Wheaton College Trustees host open forum, report on findings of Task Force

After nine months of investigation and deliberation by a Review Task Force — brought together in February after former associate professor of political science Larycia Hawkins departed the school following an extended public controversy — the Wheaton College Board of Trustees released a public version of the Task Force’s findings Tuesday evening. The written explanation of the findings were followed up with an open forum on Wednesday evening featuring Wheaton College President Ryken, Trustee and Chair of the Review Task Force Greg Waybright ‘74, and Trustees Dale C. Wong ‘85, Kathy Vaselkiv ‘83 and Andrea D. Scott ‘93.

The report — not to be confused with the findings the Review Task Force shared with the Board of Trustees privately — serves as a statement from the Trustees summarizing those findings and the recommendations that the Trustees “believe will be most productive” for learning from the events of last semester.

The 15-page report addresses each of the five questions that were assigned for investigation by the Task Force, includes nine recommendations that Ryken has committed to implementing and ends with the Trustees’ vision for the institution moving forward.

The report expresses regret for ways that they, as Trustees and the ultimate authority over the college, “have contributed to the distress within our global Wheaton family,” but it stops short of identifying specific missteps they feel responsible for. It also acknowledges errors of judgment on the part of some in the Wheaton community, but does not indicate that any explicit policies were broken — though it does call for clearer and more explicit policies to be articulated going forward.  

Echoing the language of former Provost Stanton Jones’ own February apology, the report acknowledges a lack of “wisdom and congeniality” in some of Jones’ actions. Specifically, it points to Jones’ choices to first approach Hawkins through a mutual contact, to place Hawkins on administrative leave prior to her written response, to fail to adequately notify Hawkins that there would be a public announcement about her leave and to “introduce significant confusion” about possible resolutions when meeting with Hawkins last Dec. 19. The report calls these actions “significant missteps” but affirms Jones’ apology and decades of service to the college and to “promoting racial and gender diversity.”

The Trustees’ harshest comments were reserved for those inside the college who leaked private documents to the media and for those outside the college who spoke abusively about Hawkins on social media. They called dissemination of private communications “unethical and unprofessional” and regretted “abhorrent and harmful” social media comments that demonstrated racism and misogyny.

The report declines to address whether or not Hawkins’ public comments violated the statement of faith. At Wednesday night’s discussion, Ryken attributed this to the fact that faculty processes — derailed by Jones’ decision in February to withdraw termination proceedings against Hawkins — would have been the proper means to address that question. In the report and at the discussion, Waybright noted that Hawkins declined to interview with the Task Force — a choice Waybright said he understands but required the Task Force to focus solely on actions by the administration, faculty and staff. The report does call for an institutional statement on the theological and missiological relationships between Christianity and Islam.

The nine recommendations were condensed from over 70 that Task Force members considered, Waybright said on Wednesday night. Vaselkiv added that, while some were combined, the recommendations in the Trustees’ report fully reflect the final recommendations made by the Task Force.

Many of those recommendations focus on creating clearer protocols. There are recommendations to resolve contradictions between the Employee and Faculty Handbooks, to develop more specific procedures for actions against faculty personnel, and to revise the Faculty Handbook to address things like “expectations for modeling the Statement of Faith” and “guidelines with respect to the use of social media.”

Another recommendation acknowledges the ways that partiality can be unintentional and calls for “guidance in how to develop skill in identifying, understanding and overcoming unconscious bias for our campus community.” One theme of Wednesday evening’s event was deep concern from both students and trustees about the detrimental impact of last semester’s events on attempts to deepen ethnic diversity on campus. Waybright, who pastors a church attended by people who speak an estimated 70 languages, said that “incarnational solidarity” is “at the heart of living out the gospel.”

Visual estimations indicated no more than 150 students in attendance at Wednesday night’s open forum, which also overlapped with classes, local church events and Game Two of the World Series featuring the Chicago Cubs. With notice of the event and the contents of the report sent to students less than 36 hours in advance, some students expressed frustration. Senior Daniel Hudson challenged Waybright after Waybright said he was surprised that so many students showed up when. According to Hudson, it was more surprising that so few students attended.

Hudson knew of students who could not attend due to classes and irreversible commitments, and he asked Ryken if more discussions are planned. Ryken indicated there are no specific plans, but he is willing to work with Student Government toward future opportunities for interaction. Both Ryken and Waybright spoke of the evening’s proceedings as a “beginning” to the work and conversations that need to occur.

Though identifying things Ryken could have done differently, the Trustees’ report commended Ryken’s “leadership and integrity during this period” and said that they “stand firmly behind” his administration.

A PDF of the Trustees’ report, as well as a form for submitting comments to the Trustees, may be found in the Media Relations section of www.wheaton.edu.

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