Wheaton College, where I teach, does many wonderful things that go unnoticed by the world; we seem to draw a great deal of attention only when our administration lets a faculty member go. A few years ago, the dismissal of my friend Joshua Hochschild upon his embrace of Catholicism created quite a little stir, about which I commented in the pages of First Things . And now my colleague of twenty years, Kent Gramm, is leaving Wheaton in the wake of his divorce, which a Google News search will tell you all about.
Well, maybe not all about. Russell Goldman’s moronic story on ABC news is chiefly concerned to pursue the question of whether Wheaton might start forcing its faculty into arranged marriagesa wonderful example of the old practice of creating imaginary worlds so you can place people you don’t like there and make them be really, really evil. (The version of the story now online is corrected in a few ways, though still littered with errorsthe previous one was submoronic.)
Before I say anything else, I want to say that Kent has been a fine colleague and a truly outstanding teacher, especially of creative writing. He is also a beautiful writer and a thoughtful, meditative cultural critic , and it is hard to imagine that we in the English department will be able to find an adequate replacement for him anytime soon.
Beyond that, here are the facts. Kent wasn’t fired for getting a divorce, as so many of the headlines say. Though Wheaton, in keeping with what it believes (and I believe) to be historic Christian teaching, sees divorce as a very bad thing, indeed often tragic, it does not fire people for getting divorced. We have a number of faculty who have been divorced while employed here; in the past dozen years or more, only one has been asked to leave. But the college authorities do ask to interview employees who are getting divorced in order to understand the circumstances. It was this interview that Kent declined to accept, and that’s where things unraveled.
Does such an institutional interest in employees’ personal lives strike you as an unwarranted invasion of privacy? People, you don’t know the half of it. You can’t get a job teaching here without letters of testimony to your Christian character and commitment to church life, at least one of them from your pastor. In interviews with the faculty personnel committee, the administration, and the department you want to teach in you have to be willing to answer all sorts of questions about your theological views, your spiritual values, your devotional commitmentsas well as about your research and teaching. Every year I fill out a Faculty Activity Report in which I list not only my books and articles but also my activities in church and any charitable services to my community. It’s not possible to teach at Wheaton without giving up a great deal of what most people call their privacy.
But how can this be justified? Only because Wheaton asks its faculty not just to teach our students but also to be mentors for them and modelsflawed models, deeply flawed in my case, but models all the sameof the Christian life. Indeed, that’s one of the chief ways in which the Wheaton experience is supposed to be distinct from other forms of higher education. By taking on this mentoring and modeling as an intrinsic part of our job, we agree to be evaluated on these grounds. And that can’t be done unless we open ourselves to the kind of scrutinyby our students as well as by our peers and our administrative leadersthat, frankly, violates our privacy. We give up some of that privacy for the sake of Christian communityfor the sake of the difficult task of helping to shape the whole lives (spiritual as well as intellectual) of young Christians.
Some , yesbut does it have to go so far? Is it reasonable for the college to inquire so deeply into the failure of a marriage, something so deeply personal and (in most cases) inscrutable to outsiders? As Kent has commented, with considerable justification, the situation seems to invite the faculty member to blame his spouse in order to keep his job. And in any case, what relevance could that divorce possibly have to one’s work as a teacher?
The answer to that last question is, alas, “It depends.” I know nothing whatsoever about Kent’s situation, but cannot imagine that any of the following scenarios apply in his case, so these are mere thought experiments, focusing on extreme possibilities.
(1) I am getting a divorce because my wife has fallen in love with another man and is leaving me.
(2) I am getting a divorce because my wife, exhausted after years of being verbally and sometimes physically abused by me, is leaving me.
(3) I am getting a divorce because I have fallen in love with another woman, a recent student of mine as it happens, and wish to leave my wife and marry this other woman.
Would any of these circumstances affect my ability to teach English literature to my students? Almost certainly not. But at Wheaton, I have those other responsibilities I mentioned, the “mentoring and modeling” with which I have been entrusted. And in light of those obligations, it seems to me that scenario (3) would disqualify me, scenario (1) would not, and scenario (2) might or might not, depending on how I respond to what has happened to me. A man who repents and grieves over his abuse of his wife, who understands that he is reaping what he has sown, could over the long term minister more deeply and significantly to his students than someone who had not so sinned and so suffered; but a man who refused to acknowledge his fault and filled himself with self-justification could be unworthy of the college’s (and his students’) trust.
But the only way these matters could be worked out is through long and difficult conversations between the person suffering through divorce and the college leadershipand this is what Kent Gramm chose not to do. Frankly, I don’t blame him one bit. I very well might make the same choice were I in his situation, though, then again, I might not have the courage: he knew what the employee handbook said and so resigned, even though he loves teaching his students here and doesn’t have another job on the horizon. (He has asked us to keep an eye out for him the next time we’re in Wal-Mart.) I wonder if, faced with the same situation, I wouldn’t have just blamed my spouse in order to keep my job and therefore some stability in my life. What Kent did is honorable and even brave.
But I also don’t think the college authorities could have done anything other than what they did, and not just because it’s impossible to ignore, for the sake of one situation, the existing rules that everyone has signed on to. If Wheaton is going to ask its faculty to be mentors and models of the Christian lifethis quasi-pastoral rolethen it has to be able to evaluate, in some way, our faithfulness in carrying out that responsibility. I must admit, I find this a little scary: Will I be judged fairly? Will I be falsely accused of some sin of commission or omission? (Or, perhaps worse, will I be truly accused?) And let’s admit it: Wheaton’s administration is made up of fallible people who can make mistakes in these matters, and perhaps have made them in the past. So these matters are complex, delicate, and worrisome.
But what’s the alternative to engaging in such difficult negotiations? For the college to say, “We expect our faculty to be sound spiritual mentors for our students, but we leave it to them to tell us whether they have successfully carried out this task”? That would be both irresponsible and an invitation to lawsuits from unhappy ex-students. For the college to say, “We ask our faculty to teach their classes and do their research in ways that avoid heresy, but to have no further role in their students’ lives”? Well, that would certainly simplify my life and give me more time to writebut it would also take away one of the chief joys of teaching here, and many of our students would find the Wheaton experience less attractive and meaningful.
The current system leaves me lamenting the loss of a colleague, my students grieving the loss of a beloved teacher, and Kent cut loose from a significant part of his work and from people he cares for. When I count the cost in this way, I am dismayed, and I can’t help but wonder whether there’s not a better and less threatening way to implement the community’s standards of commitment. But I don’t think Wheaton would be improved by a wholesale rejection of its current communal bonds and their replacement by a strict and simplistic division of “public” and “private” worlds. That would alter the character of this institution far more than, say, the admission of Catholics to the faculty. But let’s not go down that path again, at least not today . . .
Postscript: Wheaton’s president, Duane Litfin, has just posted a Q&A on the college’s policies regarding divorce here .