Soma Review has a fascinating examination of former President Duane Liftin’s tenure at Wheaton, which many people regard as the flagship of evangelicalism (a mantle, I sometimes provocatively argue, that has been passed on to other schools).
The story is interesting not only is the piece a thoughtful examination of the tensions of a confessional university, but it was rejected at the last second by Books and Culture.
I have to say up front: I have no dog in this hunt except as an interested observer of all things evangelical. But even on that front, I suspect the story is less significant now than it would be twenty years ago. The proliferation of evangelical intellectuals the last twenty years has significantly narrowed–if not eliminated outright–the gap between Wheaton and the other evangelical institutions.
I’m biased toward my own alma mater, of course, but I would also name Union and Houston Baptist as upstart universities with vigorous academic cultures (albeit with their own respective disadvantages). So while Wheaton might still be the flagship, the fleet has grown reducing–to put an end to the analogy–its stature within evangelicalism.
That said, I’ll reserve my comments to Chignell’s piece itself, as I don’t have much interest in pursuing the problem of censorship. As a distant observer with nothing to go on regarding the reasons for the decision, postulation would be nothing but pure speculation. And that’s just a risky game that I don’t much like playing. Chalk it up to my Biola style-evidentialist heavy heritage, which comes in handy at a time like this.
Or wimpiness. It might just be that. Whatever.
At any rate, the central critique of Liftin’s tenure that Chignell raises is that he was too magisterial in his approach to interpreting Wheaton’s doctrinal commitments. He writes:
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.
Chignell’s piece recounts the lack of wiggle room during Liftin’s tenure, and functions as an apologia for more faculty involvement in decisions and a less rigid interpretation of Wheaton’s doctrinal core. At the same time, he is unequivocal in his insistence that he wants Wheaton to avoid becoming Oberlin (a byword, apparently, among the CCCU).
But Chignell’s conclusion leaves me wanting a little more argumentation for his position. He contends that the results of Liftin’s magesterially-oriented tenure are “decidedly mixed.” But to those who don’t adopt the “wiggle-room” argument, decisions not to retain professors who become Roman Catholic or are unsettled about a Biblical understanding of homosexuality wouldn’t be viewed as “decidedly mixed” at all. What’s needed is something outside the framework of “wiggle room” to demonstrate that, in fact, Liftin’s decisions had an adverse effect on Wheaton.
But on this front, Chignell’s argument is weak. It might be sad that they didn’t get an Ivy league Ph.D. to teach, but to the non-wiggle folks (if I may), academic credentials take a second level of importance. And what of the faculty they did hire during Liftin’s tenure? Did scholarship fall off precipitously during Liftin’s tenure? Did major faculty leave, or did they have a difficult time retaining top faculty? (The only such move mentioned was Noll’s, who he mentions had more to do about pursuing opportunities elsewhere than Wheaton itself.)
Outside of stories of disgruntled faculty members who want some wiggle room, the closest Chignell gets to describing the negative fruits of Liftin’s magesterium is its financial impact. But his argument here strikes me as problematic. He quotes a professor who suggests that the Trustees are captive to the “wealthy older alumni.” Yet in the next paragraph, he suggests that Wheaton is missing out on even more money due to its conservative captivities. Chignell suggests that this increased source of funds is a “vast group of younger and increasingly wealthy alumni that feel alienated by the current administration.”
At this point–and this is terrible–I had to laugh. For one, the point implies that Wheaton stays conservative for the sake of the wealthy older alumni but won’t take even more money to relax the standards. Additionally, I’d love to meet this vast group of wealthy younger alumni. There are some, I’m sure, who have done well for themselves. But as someone who worked as a financial planning, I’ll put this bluntly: people under 40 have no money. At all. Marketers don’t target them because they’re rich: they target them because they spend every dime they make and marketers want to build up brand loyalty.
And they certainly don’t have money relative to the older alumni.
This isn’t to say that there should be no “wiggle room” on core doctrinal commitments of universities. Maybe there should be. I don’t know, and I am glad that I don’t have to make those decisions. But what is clear to me is that doctrinal statements originated out of specific historical contexts and need to be understood within the context of those histories. And once institutional change happens, it is enormously difficult to undo (see: Baylor). So while I would disagree based on Chignell’s article with Liftin’s execution, I am sympathetic with his aims.
But I’ll return to the point with which I started: this issue is less important and significant within evangelicalism than it would have been a decade ago. Perhaps I am approaching it with a sense of fait accompli, but it’s clear from Chignell’s article that a President is not enough to preserve the core commitments of an institution. Those are preserved or rejected in the classroom by professors and students, in the scholarship the university produces, and in the life of the students.
And to that extent, Chignell’s point about a non-magesterial presidency is exactly right: the presidency must represent the institution as it is if they are going to have a working relationship at all. That Liftin apparently no longer does suggests that Chignell’s point has already prevailed. “Wiggle room” already exists within Wheaton’s classrooms and its dormrooms, and even if the next president does not reflect this reality, it is only a matter of time before he (or she) will.