Unity Begins with Grief

Last night someone asked me what it is that Wheaton College faculty need right now. I sent a list of seven items, which has now been shared (with my permission) on a few Facebook pages. I elaborate on that list below.

  1. We should realize that this has been a lose-lose-lose situation. There are no winners here. I think that many people sense this, but many don’t quite get that. There is more than enough to grieve.

    Wheaton College is
    impoverished for the fact that Dr. Hawkins will not continue her work as a
    tenured faculty member. Students will miss her teaching and mentoring.
    Colleagues will miss her tireless commitment to institutional citizenship.
    Though friends will stay in touch, they will miss the daily reminders of her
    selfless interest in their wellbeing. Everyone will suffer in the loss of her
    prophetic voice – her ability to see and call us to a higher standard of justice
    for the marginalized and vulnerable – from which the college has benefitted and
    for which the college has commended her in the past.

    Dr. Hawkins is poorer for
    the painful separation from colleagues and students with whom she has shared
    the past nine years of her career. While we have high hopes for Dr.
    Hawkins’ continued employment with an institution like Wheaton – she embraces
    what it means and takes to work at a confessional educational institution – she
    has made clear that Wheaton is where she would have preferred to
    continue her career.

    We have all lost credibility, community, and trust. It may be that those who believe the outcome is cause for celebration are either out of touch with the college and unaware of these challenges or simply don’t value credibility, community, and trust.

  2. We should give Provost Jones credit for an apology marked by humility, courage, conviction, and grace. It was, without a doubt, one of the most important communications about this controversy. Everyone should see in it many of the virtues and dispositions we all need to take next steps in the right direction.
  3. We should resist spreading rumors about what happened. If people don’t know how it went down, they shouldn’t say much about it. It’s easy to slip into what we think is pretty warranted speculation. But most speculation, even when if it is reasonable and seemingly warranted, is likely to be wrong.

    Rumors have already been quite damaging over the past two months. In fact, I can think of specific instances of completely inaccurate speculation about the faculty, the administration, and the board. Things were reported that we now know to be untrue. In each of those cases, damage was done as the rumor spread. In none of those cases has the damage been entirely undone. It doesn’t make us feel as powerful and informed to tell people, “Hey, I was wrong about that one thing” or “Don’t worry about that thing I said – it’s not as bad as I reported.” For that reason and others, the damage of rumors is rarely undone.

  4. We should acknowledge the diversity of both internal and external constituencies. To one reporter’s question about the relationship between faculty and external constituencies, I replied, “We need to recognize that our external constituencies are diverse. We stumble all over ourselves when we presume that they’re monolithic. Our external constituencies need to realize that faculty are diverse. And they stumble when they presume that we should not be.”

    One day, in the midst of this controversy, I had two communications from Wheaton parents. The first who was angry with faculty that stood with Dr. Hawkins, said that no faculty at Wheaton should be safe. Within hours, a second thanked me for my “struggle for justice.” That is quite the range. Likewise, there is a range of opinions inside the college. 

  5. We should press toward a very serious review of institutional shortcomings, and the review process should include heavy faculty involvement. (Faculty, administration, and board should all be represented, and it would be best to have at least one external and independent member of any review panel.)
  6. We should search our hearts and repent of any hurtful and presumptuous things that have been said about Dr. Hawkins or other faculty. The provost’s emailed apology, now widely circulated on the internet, should be enough to have some people rethinking hasty, ill-informed, and damaging conclusions they may have drawn and then perpetuated unhelpfully.
  7. We should avoid maligning the administration and the board. The process has been marked by very serious deficiencies. Some of those deficiencies are outlined in the now widely shared email from Provost Jones. A list of potential categories of institutional shortcomings – perhaps an incomplete list, but a list – is outlined in the now widely shared email from President Ryken. This controversy has indeed exposed serious institutional challenges.

    While those institutional challenges deserve serious and sustained attention, everyone should check their instinct to malign the administration and the board. I can think of many instances in which unchecked instincts in this direction have resulted in false attribution of motives and inaccurate statements. If we would like the college to come out on the other side of this healthier than it was before, then we will have to hold ourselves accountable to real institutional deficiencies and not pollute that important conversation with specious accusations.

  8. We should hope and pray that the administration and faculty can regain trust and a measure of unity. Good relationships and trust are absolutely essential to the college accomplishing its mission. But alienation and mistrust are the predominant feelings right now, and they are an existential threat to accomplishing the mission of the college. So every step will have to be intentionally plotted to regain trust. People will have to go out of their way to express good faith and good will, because neither is assumed and so few people enjoy the benefit of the doubt.

    President Ryken has said (again, in that now widely shared email) that the unity of the campus is threatened. Saying that campus trust and unity are threatened would be like saying that Pompeii was threatened by the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii was threatened before the eruption. Afterward, it was devastated, covered in thick volcanic ash. 

    But tomorrow, we, too, will be covered in ash. Not just on occasion of this controversy, but because Ash Wednesday and Lent provide us with annual reminders of our own frailty and limitation. If trust and unity are to rise again, perhaps it will need to be from the ashes of humility, frailty, and grief. Unity starts in the ashes.


Here is a Psalm for our time.

Psalm 39 (NLT)

I said to myself, “I will
watch what I do

    and
not sin in what I say.

I will hold my tongue

    when
the ungodly are around me.”

But as I stood there in
silence—

    not
even speaking of good things—

    the
turmoil within me grew worse.

The more I thought about
it,

    the
hotter I got,

    igniting
a fire of words:

“Lord, remind me how brief
my time on earth will be.

    Remind
me that my days are numbered—

    how
fleeting my life is.

You have made my life no
longer than the width of my hand.

    My
entire lifetime is just a moment to you;

    at
best, each of us is but a breath.” Interlude

We are merely moving
shadows,

    and
all our busy rushing ends in nothing.

We heap up wealth,

    not
knowing who will spend it.

And so, Lord, where do I
put my hope?

    My
only hope is in you.

Rescue me from my
rebellion.

    Do
not let fools mock me.

I am silent before you; I
won’t say a word,

    for
my punishment is from you.

10 

But please stop striking
me!

    I
am exhausted by the blows from your hand.

11 

When you discipline us for
our sins,

    you
consume like a moth what is precious to us.

    Each
of us is but a breath. Interlude

12 

Hear my prayer, O Lord!

    Listen
to my cries for help!

    Don’t
ignore my tears.

For I am your guest—

    a
traveler passing through,

    as
my ancestors were before me.

13 

Leave me alone so I can
smile again

    before
I am gone and exist no more.

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