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Justice Means Justice for Everyone

The high-profile case of Wheaton College and Dr Larycia Hawkins continues to grind on.

Full disclosure: I earned my MA there; I taught there briefly as a doctoral student; I have returned there periodically for lectures and conferences; and I have a dozen friendly acquaintances on the faculty and administration, including the provost, Prof Stanton Jones.

Stan Jones has come under some heavy fire in this situation. That’s as it should be, as he is a senior member of a college administration with whom many people, myself included, have some serious disagreements.

I want to take a moment today, however, to clarify what kind of fire ought to be trained on the provost and what not. Too many bloggers, tweeters, Facebookers, and others have been singling him out as if he is engaged in some kind of personal vendetta against Dr Hawkins or, only slightly less awful, he is pressing an anti-Islamic or racist or sexist agenda of his own against Dr Hawkins.

I cannot read Stan’s mind and we have not corresponded in any substantial way during this controversy. But the record shows that he is not anti-Islamic. Consider his remarks on the very day of 9/11 when he, acting as president of Wheaton College while President Litfin was on leave, publicly called for careful, just, and compassionate treatment of Muslims. He seems not to be racist or sexist either…or Wheaton would not have hired far more “non-white” and “non-male” professors during his tenure as provost than it had during the entire century and more of its previous history.

Those who are singling out the provost in this situation seem to me to be, at best, simply unaware of the political realities of the situation. And as people properly stand up for Dr Hawkins, and as she uses my previous blog posts in her defense (as she is welcome to do), I expect she would agree that no one should be victimized in this situation, including Provost Jones. So let’s consider the real world of academic administration in such a case.

Provosts in situations such as these almost never speak or act for themselves. On anything of this importance, and especially now with this kind of public attention, a competent provost does exactly what he is supposed to do: take action strictly according to the school’s regulations and according to the direction of his bosses—the college president, at whose pleasure he serves (and at whose command he must resign), and the board of trustees, who employ the president on behalf of the school’s constituency. One can be pretty sure, therefore, that Stan Jones is doing what he is being told to do, regardless of his personal opinions and preferences on the matter.

To be sure, he may well agree with everything he is being asked to do. He might even have suggested this or that action. I do not mean to exonerate him of anything that is truly his responsibility. But we have no way of knowing what he himself has wanted as this matter has unfolded—at least, not after his initial conversation with Dr Hawkins when, one must assume, the president and others were in the loop. What we can be sure of, though, is that the provost is doing nothing that is not at the behest of the president and board of the college. That’s what provosts simply have to do.

(Interestingly, we might actually have a clue that Stan Jones himself might not in fact have been pressing for Dr Hawkins’s removal. According to the accounts I have read, including hers, he initially accepted her theological statement in mid-December…only to inform her the next day that further theological conversation with the board was now required. It’s possible that overnight he had a big change of mind. Perhaps instead, however, something else happened that led him to request further conversation with her. One can only speculate, without further information, as to why he came to make that request.)

If you want to disagree with Wheaton College’s administration, therefore, feel free. I myself have said publicly that I am both confused and troubled as to why Wheaton’s administration has taken the line that it has in this discussion. I am asking us all only to treat everyone involved with justice, including Provost Jones. And we will do so, I trust, if we have an accurate understanding of the way provosts actually have to do their jobs.

Two more things. First, I myself have suffered at the hands of academic administrators, so I do not have any reason reflexively to defend such people. But I also have been vindicated by academic administrators, so I don’t automatically assume the worst, either. One crucial lesson I learned in each of these several cases, however, is that outsiders almost never have access to all the pertinent information. Stan Jones may be acting in a way I find hard to fathom, let alone accept, in this case because he has access to information I don’t. Time will tell, but in the meanwhile, I simply have to remember that just because I cannot imagine what could possibly justify action A or B doesn’t mean that there is no justification for action A or B.

Second, Provost Jones could, of course, quit his position should he object to the administration’s line on this matter. He doesn’t have to do everything he is told to do, and his conscience could compel him to resign. He is, in fact, in his last year in this job: he has become afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease and is struggling to serve Wheaton well during his last year there. But no one can undertake that particular job and sound off whenever he disagrees with his bosses—right? In that kind of “cabinet” position in an administration, one either makes the best of the decision that has been made, however much one might privately disagree, or one resigns. It is just that binary.

A provost in this vexing situation, then, would have to take a broad view and decide how the most shalom can be made, and who is most likely to make it. Just as an exercise in charitable imagination (and I have no evidence to think this is actually the case: this is a thought experiment only), let us consider the following hypothetical: Wouldn’t it be bitterly ironic if Stan Jones knew that Dr Hawkins would be in more trouble if he did resign and left her to the other leaders and the bureaucratic process now launched—and yet we decide to pick on him?

God help me, and the rest of us, to keep from oversimplifying a complex and difficult situation.

And may we truly obey the Lord—Larycia Hawkins’s Lord, Stan Jones’s Lord, Wheaton College’s Lord, and my Lord—to truly love everyone involved.


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