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Leading in Higher Education is difficult

February 25, 2016

You maybe read the title and thought “Duh!” The sky is blue too! What’s your point? Yet for all the articles and critiques that have been written over the past three months about Wheaton College, the general population and specifically those who hold to a faith perspectives, seem to have forgotten this seemingly obvious reality.

Whatever side(s) of the issue you take regarding two situations on Wheaton College – Wheaton College vs. Larycia Hawkins or Wheaton College vs Julie Rodgers – the fact these two situations have received significant media attention, both inside and outside academia and Christian circles, demonstrates the significant challenges of leadership in higher education and specifically in Christian contexts.

I write without any personal knowledge of the people involved or any real affinity to any person other than I have been involved in teaching at a Christian college similar to Wheaton College (though not nearly its reputation and stature; also Prairie College is in Canada, not the USA). Because of this, I feel I can speak with some sense of “objectivity” and reflect on three key points.

1. Bold Leadership is risky

Wheaton College, under the leadership of President Philip Ryken and Academic VP/Provost Stanton L. Jones have attempted to have some dialogue on these two controversial topics and it has backfired on them. If they simply never hire a person to have a dialogue on the LGBT issue or outright dismiss a person who says/holds to a contentious point of view (Christians and Muslims worship the same God), they are considered narrow and unreasonable. Yet when they attempt to have a dialogue and allow contrasting views, their bold leadership puts them in the line of fire.

A recent article in ChristianWeek by Jeff Clarke wisely calls for every person to realize “One of the primary reasons we struggle with differing views on any subject is that we believe acceptance equals agreement.“ Bold leadership understands this, yet it is challenging to get this notion across to allow for reasonable dialogue.

2. Bold Leadership cannot be reactive

It seems that in both cases, Wheaton College was surprised by the response from the strong responses from their alumni, both for and against each side of the two issues. Many would consider the leadership responded quickly when backlash came. Wise Leadership not only has to anticipate the response to a decision, but also be willing to stand by the decision regardless of the reaction, whether negative publicity, threats of donors withdrawing financial support, or whatever.

In some senses, Wheaton`s leadership seems to have not been prepared for strong reactions and in other ways they seem to have reacted to the reactions rather than responded. In the situation with Professor Hawkins, it seems they allowed the necessary due process to appeals to follow through as outlined in their institution`s policies, though there are many who believe the process was simply a means to justify the initial decision.

3. Bold Leadership Stands for Something

Tolerance or openness (to anything) has become the core value of North American society. Bold leadership, especially in faith organizations, needs to stand for something… and thus usually against something else. While I would hope an organization is not defined by what they are against, the reality is that any faith-based group will hold to some affirmations and thus disagree with other individuals` value statements.

Whether you believe Christians and Muslims worship the same God, Wheaton College`s faith statement does not allow that option. If you teach at Wheaton College and agree to sign on their doctrinal statement, you know that is contrary to the school`s beliefs. If you feel compelled to teach that, you may do so… but not at that school.

Likewise, whether you affirm same-sex attraction, homosexuality, or LGBT, Wheaton College`s does not, and when you agree to serve as an employee of that organization,you enter into the position understanding that reality. If you disagree, that is fine… but not as an employee of Wheaton College.

The president, academic dean, and board of Wheaton College are to be commended for trying to facilitate dialogue on these matters, but even moreso for being bold enough to stand and say, `We will teach (this)…` because we believe it is right. That is bold, courageous leadership.

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