On Wheaton College statements on Charlottesville, Fred Clark’s “Faculty Lounge,” and reluctance to weigh in on other institutions’ situations

This past several months have brought public scrutiny to
many campus controversies. From questions about diversity, inclusion, and
collegiality at Duke Divinity School to questions of academic freedom at
Trinity College (CT) and a campus shutdown at Evergreen State University,
colleges and universities have made major headlines this year. (And that’s not
including debates about free speech on campus.)

I have very little to say about those situations. In fact,
this past year I made it my goal to say nothing at all about controversies on
other campuses.

It’s not that I don’t think they’re important. I think they’re
incredibly important. I keep up with them as best I can. I read about them. I listen carefully to friends and professional associates at these schools.

It’s not that I’m not invested. My own calling and career
are to some extent tied up with the reputation and trajectory of higher
education in the United States.

It’s also not that I don’t empathize. On the contrary, I’ve
had a front-row seat to very complicated and painful campus drama. I pick up
(or click on) a Chronicle of Higher
article on some other institution’s crisis and can almost feel it
like it’s my own.

Almost. And that’s
why I’ve not commented on news from other campuses enduring their own
complicated and painful crises. I know the how big the gap can be between
insider experience of and outside perspective on these crises.

Nothing brought this home for me like a lunch with a Wheaton
College alumnus last academic year. Our conversation eventually turned to Wheaton’s
recent painful episode of December 2015-February 2016. As it turns out, this
alumnus holds a PhD in one of the social sciences, teaches at the intersection
of social science, ethics, and religion, was teaching a course on the
interfaith relations at the time that Wheaton was in the news, made research on
our crisis one of the required case studies for that course, and read just
about everything (maybe everything) published about what had gone wrong at the
college. Despite the earnestness, learnedness,
experience, awareness, and investment of this alumnus, we spent most of our
time discussing the gaps in their
understanding of the situation.
this illuminating and convicting experience, I took to heart a reluctance to
comment on other institutions’ crises, because more often than not I’d have no
idea what I was talking about.

All of this brings me to a post by Fred Clark at his Patheos blog, Slacktivist. Clark picks up on, and commends, the Wheaton College
faculty statement regarding this month’s “Unite the Right” marches in
. He then attempts to put it in the context of both Wheaton’s
institutional culture, recent history, and identity, and in the context of “the
academic and clerical wing of white evangelicalism.” He calls this wing the “faculty
lounge” and asserts that it is not able or allowed to speak controversial
truths to broader publics, but at best is allowed to speak those truths to students in classrooms and to colleagues in the lounge. He sees the Wheaton College faculty statement in
light of recent controversies and as evidence of a rift between the faculty and
administration. His comments regarding our president nearly devolve into

For the most part, Clark’s analysis is uncharitable, uninformed, incomplete,
and incorrect.

As the statement was drafted and revised, faculty had the
advantage of counsel from administrators and staff who did not, as far as I
know (I was involved in some, but not all, of those conversations), make any
attempt whatsoever to stifle or soften the faculty voice. To the contrary, I
believe that the statement is a better one because faculty were open to early
conversation about the statement and because of the input that faculty
received. Moreover, President Philip Ryken has taken the opportunity during orientation
to bring the issue of racial justice before new students and parents. He has
used his own platform to acknowledge, affirm, and amplify the voices of faculty
who have spoken out about the issue, commending to our entire community statements
and articles by Jamie Aten, Ed Stetzer, and Theon Hill, along with the
statement signed by more than 150 faculty. The statement has been cited in The Atlantic, which has, I think, an audience well
beyond our classrooms and faculty lounges. There have been no repercussions, and so it seems a stretch to say
that there is any concerted effort to prevent faculty from speaking on
potentially divisive issues. I cannot speak for all of my colleagues, but looking
at it from my perspective on the inside, the process of drafting, revising, and
disseminating the statement has been evidence of collaboration and mutual respect between the
faculty and the administration.

As I noted after my conversation with our alum last year,
the fact that it’s very hard to see all of this from the outside makes it very
easy to speak without knowing what we’re talking about. So maybe more of us
should take some soft vow not to weigh in too quickly on another institution’s situations.
In general, we should probably be more eager to take interest but more reluctant
to take the mic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s