“The Editor’s Desk” is a weekly, personal meditation by CT Editor Mark Galli on how he approaches the issues of the day.
One could imagine a better outcome at Wheaton College, but it probably wouldn’t be one that is achievable given all the bloodshed in the last few weeks. To me, however, what transpired is remarkable: a display of courageous humility by provost Stan Jones and the compromise between Wheaton and Professor Larycia Hawkins.
As this controversy continued to unfold, I wrestled with a conundrum for which no solution presented itself. For many years now, I’ve heard professors, staff, and students at many Christian colleges and universities complain that they don’t know what’s going on in their institutions. This seems to reflect the oft-noted reality that we today distrust institutions and their leaders. Many of us agree—even institutional leaders—that institutions should be more accountable to the people they serve.
The solution seems simple: Why not just become more transparent about what’s going on, telling those outside the administration what ideas are percolating, what the options are—all the while inviting the larger community to participate in the decision-making process? Wouldn’t that make for better decisions and a sense of ownership by all?
Let me say I am deeply sympathetic with this view.
Then recently I met a president of a West Coast Christian college who told me why his school has actually become less transparent over the years. He said before the Internet, his school was collaborative and transparent in decision making. It was typical for the school to present proposals to faculty and staff to get their input long before any decision or direction had been set in stone. Then while discussing one proposal, social media went crazy with criticism and debate, long before anything had been decided. It ended up sabotaging the school’s ability to do anything about that matter.
From that point on, this president says, his administrators started holding things close to the chest. Today they will not share anything with anyone until everything is in order and the decision is made. Secrecy is the order of the day for them.
Let me also say that I can certainly empathize with these administrators.
I have no idea how to solve the conundrum at Wheaton College. I have wondered aloud to my staff about Wheaton’s apparent lack of transparency during the controversy. But my news people tell me that Wheaton has done a better job of keeping journalists informed than most other Christian colleges have done in similar circumstances. So something that looks like a lack of transparency is, relatively speaking, actually reasonably transparent.
Social media is and is not the culprit here. It’s clearly a blessing: it allows us to share information and opinions with great speed and reach. It’s clearly a curse: it allows us to share information and opinions with great speed and reach! That has made decision making in institutions much more complex.
Another social change that made this controversy harder is the increasing lack of confidentiality. I have been surprised by how often we at CT receive emails and messages about confidential decisions, often sent while faculty or institutional members are in the very midst of a confidential meeting. In part, this is due to human weakness: who of us doesn’t know the thrill of revealing something confidential? Then again, it is sometimes insidious and simply damaging, especially when someone promises confidentiality while believing that confidentiality is merely hiding the truth and that truth must be outed.
I wrestle with how Christian institutions are supposed to negotiate these new realities when they have important or sensitive matters to discuss or decide. I do not think that these issues sum up what made the Wheaton controversy so difficult to resolve. But they represent a few tensions today that make it harder than ever for Christians who work together in institutions to trust one another.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.