Wheaton College moves to fire headscarf-wearing professor. Can they do that?

Wheaton College has begun the process of firing a political science professor, Larycia Hawkins, who made controversial theological statements about Muslims and Christians.

Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/AP
Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of political science at Wheaton College, a private evangelical school, wears a hijab at a church service in Chicago. The school said Monday it has begun a process of Termination-for-Cause Proceedings for Hawkins because of theological statements she made.

Officials at Wheaton College are taking some unusual steps this week: they have initiated the process to fire a tenured professor.

School administrators at the Chicago-area Evangelical Christian college announced on Tuesday that they are beginning the termination process for Larycia Hawkins, a professor of political science, over comments that she posted on social media suggesting that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

The attempt to fire Prof. Hawkins may come as a surprise to many given the common misconception that tenure grants professors a job for life. Tenure does guarantee professors certain rights, but it doesn't provide unconditional job security.

Institutions dismiss, on average, two percent of tenured faculty each year, while 20 percent of untenured faculty can lose their jobs without receiving a reason each year, the educational advocacy organization National Education Association writes:

Tenure is simply a right to due process; it means that a college or university cannot fire a tenured professor without presenting evidence that the professor is incompetent or behaves unprofessionally or that an academic department needs to be closed or the school is in serious financial difficulty.

The process for revoking from tenure, like receiving it, is intentionally long. In Hawkins' case, the process will include a hearing before other tenured professors, a recommendation to the college president, and a final decision by the Wheaton College Board of Trustees. 

Wheaton officials say they decided to initiate the process of revoking her tenure only after Hawkins refused "further dialogue about the theological implications of her public statements," which was supposed to begin when they placed her on administrative leave in December. 

The controversy began on Dec. 10 when Hawkins posted on Facebook that she wished to show solidarity with the oft-maligned Muslim community by wearing a hijab, or Islamic headscarf. The school says that it has no qualms with that symbolic act, but objected to comments she made in her explanation of that action.

"I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book," she wrote. "And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."

School officials say that her statement about Muslims and Christians worshiping the same God violates the Statement of Faith she agreed to before working at Wheaton College. A Wheaton statement cites "fundamental differences between the two faiths" relative to the nature of God and the path of salvation:

As an institution of distinctively evangelical Christian identity, the core of our faith, as expressed in our Statement of Faith, is our belief that “the Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, as a representative and substitutionary sacrifice, triumphing over all evil; and that all who believe in Him are justified by His shed blood and forgiven of all their sins.” 

This report contains material from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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