On the (Self-) Coddling of Christian Universities

deathofsocratesA few weeks ago Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, released an open letter addressed to his university’s student body. In the letter, Piper appeared to take on the issue of “victimization” culture, railing against a student who apparently objected to the content of a sermon at one of OKU’s chapel services. A number of bloggers have already responded to Piper’s letter in various ways, chief among them my friend and colleague Chris Gehrz over at the Pietist Schoolman and historian John Fea, not to mention numerous commenters to the Pietist Schoolman post. While Piper’s letter won accolades from conservative commentators like Rod Dreher, who hailed Piper as “A Man Among Boys”, Gehrz, Fea, and a number of their respondents had more thoughtful responses. You can read the text of Piper’s letter here.

Rather than respond directly to the letter, however, I’d like to set it in the context of several other recent events involving Christian (especially evangelical) colleges. Briefly:

  • This past August, both Oklahoma Wesleyan and Union University withdrew their memberships in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities over the actions of two other then-member universities (Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College), who changed their hiring policies, after the Obergefell ruling, to legally married same-sex couples. The reason OKW and UU gave for withdrawing from the CCCU was not any sort of decision about the matter by the CCCU, but rather that the CCCU hadn’t moved to condemn EMU and Goshen quickly enough. This means, of course, both universities acted before even knowing what kind of response the CCCU (which had decided, not unreasonably, to discuss the matter first) might make.
  • In early December, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. encouraged his university’s students to carry concealed firearms, specifically in order to counteract a perceived threat from Muslim terrorists. The most chilling sentence in Falwell’s address was this: “I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they, before they walk in and kill us…” Several commentators have already worried about the connotations of the phrase “those Muslims,” but the real problem, for me, is the before: Falwell isn’t talking, here, about responding to a threat that has already materialized; he’s talking about a pre-emptive strike: Let’s go out and get Them before They get Us.
  • Finally and more recently, Wheaton college recently suspended (or, to use their term “placed on administrative leave”) Political Science Professor Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins, apparently, had committed to wearing a hijab during advent as a way of showing solidarity between Christians and Muslims. While Wheaton had no problem with the hijab, the college suspended Hawkins for part of her explanation, in a Facebook post, for why she was doing so, in which she stated that Christians and Muslims “…worship the same God.” Again, what was troubling to me was not that there was debate about that statement (it’s actually a very interesting question), but the speed of Hawkins’ suspension: according to the Christianity Today article covering the event, Hawkins’ posted that Facebook message on December 10–the Thursday, according to Wheaton’s academic calendar, of the last week of regular classes before finals week. It seems likely that Wheaton officials would not have become aware of the posting, or at least have been able to discuss what to do about it, until the next day (Friday); the 12th and 13th, of course, were a weekend, and Wheaton’s suspension of Hawkins, according to its own press release came on Tuesday the 15th, which means that there was only a single business day (the intervening Monday) between Wheaton officials’ becoming aware of the post and placing Hawkins on administrative leave. This means that Hawkins was assuredly placed on leave before any substantive conversation about a complex theological issue could have taken place. It also means that all the substantive conversation about the issue, for Hawkins, has taken place under that administrative leave–under, in other words, at least the implied threat of termination (were that not at stake, there would have been no reason for administrative action at all). Nothing like forcing the suspect to make her case À l’ombre de la guillotine.

It’s the repeated before that’s troubling. Union University withdrew from the CCCU before it knew what the CCCU was going to do about EMU’s and Goshen’s changes in policy. The problem wasn’t, at that point, that the CCCU hadn’t responded as they’d wanted, but that the response they were looking for wasn’t the CCCU’s immediate, knee-jerk response. Falwell exhorted his students, chillingly, to go out and “end those Muslims” before they walked in, calling not for a response to an act of violence in progress, but for a pre-emptive strike against those he feared might possibly commit one. Wheaton took administrative punitive action against Hawkins before any substantive conversation about a complex theological issue could have taken place, forcing any subsequent conversation to take place not between colleagues and fellow inquirers, but between the institutional power of the employer and the termination-threatened employee.

Bear in mind that these are universities–the places that we supposedly set aside precisely in order to creates spaces to inquire into and communicate about difficult issues, to ask questions and seek answers about complex and important matters. But the common element of all three of these incidents is that the institutions acted almost immediately not to ask questions or communicate about hard issues, but precisely to prevent substantive and unfettered communication and inquiry. While Wheaton’s FAQ about the issue asserts that Hawkins’ administrative leave is “…a time for conversation and assessment,” there’s surely a significant rhetorical difference between a conversation between academic colleagues that takes place without constraint and one that takes place under an official administrative action by the institution, and there’s no reason that Wheaton’s administration could not have chosen to have some of those conversations prior to taking sweeping institutional action, especially an action imposed at the beginning of finals week. In the absence of additional information, everything about the Wheaton decision smacks of placing action before thought.

It’s that sense of–quite literally–acting before thinking that makes all these incidents disturbingly strange for institutions of higher learning. It’s as though it’s not enough only to be orthodox; one must also be immediately and autonomically orthodox, with no room for asking questions or communication before an equally-autonomic institutional response must kick in.

To put it a simpler way, these seem like responses born in fear more than thought (fear of what I’m not sure). There appears to be a disturbing insistence on invoking institutional power right away to insulate the institution from ideas or persons its most powerful members think might be unorthodox or dangerous, without stopping beforehand even to ask whether or not that might be the case. In none of these cases was authentic inquiry allowed to precede institutional action. Doesn’t this begin to sound like the story of the student who insisted on not being made uncomfortable by the content of a sermon, not being forced into a situation where he/she must struggle with challenging ideas rather than maintaining his or her own “orthodoxy?”

Who, then, is really insisting on being coddled?

[Note: Lest anyone think I’m merely being grumpy about all this, I’m going to take some time in my next post to talk about what I think might be some better alternatives for thinking about and dealing with such issues in more positive and (to use the the term in vogue in some evangelical circles) irenic ways.]