Whither Wheaton?

The evangelical flagship college charts a new course.

By Andrew Chignell

This spring, the board of trustees at Wheaton College will appoint a new president. As the flagship evangelical institution—the “Harvard of the Christian schools,” say the tour guides—Wheaton will be closely monitored by other colleges, by pastors and churches around the world, and by observers of Christendom generally. Indeed, in a November 2009 article, the New York Times went so far as to characterize Wheaton, Illinois as a kind of “evangelical Vatican.”

This year also marks the college’s sesquicentennial: 150 years since fiery abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard founded it on land given to him by city father Warren Wheaton. As a result, 2010 promises to be a time of looking forward and looking back.

Friends of Wheaton certainly have much to celebrate: during outgoing president Duane Litfin's 17 years in office, the college expanded the physical plant, grew the endowment, added two doctoral degrees, kept tuition costs impressively low, increased admissions selectivity, and weathered financial crises better than many institutions. Long before the attacks of 9/11, Litfin sent the lance-toting “Crusader” mascot into much-deserved retirement. Many excellent hires of younger faculty on Litfin’s watch bode well for the future. Despite the protests of some deep-pocketed older alumni, Litfin revoked the infamous rule against off-campus drinking and dancing. And in marked contrast to many American colleges with religious roots, Wheaton has not strayed from the core commitments on which it was founded.

Still, when one spends time talking with Wheaton faculty, students, and supporters, alongside real appreciation one is also likely to hear expressions of deep concern about the unusually pro-active roles that Litfin and his provost, Stanton Jones, have assumed as the definers and defenders of orthodoxy across the college. On the eve of transition to new leadership, this concern needs to be aired—not for the sake of settling scores, not in a spirit of smug judgment, but rather to provide one more important perspective as the college and its constituency look to the future. Thus, though it is far too early for a definitive account, perhaps a philosopher can rush in where historians fear to tread.

The goal here is to view Wheaton the way it views itself: as the preeminent religious college in the country and the training ground for generations of Christian leaders. To lay claim to such a responsibility, there has to be a willingness—especially in a community founded on love of God and neighbor—to honestly evaluate past administrations in the process of appointing new ones.

The Evangelical Mind and the Body Politic

The political backdrop against which President Litfin was appointed in 1992-1993 was uncannily similar to our own. A war in Iraq was winding down. A massive recession had swept the GOP from power. The United States had replaced a president named Bush with a young Democrat promising “hope” and “change.” Health care reform was in the air. At the local level, however, there were significant differences.

At Wheaton in the fall of 1992 (my freshman year), there was intense soul-searching about why God had denied the victory just as change on key issues like abortion seemed within reach. The night after the election, students held a massive vigil, heads bowed and leaders speaking anxiously about the coming liberal onslaught.

At Wheaton in the fall of 2008, by contrast, the predominantly African American Gospel Choir took the chapel stage the morning after Obama’s election and gave a rousing performance of “God Bless America.” That night there was a panel discussion in which Litfin, too, emphasized that future evangelicals “cannot afford to be seen as in the hip pocket of any particular polity or political entity.”

At Wheaton in 1993, the culture wars were hot, with many students (presciently) advocating a hard-right turn as the path to Republican recovery. Political engagement and church/missions work were seen by students as the best ways to live “for Christ and his Kingdom” (Wheaton’s motto). Justice issues were tertiary, and Christian environmentalists were walking oxymora who had forgotten that the Second Coming would usher in a new heaven and a new earth.

At Wheaton in 2010, party politics are lukewarm, with most students “far more concerned with the relationship between their faith and social justice than with political affiliation,” says Juliana Wilhoit, head of what she characterizes as the most anemic College Democrats organization north of Bob Jones. Lars Skogland, a Theology major, agrees: “I don’t feel like [the Democrat/Republican debate] is a big issue on campus—if people do talk about it they talk about it more in small groups.” That’s because “there’s a culture within Wheaton that discourages voting and political participation,” says Wilhoit, “with some powerful voices saying we should care more about the Kingdom than the State.” On the other hand, “everyone has a social justice issue, and though a few people still listen to Rush Limbaugh, almost no one thinks that climate change is a hoax.” Indeed, President Litfin himself recently signed the Evangelical Call to Action on Climate Change (christiansandclimate.org).

It’s too early to tell whether this focus on social and environmental justice at the expense of partisan politics among young evangelicals will stick. Perhaps it is a near-term response to the perceived failures of an American president who came to office as one of their own. But perhaps it heralds the emergence of a new generation of socially active Protestants who, according to polling data analyzed by Wheaton political scientist Amy Black, are (in her words) “more staunchly pro-life than their elders, but also more liberal on gay marriage, and see a broader spectrum of issues as important than evangelicals have done in the past.”

Interestingly, this apparent drift towards the center among students occurred during an administration that was initially charged with steering the college toward the right. Some members of the board of trustees were apparently alarmed in 1992 when the college newspaper reported that well over half the faculty was voting Democratic, and that membership in mainline Protestant denominations—especially the Episcopal Church—was on the rise. Wary of both Clintonism and Canterbury, these trustees began to see the college as on a slippery slope towards Oberlin, with the professors supplying much of the lubrication. In response, and without substantive consultation with the faculty, the board appointed a pastor from Memphis named Duane Litfin over candidates with widespread support and stronger academic credentials. Most prominent of these alternates was the then-Provost of Notre Dame, Nathan Hatch, himself a Wheaton alumnus and Trustee who was reportedly being groomed by the outgoing president, J. Richard Chase, to be his successor. (After the Litfin surprise, Hatch resigned from the board and later went on to become president of Wake Forest.)

“The trustees made their statement bringing Litfin in,” says Jeffrey Greenberg, professor of geology. “It was generally believed that they wanted a doctrinal policeman to keep us from going too liberal.” An administrator who was close to the process and wishes to remain anonymous agreed: “It is best summed up by the then-chair of the trustees, who said that ‘a college tends to drift to the left, therefore you choose a president farther right than you want so that the pendulum shift comes to the middle.’ Whether you believe in this theory or not, it was why they chose the current president.”

Magisterial Origins

In his 2004 book “Conceiving the Christian College,” President Litfin characterizes Wheaton as operating on a “systemic” model, whereby “all of the professors are to be scholars who embody the Christian commitments of the institution, with the expected result that genuinely Christian thinking will permeate the school’s academic and student life programs.”

Schools that operate on the systemic model are obviously of immense value; institutions like Wheaton, Calvin, and Franciscan bring important diversity to the contemporary academy, and often lead the way in discussions of how best to integrate traditions of faith with excellence in scholarship and teaching.

The systemic model, however, seems consistent with a wide range of administrative approaches. At the far end is what might be called the magisterial approach: here a select group of academic administrators specifies which interpretations of the core doctrines and codes are to be propagated throughout the system, and then requires that everyone signs on to those specific interpretations. At the other end is what might be called (for lack of a better term) the wiggle-room approach. Here a certain amount of space is allowed for differing—albeit still reasonable—interpretations of the propositions constituting the systemic core. That doesn’t mean that “anything goes” or that the core is ever significantly or casually altered. But administrators who adopt the wiggle-room approach will tend to be more modest and consultative in interpreting that core, and will often “agree to disagree” on issues that can reasonably be deemed ambiguous or adiaphorous.

Ultimately, of course, someone has to decide which issues can be left ambiguous or adiaphorous, and even if there is robust faculty/student participation in such discussions, the final decision might in some cases fall to the president. Nevertheless, there is surely a spectrum here, and it was clear from the beginning where Litfin would fall on it. One of his first moves was to declare that Wheaton’s longstanding “Statement of Faith” allowed too much interpretive wiggle-room on the question of Adam and Eve. Scientists were thus required to specify whether they (1) “reject the idea that Adam and Eve were created from pre-existing human-like creatures, or hominids”; (2) are neutral or “unsure” on the hominid theory; (3) affirm that “God gave a human spirit to a pair of pre-existing human-like creatures, or hominids”; or (4) deny the historicity of Adam and Eve and think of Genesis as a wholly “theological document.” Options (3) and (4) were deemed inconsistent with ongoing employment. Those who affirmed (2) were given one year to change their view to (1), or else they too would be asked to seek employment elsewhere.

The reaction to this first manifestation of the magisterial approach was so explosive that a trustee finally intervened and pointed out that even some members of the Board did not fall into camp (1). Ultimately Litfin agreed to allow people to remain in camp (2) indefinitely. But the tone had been set. Arthur Holmes, founder of the philosophy department and a faculty icon since the 1950s, recalls the episode this way: “The present incumbent was appointed arbitrarily by trustees with utterly no consultation with faculty. Morale problem for starters! At first there was no sense of collegiality with other administrators or faculty. Too soon he seemed to inquisition science faculty about human origins, as if he had been sold a bill of goods. People felt they weren’t trusted. He gradually satisfied himself, but it was a case of starting on the wrong foot: he needed educating on the subject first.” In his book, Litfin admits that he did not aim to be a “ceremonial” president who merely “sits at the captain’s table looking official.” Rather, he viewed it as his “responsibility and prerogative, actually to steer the course of the ship.”

The “origins episode”—together with another one that same year in which the chair of the Bible/theology department resigned in protest (and ultimately left the college) after Litfin first approved, then later overturned, the department’s vote to appoint a female theologian from Duke—spurred the creation of a new academic provost position. A few years later, Alex Bolyanatz, a tenure-track anthropologist who taught about human origins, decided that it might be wise to invite the new provost to sit in on his lectures: “I had no doubt that hearing my version of a Christian view of integrating the evolutionary model with a faith perspective would make anyone say, ‘This guy is just fine; does exactly what we want here.’ I now know, of course, that this was somewhere between stupid and naïve. I invited Provost Stan Jones to attend my class and he did for six sessions. I believed that I was ensuring that I would spend a long and satisfying career there. Wrong! I was, in fact, digging my own professional grave at Wheaton.”

The administration soon sent Bolyanatz a letter stating, “During your term at Wheaton College, you have failed to develop the necessary basic competence in the integration of Faith and Learning, particularly in the classroom setting.” Despite the support of his department and the college-wide Faculty Personnel Committee, and despite the fact that he fully affirmed the Statement of Faith and was explicitly trying to integrate it with his teaching about human origins, Bolyanatz was not reappointed. He now teaches at a community college near Wheaton, and has no clear sense of what went wrong. “Provost Stan Jones did at one point, in an effort to clarify things for me, mention that I did not seem to ‘fit’ at Wheaton.”

Lots of good things won’t seem to fit, of course, when there isn’t much wiggle-room. Arthur Rupprecht, longtime professor of Greek, puts the point this way: "Wheaton, at present, is building a $70m science building in order to become a first rate school for science, but we are hobbled in that goal by a doctrinal statement on origins and inerrancy that reflects the anxieties of 80 years ago. The new president must be someone motivated by Christian vision and he or she must be of sufficient stature as a scholar to effect changes in these two areas if Wheaton is to succeed in this new emphasis."

Whose Hermeneutic? Which Constituency?

Another casualty of the magisterial approach was Christina Van Dyke, now tenured in the philosophy department at Calvin. Invited to apply for a job at Wheaton in 1999, Van Dyke signed the Statement of Faith and the Community Covenant (Wheaton’s code of conduct), but inserted a clarification saying that “it isn’t clear to me that the Bible unambiguously condemns monogamous same-sex relationships.” That did not entail, Van Dyke notes, “either that I was in favor of them, or that I thought God was.” Rather, it was meant as a hermeneutical point about the precise content of Scripture.

The department chair asked Van Dyke whether she would be willing to remove the clarification, since Christianity and homosexuality is the provost’s area of expertise and her reservation was “certain to raise red flags.” But Van Dyke opted to keep the reservation as it was. Sure enough:

I got a call from Stan Jones, asking me a number of questions about my reservations. I kept saying that I was not claiming to have figured this out, but that it was not at all clear to me from my own research and study that the Bible’s position on homosexual behavior was unambiguous. We talked about how I would handle students who came to me to talk about questioning their own sexuality, and I said I would be willing to send them elsewhere. He sent me a whole stack of reading material (much of which he’d written) arguing that the Bible’s position on homosexual behavior was, in fact, clear. I read it all. . . . I didn’t change my mind.

In the end, despite the fact that Van Dyke had a B.A. from a Christian college, an Ivy League Ph.D., and the strong support of a Wheaton department—in addition to being a believer who had signed all of the relevant statements—her clarification meant that “at about 5 pm the day before my interview was scheduled, [the chair] called in tears to tell me that he’d just finished talking to the provost, and that I was no longer a candidate for their position.”

Some people fear that Wheaton’s tax-exempt status may be taken away because of these hiring practices. But Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor of Christian Thought, doubts that it will come to that. Wealthy older alumni and not the government, he says, are the real concern in policy decisions: “Thou shalt not unsettle our constituency is the first principle around here.” The constituency that administrators have in mind is quite conservative and has faithfully supported the college over many years. But shouldn’t a true flagship have a broader constituency than that?

Perhaps it does. Larsen cites a top fundraising administrator as claiming that “Wheaton actually loses more money for being rigidly conservative than it would for being more relaxed.” In other words, even top officials realize what many of us know from personal experience and testimony: that there is a vast group of younger and increasingly wealthy alumni that feel alienated by the current administration, but might rally to Wheaton’s cause if the systemic model were ever implemented in a less “magisterial” way.

Evangelicals and Catholics, Not-So-Together

In 1994, prominent Wheaton historian Mark Noll endorsed and promoted an ecumenical manifesto titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” With the signing of that document, the once-yawning distance between Wheaton and South Bend seemed to close just a bit. But then, eight years later, an assistant professor named Joshua Hochschild felt called to join the Roman communion. Hochschild dutifully informed the administration and assured them that—as a Catholic—he could still fully endorse the Statement of Faith and the Community Covenant.

Litfin, however, disagreed on the grounds that no Catholic could share Wheaton’s commitment to the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. Hochschild disputed this in a series of letters and conversations, and most members of his department took his side. Ultimately Litfin conceded that there was nothing explicit in the Statement of Faith that Hochschild could not affirm; rather, it was Wheaton’s implicit interpretation of the preamble to the Statement—an interpretation of which Litfin claimed to be both arbiter and mouthpiece—that allows no wiggle-room for Catholics.

Thus, in an irony that was lost on no one, an academic administrator laying claim to magisterial interpretive authority fired someone for … not being a Protestant. “This is a matter of preserving our heritage,” Litfin said at the time. “Why change the DNA of the institution?” Hochschild was given a year to find a new job, and is now the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland. Soon after the Hochschild affair, Mark Noll himself decamped for Notre Dame. When asked why he left after 27 years, Noll replied that it was more a matter of being drawn toward a new opportunity than of fleeing problems at Wheaton. But he also pointed to his comments in “The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue”—comments which clearly suggest that evangelical institutions would greatly assist their efforts by employing sympathetic Catholic faculty like Hochschild.

Litfin, for his part, offered an articulate defense of the all-Protestant policy in his book, and again on some Catholic blogs after the Hochschild affair. Still, English professor Alan Jacobs hopes that a new president will revisit the issue: “There are many Catholic and Orthodox teacher-scholars who are very sympathetic to Wheaton's historic mission. Granted that incorporating such people into our community would be a complex task, one not without pitfalls, I think we have to ask ourselves whether it makes sense to deprive ourselves of those resources.”

Into New Waters

Each of the 40 or so people consulted for this article—including Bolyanatz, Van Dyke, and Hochschild—expressed renewed hope and goodwill for Wheaton as it moves into the next 150 years. These are not embittered grumblers.

And there are reasons to hope. Greenberg, the geologist, reports that the trustees have “consulted with multiple people this time, often getting candid information concerning the current administrative situation. One hopes that an important lesson has been learned: legalism never works.” Bud Williams, beloved professor of applied health sciences through four presidencies, concurs: “We as faculty did have significant input with the trustees in preparing a profile of the type of president we feel would best fit the college at this point in time.” Cynthia Neal Kimball, a twenty-year veteran of the psychology department, concurs: “although it is clearly not a collaborative effort—faculty have no [collective] vote nor will they participate in the [final] interview process—the board has attempted to be honest, thoughtful, and clear in the process.”

What sort of president are they hoping for? “A theologically orthodox person, yes, but also a relational person,” says Greenberg. “Relational people facilitate collegiality from the top all the way down.” Kimball adds: “I'm not hopeful that a woman or a person of color will land in the final interview pool, [and] of that I am saddened. But I am hopeful that whoever accepts the position will share the same vision as the faculty.” There is also widespread agreement that the new president must revive a culture of open discussion and disagreement, even while retaining the systemic commitments of the school. Indeed, many professors consulted for this article lamented that there hasn’t been a really substantive faculty meeting in years—one in which the outcome of a really important decision hadn’t already been determined from above. But they also declined to say that on the record.

Informed of this, Ashley Woodiwiss, a political scientist who recently departed Wheaton after 18 years, mused: “The fact that at a liberal arts college tenured faculty are unwilling and/or uneasy to speak on the record . . . now that might be telling in its own right, no? What is it about the culture at ‘the flagship evangelical institution of higher education’ that would close the mouths of such lions?”

Greenberg answers this question obliquely: “Faculty governance at Wheaton probably needs some reconsideration with the advent of a new administration.” One of his colleagues in the science division is more direct: “It is my hope that a new administration can join, foster, and enjoy a worshipping community of believers who wrestle with the questions of our age, including our own philosophies.”

Litfin himself, informed of these complaints, replied in an email:

Boring faculty meetings? This is now the administration’s fault? These could as easily be an expression of the untroubled state of the campus these days, or the high quality work being done in faculty committees (instead of in the unwieldy “committee of the whole”). In any case, there are vast areas for substantive work by the faculty at Wheaton. If that’s not happening, it's a bit of a stretch to cite this as evidence of the administration’s failings.

Provost Jones declined to comment for this story, but Litfin was also willing to say something about his administrative approach:

I have kept Wheaton on its historic course, despite the buffeting and pressures to do otherwise, and that has inevitably irritated some people. Thus it’s not so much a “top down” style that is the problem, although it can be misidentified as that; it’s really this determined gate-keeping function people are experiencing. Their frustration may be as real with the one as with the other, but it’s useful to distinguish between the two.

Litfin is clearly right about this distinction: managerial style (“top-down” vs. “relational”) is not the central question here, though it does seem importantly related. The central question, rather, is this: How magisterial must an administration be regarding the interpretation of core commitments in order to keep the institution on course? Or, put another way, how much wiggle-room for reasonable, charitable differences in interpretation can be allowed while still preserving a school’s distinctive confessional character?

The question has been answered in one way over the last 17 years, and the results (as with all administrations, perhaps) have been decidedly mixed. The new president’s answer to this question is likely to be the defining characteristic of his or her administration. The sense of the constituency interviewed for this story (and my own sense as well) is that it is crucial to keep in mind that a college is not the church, and its presidency is not the papacy. Even at a systemic institution like Wheaton, there must be protected space—wiggle-room—for the creative thinking, loving disagreement, and emphatic debate—even about interpretation of the heritage—that set academic communities apart.

Professor Holmes sums up the vision:

We need a person of evangelical conviction and practice who understands and respects the diversity within the evangelical movement. We need one who understands the distinctives, the promise, and the problems of Christian higher education, an optimistic and creative leader who will support and encourage faculty in their multifaceted callings. We need someone who understands and inspires undergraduate students in their struggles and their problems, someone in whom they might find a model of wisdom and caring.

It could hardly be better put. May God speed the flagship.


Comment on this essay here.

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Andrew Chignell is an associate professor of philosophy at Cornell University. He graduated from Wheaton in 1996 with degrees in philosophy, theology, and literature. His parents both did graduate work at Wheaton, and his father taught there for 25 years. One of his brothers received a B.A. from Wheaton in 1999. His youngest brother is currently a junior in the Wheaton Conservatory of Music.

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