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Faced With Firing, Wheaton Professor Stands By Her Gesture Of 'Solidarity'

Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins speaks during a news conference Jan. 6 in Chicago.
M. Spencer Green
Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins speaks during a news conference Jan. 6 in Chicago.

Earlier this month, it emerged that Wheaton College had begun the process of firing Larycia Hawkins, a tenured associate professor of political science at the evangelical Christian school near Chicago. Hawkins was suspended last month after she decided to wear a headscarf during the Advent season to show solidarity with Muslims during a difficult period.

At the time, she posted a message on Facebook about the move, saying Christians and Muslims "worship the same God."

She was originally placed on administrative leave on Dec. 15, with school officials saying they needed time to determine whether her statement puts her at odds with the faith perspective that is required of those who are employed by the school.

In an interview with NPR's Michel Martin, Hawkins says she was surprised to hear the news that there will be a hearing on her termination later this month.

"That felt really devastating to receive that news, given that I've committed nine years of my life to teaching in an institution that I really believe embodies the spirit of the liberal arts in a Christian context," Hawkins tells Martin.

Hawkins argues that her Facebook post was "not actually a theological treatise but rather a statement that I stand in solidarity with women wearing the hijab, as I think Jesus would, as he came to embody what it means to love neighbor and love God and love yourself."

Wheaton College, for its part, has asserted that the school's decision had nothing to do with Hawkins' decision to wear the headscarf. The school says, instead, that it was a matter of theological disagreement.

"The freedom to wear a head scarf as a gesture of care and compassion for individuals in Muslim or other religious communities that may face discrimination or persecution is afforded to Dr. Hawkins as a faculty member of Wheaton College," the school wrote in a Dec. 16 statement. "Yet her recently expressed views, including that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, appear to be in conflict with the College's Statement of Faith."

Hawkins disagrees with the premise of the statement.

"The post was not about theology," she tells Martin. "It was about solidarity, which is a Christian principle."

Despite the disagreement with school officials, Hawkins would still like to remain at Wheaton College.

"I've spent most of my adult career committed to being a professor, a scholar and doing so in a Christian context where I can live out my beliefs but continue to push my students towards rigorous scholarship in this evangelical environment," she says.

And, she tells Martin, the debate holds broader implications than just her own situation.

"This is important beyond me. It's a bigger academic freedom question than Wheaton College alone. It's actually not even just a religious institutional question," Hawkins says. "I'm not the 'hijab professor'; I'm the professor that's trying to teach my students to move beyond theoretical solidarity, sitting on our laurels in the classroom, towards embodied politics, embodied solidarity.

"And that's just not for religionists; that's for all of us."

Click on the audio link above to listen to the full interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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