At Wheaton college, employees who are divorcing are required to confer with the university to determine if their divorce meets biblical standards. Kent Gramm, an English professor, notified the university of his divorce, but refused to discuss it. The college found this unacceptable. Gramm is resigning. Many have criticized the college’s actions. Bill McGurn, writing in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, saw them as refreshing:
..I also find myself wondering how much richer our nation’s university life would be with a few more Wheatons willing to be out of touch for the sake of their deepest beliefs.
Wheaton wasn’t the only school to come to come to disagreement with an employee this week – the University of Toledo suspended an Associate Vice President of Human Resources for writing a newspaper op-ed questioning whether homosexuality is a human rights issue. As a public university, establishing an effective demand of beliefs, they’ve come under much-justified criticism – because they’re, well, wrong.
How do these items relate? Well, on the main level, not at all; a different standard applies to the actions of private colleges, free to define their beliefs, and to relieve employees (roughly speaking) that don’t share them. Wheaton’s actions aren’t legally circumspect, Toledo’s are. Toledo illegitimately manufactured a test of belief, while Wheaton enforced a public, and justifiable one. It’s nice to see colleges stand up for firm beliefs in the face of postmodern vacuity, yet… there comes a point when it seems unwise to applaud measures that intrude into the private lives of university employees and affiliates. We’ve already seen something of the risk of a potentially bullying administration at a religious college deploying faith as a shield, at Ave Maria University.
Is Wheaton within its rights to ask for an explanation from Gramm? Yes, but I don’t see much to praise there. In comparison, Wheaton’s last high-profile firing, of a professor who converted to Roman Catholicism seems much more defensible – the conversion amounts to an indisputable public dissent from the religious convictions of the university – while Gramm’s divorce relies upon a more subjective conception of what is biblical or not – he may very well regard it as personally “biblical” even if he’s failed to obtain the university’s opinion on the question. While we should respect the rights of religious institutions, I think it’s best to be wary of some doctrinal applications when they wreak havoc upon academic convention (as at Ave Maria) or stray considerably into one’s private life (as in Gramm’s case). Gramm believes (as quoted in the Chicago Tribune) “it’s wrong to have to discuss your personal life with your employer.”
Wheaton has the last word on the question, but Gramm’s is a useful point to weigh. It’s not clear that a Wheaton College without Gramm is a stark demonstration for belief that benefits anyone – any more so than Toledo’s fired administrator is. Consider: if Toledo was a private progressive religious college, it could be entirely within its rights to fire any employee who questioned gay civil rights, even in an outside newspaper. While we should respect the convictions of religious colleges, it’s quite another thing to boundlessly approve of what they choose to do with them.