The academic life is odd. It requires a deep investment of time studying a relatively narrow topic. It involves broad familiarity with a wide and ever-expanding field of knowledge. It puts one’s mind on display daily, open to the evaluation of others. It can do a number on your ego. Of course, it is also a life of great reward, from working with students in formative ways, growing with colleagues, and speaking to the wider public that, despite a current of anti-intellectualism of U.S. culture, still holds the professoriate in high regard.
One of the features of the academic life that is often not well understood outside our community is the custom of tenure. It may seem to be a reward for sticking it out for certain amount of time, or a kind of union rule run amok, protecting incompetence into retirement. The reason for tenure at the university level, however, is not to pacify the academic life, but to enhance it. Tenure helps to ensure intellectual freedom and protect faculty in the pursuit of truth. Pursuing truth means going where the data lead, creating what is crying out for creation, or applying an interpretation that seems correct, even if it runs against conventional wisdom or political interests. Tenure is meant to protect the work of scholars from political pressure and cultural currents, so that the truth can be pursued and spoken. The institution grants it because it believes these faculty will pursue truth in their research and teaching, and enhance the life of the community.
At the same time, tenure has the potential to be abused, so it is neither easy to get, nor inviolable. At Wheaton College, as at most institutions, it takes seven years of service to earn the right to apply for tenure. The application is accompanied by evidence of strength in teaching, scholarship, student mentoring, and institutional service. At Wheaton as at most institutions, it is a justifiably high bar. Once tenure is earned, faculty must still demonstrate competence in these four areas, but, as Tobin Grant has recently written, once the faculty member has made the case through the tenure application and tenure has been granted, the institution bestows a new measure of trust.
At an institution such as Wheaton, the trust granted with tenure has deeper and more consequential significance than just professional competence. David Lansdale argued in a Stanford dissertation written in1990 that faculty are often the “liberalizing” influence pushing a Christian college away from its sectarian mission to a broadly secular, pluralist one. For that reason, every faculty member at Wheaton, since at least the 1920’s, has been under some theological scrutiny in order to be awarded tenure. As part of our process to earn tenure, we all write an academic “Faith and Learning Paper” in which we think Christianly within our discipline, whether we work in areas of theology or not. This is not as easy for the average physicist, music theorist, or ecologist as it is for a Christian theologian or Bible scholar, but we all engage this process with integrity, understanding the centrality of this work to Wheaton’s mission. Thus, tenure is meant to represent the work of the faculty member to earn the trust of the institution, and the granting of it as the sign that this trust has, in fact, been earned.
Given the events of the past month, I am concerned about the relationship of tenure to our ability to teach and do scholarship, and what it may mean in the future. As Dr. Noah Toly recently covered in a careful and thoughtful piece, in what we have seen, it appears that the questions around Dr. Hawkins’ theology were answered in her December 17 statement to the administration. It seems that her explanations were clear and acceptable. It appears that the underlying issue that what she has written in response to legitimate administrative questions is not being trusted. The request for additional conversation, then, makes me nervous.
Now it is clear that in the situation with Dr. Hawkins trust has been damaged on both sides. This is why reconciliation is necessary. Yet the power still largely rests with the institution, insofar as Dr. Hawkins’ job and the meaning of tenure is concerned. Let me be clear that I am not accusing Wheaton of an abuse of power in this case. I believe that the administrators and trustees have acted in what they feel are the interests of the college, an institution they have been charged to protect. I know and respect the administrators involved and believe them to be men of great character and integrity. I do not know many of the trustees personally, but have interacted with almost all of them (some I do count as friends) and believe them all people of good will. More importantly, they are the ones with the significant responsibility to protect and advance the mission and identity of Wheaton. This is no small thing. But Larycia Hawkins is the vulnerable person, and, as she has said, this decision affects us all. It affects all faculty and our relationships with our students, our colleagues, and the institution. Changing academic jobs is not a simple matter, as one's academic profile often becomes adapted to the place where you choose to invest. My sister, Larycia, has demonstrated that there are risks to take stands, but we stand with those in common cause to defend what we believe is important and right.
Wearing my regalia in solidarity with Larycia Hawkins is not to stand against Wheaton, or to shame or belittle those who act on its behalf. Instead, I seek to stand with the mission and meaning of Wheaton as an institution for Christ and His Kingdom, where we can trust one another in this mission. I wear it because I believe in the integrity of tenure and its importance to the academic life. I wear it because I believe that Larycia Hawkins has acted with integrity to uphold the ideals of academic freedom, and I stand with her in seeking a restoration of the relationship between her and Wheaton College. I wear it because I believe in the mission of Wheaton as an institution of higher education rooted in a Christian mission guided by God and His word. I wear it to stand with the ideals of this school and my fellow faculty who strive to uphold them.
This is a time of great pain for Wheaton as so many watch a conflict unfold that is legal, theological, interpersonal, cultural, and spiritual in various measures. Faculty, students, alumni, parents, and trustees have invested deeply into the mission of Wheaton. In practicing this form of embodied solidarity, I hope to say to a watching world that I am engaged in this process. I care about Larycia and the outcome of this. I care about how Wheaton is perceived within and beyond our community. I care about the integrity of our processes, the integrity of policies such as tenure, and the trust it represents. As a tenured faculty member, I want to be trusted that my yes will mean yes, and my no means no. I want to be viewed as a partner in this work.
In the end, there are not “sides” to this. The Trustees are given the responsibility to shepherd the mission of Wheaton College, and we are all given the responsibility and opportunity to uphold it. I believe we are all on the same side. And very soon I expect to stand, in my regalia, with us all.
 H/t to Wheaton librarian and historian David Malone for posting portions of this dissertation on line and summarizing its basic argument. Although there is not, as far as I can tell, an accessible online version, its existence can be verified through the hyperlink.