Dialogue around academic and religious freedoms (and expressions of these freedoms) is a constant in contemporary higher ed. Perhaps due to the pervasive “big brother” presence of media and continued conflict over higher ed’s worth, academia is a hotbed for these issues more than ever.
In December 2015, the world was watching Wheaton College in Illinois, the private college nicknamed “the Harvard of the evangelical higher ed community.” The university placed tenured professor Larycia Hawkins on leave after she donned a hijab on Facebook in solidarity with Muslim women.The caption included with the photo explained why she was wearing the hijab, and referenced how Pope Francis recently affirmed that Muslims and Christians worship the same god.
Hawkins was suspended from the university after it was decided her actions conflicted with the school’s statement of faith. Wheaton had released news of Hawkins’ suspension before a due process or investigation began, and Hawkins publicly made statements on her position, reasserting her actions as well as her faith as a Christian.
Wheaton alumna and videojournalist Linda Midgett was watching, too. After an email exchange, Midgett began filming Hawkins in January 2016 for a documentary named Same God. Midgett followed Hawkins for the next two years, capturing a case study that serves to exemplify a particularly polarized and caustic political landscape in America.
“My speech becomes central to questions that ideally my former university should be pressing into, what religious freedom is and how certain purveyors are [classifying] religious liberty,” says Hawkins.
Wheaton and Hawkins—now a political science professor at the University of Virginia—eventually released a joint statement of mutual resolution and reached a confidential parting agreement. The college’s administrators offered no comment on Same God, and also declined to hold a viewing of the documentary on campus.
It aired worldwide on December 13, 2019, on PBS, and is being released in select theaters and streaming platforms on March 8th, 2020.
Managing internal conflict—before it becomes public
Though this is a particularly complicated scenario in terms of faith, academic freedom and human resource operations, the Wheaton situation does offer a clear lesson for other higher ed institutions. Public statements should be created and shared with care, but communicating clearly with internal faculty, students and alumni should be of utmost importance.
“The focus is often on external communications—getting in front of the press, social media and other outside audiences, all of which are important—when an incident or major issue arises,” says Randell Kennedy, president and founder of Academy Communications, a Boston-area communications consulting agency that works with colleges and universities across the country. “Taking the time to communicate effectively internally,” he adds, “often represents a wise investment of time and resources.”
A truthful, internal dialogue helps ensure that all involved parties feel represented and informed, even if an immediate solution is not available.
The Same God movie trailer can be seen at UBmag.me/samegodfilm.
Stefanie Botelho is UB’s newsletter editor.