New York Times magazine profile turns former Wheaton College professor into a heroine

When I saw the New York Times magazine was running a lengthy take-out on Larycia Hawkins by a Wheaton graduate, I hoped it would shed some light on her beliefs and motives. The article was far more textured and nuanced than other efforts I'd seen.

And yet. One of the photos of Hawkins -- posed with decorative purple scarf wound about her head and left shoulder while her right shoulder remained uncovered except for a black spaghetti strap dress underneath -- gave me some pause.

This wasn’t a hijab we were seeing here. It was a decoration. If Hawkins showed up on the streets of certain majority Muslim countries (think Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) dressed like that, she might not make it out in one piece.

Members of the GetReligion team have already written a lot about about Professor Hawkins, so bear with us once more. The article starts thus:

Three days after Larycia Hawkins agreed to step down from her job at Wheaton College, an evangelical school in Wheaton, Ill., she joined her former colleagues and students for what was billed as a private service of reconciliation. It was a frigid Tuesday evening last February, and attendance was optional, but Wheaton’s largest chapel was nearly full by the time the event began. A large cross had been placed on the stage, surrounded by tea lights that snaked across the blond floorboards in glowing trails.

The college chaplain read from a psalm and then:

Philip Ryken, the college’s president of six years, spoke next. His father had been an English professor at Wheaton for 44 years, and he grew up in town, receiving his undergraduate degree from the college. “I believe in our fundamental unity in Jesus Christ, even in a time of profound difficulty that is dividing us and threatening to destroy us,” he told the crowd. “These recent weeks have been, I think, the saddest days of my life.” It was the night before the first day of Lent, the 40-day season of repentance in the Christian calendar.
Wheaton had spent the previous two months embroiled in what was arguably the most public and contentious trial of its 156-year history. In December, Hawkins wrote a theologically complex Facebook post announcing her intention to wear a hijab during Advent, in solidarity with Muslims; the college placed her on leave within days and soon moved to fire her. Jesse Jackson had compared Hawkins with Rosa Parks, while Franklin Graham, an evangelist and Billy Graham’s son, declared, “Shame on her!”
Students protested, fasted and tweeted. Donors, parents and alumni were in an uproar. On this winter evening, the first black female professor to achieve tenure at the country’s most prominent evangelical college was now unemployed and preparing to address the community to which she had devoted the past nine years of her life. As a Wheaton anthropology professor, Brian Howell, wrote in January, the episode had become “something of a Rorschach test for those wondering about the state of Wheaton College, evangelicalism and even U.S. Christianity.”

The piece goes on to describe how Wheaton, despite its evangelical past, was different.

… Unlike, say, Bob Jones University or Liberty University, Wheaton is not a de facto training ground for the Christian Right. My professors included feminists, libertarians and Sanders-style socialists, and they conducted scholarly work on seemingly anything they were interested in. No Wheaton professors I spoke with, including sharp critics and those who have left the school, said they were ever afraid to do their own research.

Hawkins was hired at Wheaton in 2007 and was granted tenure in 2013. I had no idea she was recruited before she finished her doctoral dissertation –- which is pretty rare -- and it was clear Wheaton was searching for a faith-friendly black scholar.

But within a few years, she was under considerable strain. I’m glad the writer mentioned that her singleness, as well as race, caused her to stand out on a marriage-minded campus. (I know from experience that being a single female professor on an evangelical Christian campus is not for the faint-hearted). The article left out her age, which would have been helpful to know.

As Hawkins settled in at Wheaton, she struggled. Though she loved her students, the heavy teaching load was stressful, especially for a self-described perfectionist. As a black woman in a predominantly white community, she was asked to serve on many committees and participate frequently in public events like panel discussions. Those commitments left little time for research and writing, though she still received tenure on schedule in 2013. Her health and social life suffered. She rarely had time for exercise or her book club anymore, dating was difficult, and she battled chronic sinus infections, migraines and high blood pressure, which she attributed to stress.

The writer then describes how Hawkins’ final confrontation with Wheaton had many warning signs.

Her experiences as a black woman on campus were never hostile, but she was occasionally uncomfortable. Early on, a “hip-hop chapel,” meant to celebrate black styles of worship, read to her more like a minstrel show, an offensive attempt to “check off the diversity box.” She complained and was rebuffed. ... At one point, when she attended a party in Chicago on the same day as the city’s pride parade, she was asked to answer for a photo that ended up on Facebook. The tension escalated in the spring of 2015, when Hawkins pushed the college to expand its language around diversity to include L.G.B.T.Q. students, a fraught mission on a campus where gay students are forbidden to date.

If I’d been Hawkins, I would have been out job hunting way before the final confrontation, as this narrative makes clear that she didn’t fit at Wheaton and had been privately called on the carpet several times.

Why did she remain there? The article doesn’t say. It was clear, too, that she had refused to recognize certain theological boundaries at Wheaton and rather enjoyed pushing the envelope. Thus, her decision to wear a hijab during Advent 2015 to be in solidarity with Muslims was the culmination of a bunch of incidents -- connected with several hot-button topics and doctrines -- that had needled her supervisors for several years running.

As tmatt has pointed out, colleges in Wheaton's position cannot, for reasons of privacy, go on the record about personnel decisions.

The writer made plain that Wheaton was getting a substantial amount of pressure and threats from donors who were threatening to pull funds if Hawkins was allowed to stay on. And there was details about meetings between Hawkins and the Wheaton provost where she was told how much her job was on the line that I’d not heard before. It seems like the writer got a hold of the best sources she could in a situation involving a confidentiality agreement binding both parties to silence –- and which paid off Hawkins. I’m guessing Hawkins got a year’s salary out of it.

The piece ends with how Hawkins has not made out badly since her exit. She’s had several awards, speaking engagements and a trip to Syria for her pains. She presently has a research fellowship at the University of Virginia, although I had to turn to Fox News to find out that Hawkins was researching Islam.

Would that all fired faculty could land so well! The end of the piece turns into an editorial by the author, who wonders if theological diversity is possible in a place where there’s a common core of beliefs, defended in a doctrinal covenant. If course it isn’t. I don’t understand why Christians are criticized for wanting to maintain their doctrines when I don’t see madrassas hiring Christian teachers nor do I see Jewish colleges hiring Messianic professors.

Sadly, no critical questions were asked of Hawkins in this entire piece.

Why, for instance, did she stay on at Wheaton when it was clear her beliefs were evolving along different lines?

Could the author have entertained the thought that maybe Wheaton felt betrayed by this professor?

Was Hawkins attending a church at the time of her ouster –- I didn’t see one mentioned –- and if so, where was that congregation in all this? 

Was the college 100 percent callous and only mindful of the wishes of parents and donors and thus willing to sacrifice a popular, almost sainted, professor for the common good? That’s the impression one gets. And maybe that’s true but I think at least a few quotes from people who wondered about Hawkins’ lack of common sense in all this would have shown that maybe not everything was as simple as we thought. 

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