In the fall of 2015, after terrorist attacks and subsequent proposals of repressive anti-Muslim policies by American presidential candidates and governors, Wheaton College political science professor Larycia Hawkins expressed her support for innocent Muslim women facing reprisals and harassment. Hawkins, who was then the only tenured African American woman on the faculty, wore an Islamic hijab head covering for Advent to show her “embodied solidarity.” In a Facebook post urging peacemaking efforts, she quoted Pope Francis to the effect that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.”
A social media frenzy of controversy ensued, attacking Hawkins for “heresy” and other errors in judgment. Wheaton’s administration responded quickly to the outcry — and provoked fresh outcry from her supporters — by placing her on involuntary administrative leave, issuing a series of press releases, announcing the beginning of termination procedures, and holding a “listening session” with students and alumni. In January 2016, the college’s Faculty Council unanimously called for the reinstatement of Hawkins. In February, the termination process was ended with an apology from Wheaton provost Stanton Jones; but just hours later, the college’s president, Philip Ryken, announced Hawkins would leave the college voluntarily after a “service of lament and reconciliation.”
A great many unanswered questions remain about process and campus culture. The controversy revealed longstanding tensions between Hawkins and Jones, including a seesaw of support for and sanctions against her views on racism, gay and lesbian rights issues, and ecumenism. Jones apparently put Hawkins on a pedestal to underline Wheaton’s diversity commitments, but repeatedly withdrew his support when opposing pressures came to bear.
More than a year has now passed since Wheaton and Hawkins parted ways. Social media feasted on a potful of controversy, stewing up many of the ingredients of American political polarization: theological and ideological orthodoxies, Muslim immigration and terrorism, racial discrimination, sexism, academic freedom, labor-management relations, Protestant-Catholic relations, and gay rights, just to name a few. The event did not reflect well on the body of Jesus Christ. Faculty morale at Wheaton was damaged and the redemptive message of the Gospel was badly confused.
How should leadership manage academic faculty in a way that honors academic freedom and promotes the Gospel, yet reduces the risk of a Hawkins-style PR disaster? Social science offers some insights that align well with Christian principles. Managing bright, creative, even prophetic, personnel is an art form, to be sure, and expert attention to individual and institutional particularities is an invaluable skill. But there are also deep, stable patterns in human behavior that our Creator established and that social science can observe.
There may well be a hidden, idiosyncratic backstory to the Hawkins affair that justifies one party or the other — I don’t know. But the public face of Wheaton’s management did not reflect good practice.
The social science of principals and agents
In the study of organizational behavior, one of the core analytical tools is the “principal–agent problem”: how does a principal — say, a seminary president or a board of trustees — ensure the compliance of an agent, such as securing a faculty member’s fidelity to the theological and educational mission of a school? The more difficult it is to monitor the agent’s behavior, the more difficult the problem. Multilayer hierarchies complicate things further — for example, when trustees are also agents of external constituencies who want their interests protected. A theological gloss on the concept might point out that the living, creative imago Dei in every agent often resists blind, mechanical compliance with other humans’ demands.
Some powerful insights into principal–agent compliance come from political scientists John Brehm and Scott Gates, who conducted extensive studies of police officers, tax auditors, and social workers and published two superb books: Working, Shirking, and Sabotage (1999) and Teaching, Tasks, and Trust (2008). Their findings align well with empirical research in business, such as the writings of Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton at Stanford and of Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey at Harvard. These research programs also resonate with Robert Putnam’s classic studies of social capital. The gist of all these studies is that leaders help their organizations thrive when they prioritize long-term, low-visibility networks of trust and reciprocity over short-term, visible victories of authority.
Keys to compliance
In Working, Shirking, and Sabotage, Brehm and Gates demonstrated that supervision is an ineffective way to ensure fidelity to mission. Increased monitoring of agents by principals does not improve compliance. On the contrary, it drives agents to conceal their real dispositions, and it dampens enthusiasm for performing the core mission of the organization. Instead, the key to increased compliance and performance has two aspects. First, organizations enjoy greater compliance when they select intrinsically motivated personnel at hiring time — people who love the mission, who “want to do what we do” for its own sake. Second, compliance is best maintained by modeling desired behavior, not by enforcing it. Hypocritical “do as I say and not as I do” leadership has profoundly negative consequences.
Teaching, Tasks, and Trust presents the finding that principals’ most important privilege is the ability to select and prioritize the tasks their agents will perform. Brehm and Gates observe that principals exercise this privilege best by gaining the trust of agents. In turn, trust is earned by protecting agents from outside pressures. Supervisors who use pressure from the corner suite to motivate subordinates are less successful than supervisors who buffer their teams against pressure from the corner suite.
Recommendations for a Gospel-infused management science
How might a theological school or seminary handle a future controversy like the one that erupted after Larycia Hawkins issued her provocative statement of solidarity with Muslims? Before taking any cues from social science, it’s a good idea to remember the Gospel: Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:30), his followers are servant leaders who do not “lord it over” others (Matthew 20:25–28), and “the first will be last and the last will be first” (Matthew 20:16).
With the Gospel in mind, a school might respond as follows:
Select for mission motivation. Demonstrate confidence in recruitment and hiring processes. If you’re already carefully hiring for fidelity to your mission, there is little to be gained by publicly doubting the commitment of those who have made a significant public statement by joining your team. If selection protocols seem to be failing to produce compliant hires, focus on future improvements rather than punishment of present deviation.
Model desired behavior. Use the “Yes, and ...” rule — a valuable practice from improv comedy — and model the theology or politics that your mission demands. Find the shared orthodox content and then build on that to express your preferred interpretation of the issue. Unless the faculty member in question is in open defiance of undisputed core doctrine, your direct contradiction only reveals that your mission is already fractured and your authority is already compromised.
Gain trust by shielding your people from pressure. Faculty morale is your best ally in securing solidarity and compliance. In the Wheaton case, leadership likely erred by reinforcing external public and constituent pressure on Hawkins. Even if the inevitable result was justifiable sanction or termination for the professor, it would have been much better for both parties’ welfare if college leadership had minimized the issue instead of escalating the visibility of the controversy with a hasty, punitive, public reaction.
Perhaps a better message for Wheaton might have been: “Move along, nothing to see here, folks. She’s one of ours, and ours are all good. The statement of faith ought to be enough for anyone. At any rate, she’s presumed innocent until proven both very guilty and unrepentant, and she is neither. Let us take care of this our way, through our usual respectful and deliberate procedure.”
Instead, Wheaton appears to have reinforced the impression that it lives on a hair trigger of worry that any of its professors might have shaky faith — especially those from minority cultures. Hawkins’ visibly poor treatment cascaded into discontent among her colleagues, resulting in public statements of opposition to the administration, leaks of sensitive documents, and other disruptions to unity.
Anyone who has been involved in highly-charged controversies knows that there is always more to the story than the public is hearing. One party is never fully to blame, and the other is never fully innocent. In the heat of a crisis, mistakes will be made on all sides. Institutional life is difficult, especially under the glare of outside parties who have their own motivations in narrating the story.
Nevertheless, as people of the “upside-down kingdom,” where the last are first, self-sacrifice is victory, and we are called to peacemaking, we should always work toward conciliation and compassion first.
Recourse to justice comes later, even when “later” seems embarrassingly late to observers. A wise response to controversy is to weigh how our reaction now will affect our ability to select for compliant teammates in the future. Public, demonstrative protection of dissidents and careful handling of discipline is an attractive recruitment strategy. And a larger pool of applicants will enhance the ability to pick a new generation of leaders who are fully committed to the mission.