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Wheaton prof who expressed solidarity with Muslims bids tearful farewell

Larycia Hawkins was tearful at times during a news conference on Wednesday, where she discussed her departure from Wheaton College. | Kevin Tanaka/Sun-Times

Wheaton College will review its handling of academic freedom issues and endow a scholarship in the name of the professor who has agreed to leave the Christian college after months of controversy over her remarks expressing solidarity with Muslims.

Those steps were announced Wednesday as the professor, Larycia Hawkins, and Wheaton College President Philip Ryken talked to reporters for the first time since the college announced it would “part ways” with Hawkins.

Hawkins teared up repeatedly during the hour-long news conference in downtown Chicago, about 20 miles from the west suburban Wheaton campus, where students were rallying to support her.

Hawkins thanked those who supported her during two months at the center of a national debate about academic freedom and religious tolerance, but said little about the flap that cost her her job. The professor focused her remarks on a call for “embodied solidarity” among people of all stripes, and recollections of her nearly nine years as a tenured professor at Wheaton.

“My journey at Wheaton College is part of my journey. This is not the end of a journey,” said Hawkins, her voice cracking. “There are no goodbyes, only good memories. And we will continue to walk together, because I will always stand with Wheaton College.”

Ryken said the school would review its handling of “academic freedom in the context of our Christian convictions,” and that the college would endow a scholarship in Hawkins’ name to support students studying “peace and conflict resolution.”

Ryken acknowledged the roiling debate that broke out on the 2,300-student campus and in evangelical circles in December, when Hawkins was suspended after she posted pictures of herself on Facebook wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf; she said she would wear the hijab for the duration of the Advent season to express support for Muslims.

School administrators said statements Hawkins posted along with the photos that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God” appeared to violate Wheaton’s “Statement of Faith.”

“Dr. Hawkins is leaving our campus by mutual agreement. We are saddened by the brokenness that we have experienced in our relationship and the suffering this has caused on this campus and beyond,” he said.

Neither Hawkins nor Ryken took questions.

Philip Ryken, Wheaton College President, appeared with professor Larycia Hawkins during a press conference Wednesday. | Kevin Tanaka/Sun-Times

Their appearance before reporters came the day before a faculty committee had been scheduled to decide whether to fire Hawkins.

Saturday, the school issued a “joint statement” with Hawkins, stating Wheaton and the professor had “reached a confidential agreement under which they will part ways.” Hours earlier, Provost Stanton Jones, who in January had recommended firing Hawkins, sent an email to students and faculty that said he had reversed his position and left Ryken to make a decision on Hawkins’ fate.

In the email, Jones said he stood by his stated concerns about Hawkins’ remarks, but apologized for a “lack of wisdom and collegiality” in handling her case.

“I asked Dr. Hawkins for her forgiveness for the ways I contributed to the fracture of our relationship, and to the fracture of Dr. Hawkins’ relationship with the college,” Jones wrote.

The suspension thrust Wheaton College into the center of a charged debate over academic freedom, theology and religious tolerance that exposed divisions in the American evangelical community, as well as on the Wheaton campus.

When Jones moved to fire Hawkins, nearly 80 faculty members wrote letters of protest filled with detailed analysis of a “theological statement” Hawkins had provided to the provost to explain her statements about Muslims.

Ryken said Wednesday the school was beginning a thorough review of how the school handles “faculty issues.”

“This does not mean reconciliation is easy or that it is always perfect,” Ryken said. “In saying Wheaton College is reconciled to Larycia Hawkins, we are not saying everyone on every side is totally satisfied, or that we simply move on without addressing the issues that brought us to this place.”

Clara Kent, a 2014 Wheaton graduate who said Hawkins had been a mentor during her days as an undergrad, said she wasn’t surprised Hawkins chose to leave the school.

“I think she could have stayed if she had wanted, but I think a lot of things would have had to change for her to feel confident there,” Kent said.

The national publicity focused on Wheaton in recent weeks has been good for the debate on the evangelical faith, Kent said, but the college’s reputation as a school that balances Christian faith with liberal arts education will likely suffer.

“I think the college reacted to the loud, evangelical voices out there, and in trying to save face with that one group, they ended up looking a lot worse,” she said.

Larycia Hawkins (right) was joined by her parents, Lawerence and Paula, at Wednesday’s news conference. | Kevin Tanaka/Sun-Times