The Surprising Similarity in the Crises Facing Both Wheaton and Oberlin

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tags: Wheaton, Oberlin

Louis B. Gallien, Jr, is Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Appalachian State University in The Honors College. 

On the surface, Wheaton and Oberlin College are mirror opposites in ideology and politics. Oberlin College is well-known for its commitment to social justice, anti-racism and the civil rights of all individuals. An alumni famously stated: Our causes run deeper than our careers.

Wheaton College is famous (or infamous) for its passionate commitment to evangelicalism, changing the world through the power of the Gospel with an intellectual commitment to integrating their faith into the world. Their motto is: For Christ and His Kingdom

Some historians and sociologists would claim, however, that the differences are only on the surface. Consider this: Oberlin and Wheaton were both founded by radical abolitionists in 1833 and 1853 respectively. Both of their original missions were steeped in the egalitarian vision of Charles Finney, perhaps the greatest 19th century evangelist of that century and, former Knox College President, Jonathan Blanchard, who dropped out of Andover Seminary in order to join the abolitionist movement that was spreading across the Midwest. Both leaders envisioned shaping a “martyr-age” group of students who would lead the evangelical charge against slavery, open the doors to collegiate institutions to women (and their eventual ordination) and the admittance of former African slaves to their student bodies. They also took very public stances against our country’s mercenary take- over of Indian lands with a passionate and missionary commitment to ushering in the kingdom of Christ during their lifetimes combined with a spiritual commitment to bringing souls into God’s eternal kingdom.

As a result of their commitments to these radical missions, both institutions enacted strict internal governance policies that would limit their participation with the dominant culture. Restrictions like no drinking, dancing, engaging in gambling, were created to ensure community-wide compliance with an obvious separation from the world. At Oberlin, Finney even mandated dietary restrictions with compulsory chapel and Sunday services—as both were at Wheaton. Both presidents taught a course for seniors that would place their radical evangelical brand of education upon each graduate. And, each local church (First Congregational) at Oberlin and (College Church of Christ) at Wheaton were considered de facto collegiate institutions that were powerful symbols of their implicit rejection of the separation of church and state on their campuses.

Both institutions evolved during the Progressive Era. Oberlin went from a preoccupation with “saving the soul” to an emphasis on social change. Wheaton dug in internally by rejecting the theories of Marx, Darwin, Freud, and biblical criticism and by joining the Fundamentals Movement which assisted in the creation of a Statement of Faith that went beyond the Nicene Creed and cemented codes of behavior that Oberlin was beginning to neglect and even reject. Wheaton became an institution known for its contrarian nature toward an increasingly secular culture, but with a deep need to gain the respect of the secular academy. And, more importantly, they quietly moved from the original egalitarian views of its Wesleyan founders and Jonathan Blanchard toward a more restrictive view of “biblical” roles for men and women.

As both institutions rejected (or moved away from) parts of their radical image and mission, they have struggled to find an integrated historical identity that matches the intensity of its founding to its present group of varied and complex constituencies. And, therein lies the crux of the problem both institutions face in the immediate future: Whose college is Oberlin and Wheaton to become in this century? Can Oberlin maintain a postmodern community of individuals bent toward identity politics? Can Wheaton restrain internal and external evangelical forces that are rejecting former fundamentalist stands against divorce, women in leadership, homosexuality and multiple political identifications?

It is rare in educational history for any institution to keep its original mission intact, especially one whose genesis was centered on changing the world for Christ. While both Oberlin and Wheaton have accommodated traditional academic culture to some degree, Oberlin – in its insistence on the pursuit of accepted standards of academic excellence – has widened and broadened both its curriculum and faculty hires while also lifting its fundamentalist restrictions on dancing and legal drinking. The school rarely polices its student’s activities off campus. However, the radical pasts of both schools haunt them still.

At Wheaton, the suspension and planned dismissal by the administration of Larycia Hawkins (ironically the first African American female who has earned tenure since its founding), has been in the news since mid-December. Presently at Oberlin, black students and their allies have widely published an historic petition to the administration that demands the right to name those faculty and staff who should be fired, given tenure and preferentially hired. This is an unprecedented display of student empowerment which since the turn of the last century has become a cornerstone to Oberlin’s identity. But it’s also caused tension among the school’s varied constituencies; some of the black students’ explicit demands are bringing persistent African American/Jewish tensions to the forefront

Wheaton’s case is not much different. There are groups of faculty, alumni and students who are historically coalescing with demands that Hawkins be re-instated and the case against her fidelity to the Statement of Faith be dismissed. This public split between Wheaton’s key constituencies is unprecedented in its history. Both collegiate administrations have made it clear that they will not engage their constituencies in an environment of demands. Their respective Boards of Trustees will be the final arbiters in both cases. But, what these complex cases do suggest for both institutions is the erosion and failure to collectively come to terms with their founding missions.

Oberlin has rejected its evangelical roots for a widely progressive agenda that has ushered in an era of campus tribalism and identity politics. In a similar vein, Wheaton’s administration is attempting to hold on to the vestiges of its fundamentalist past while attempting to discern and accommodate the reality of a growing evangelical pluralism. Neither are easy tasks for either institution in their attempts to reconcile their radical heritages.

The cases of Larycia Hawkins and the radical students may be the flashpoint for both institutions into this century. Where each institution heads in the future will be critical to their survival as “cause-oriented” liberal arts institutions whose academic credentials are undeniable. But, the battle for the souls of both institutions in this century has begun in earnest.

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