutions, being private institutions, have the right under the freedom of association to restrict themselves to like-minded individuals,” Harris said. “What a case like this illustrates is that, particularly when it comes to private colleges, students and faculty need to take a close look and think about what a school thinks about free speech and what the implications of that may mean.”

Wheaton is a private institution that has chosen to restrict its students’ and faculty members’ ability to voice what the college perceives as deviation from church doctrine. Its policies clearly privilege the institution’s religious values over freedom of expression and academic freedom, and leave markedly less room for the type of dialogue that members of less speech-restrictive campuses might expect to encounter.

Wheaton’s “Statement of Faith and Education Purpose” explains that its “curricular approach is designed to combine faith and learning in order to produce a biblical perspective needed to relate Christian experience to the demands of those needs.” Additionally, the college’s “Discrimination, Harassment, Sexual Misconduct, and Relationship Violence Policy” describes further its Christian mission and its expectation that members of the campus community follow and reflect that mission:

Wheaton College seeks to enroll and hire individuals who have decided to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. While the College is not a church, it is yet a community of Christians who seek to live according to biblical standards laid down by Jesus Christ for his body, the church. The goal of campus life at Wheaton College is to live, work, serve, and worship together as an educational community centered around the Lord Jesus Christ. Our mission as an academic community is not merely the transmission of information; it is the education of whole persons who will build the church and benefit society worldwide “For Christ and His Kingdom.” Along with the privileges and blessings of membership in such a community come responsibilities. The members of the Wheaton College campus community take these responsibilities seriously and have consented to pursue the vision articulated in the Wheaton College Community Covenant in order to become members.

FIRE believes it’s important for students to know that the colleges they’re interested in attending may place values like respect for religion or commitment to statements of faith above student and faculty expressive rights. That’s why we rate colleges with policies similar to Wheaton’s as “warning” schools:

FIRE believes that free speech is not only a moral imperative, but also an essential element of a college education. However, private universities are just that—private associations—and as such, they possess their own right to free association, which allows them to prioritize other values above the right to free speech if they wish to do so. Therefore, when a private university clearly and consistently states that it holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech, FIRE warns prospective students and faculty members of this fact.

As FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff has explained, our presumption is that colleges and universities, whether public or private, will uphold expressive rights on campus unless they explicitly state that they hold other values in a higher regard than freedom of speech. When colleges openly state their intention to do exactly that, as Wheaton does, students and faculty should consider themselves warned.

Hawkins’ suspension should be a sign to all Wheaton professors—especially those without the protections that tenure at Wheaton offers—that there may be consequences for those who express opinions at odds with Wheaton’s understanding of religious doctrine. It appears that faculty members are getting that message already. The Washington Post reports:

A Wheaton staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the suspension “sets a precedent for what professors can post on their Facebook page. If Dr. Hawkins is being used as a scapegoat, that will send a message to those of us who are employed full time.”

Hawkins’ experience demonstrates to students and professors the critical importance of examining a private university’s policies before joining its community.