Ardent abolitionists founded Wheaton College in DuPage County just before the start of the Civil War, an era when calls for the immediate end of slavery and promotion of racial justice were often considered radical concepts.
Yet over the course of the next century and a half, the private evangelical Christian liberal arts college at times held an “underlying mindset of white superiority” as well as “attitudes, beliefs and actions that created an inhospitable and sometimes hostile campus environment” for people of color, according to a 122-page report on Wheaton College’s history of racism and discrimination, which was recently released by a college task force.
“A posture of repentance must include a resolve to lead our community to reflect the heart of Christ Jesus for his Church, an obligation to ‘turn from our wicked ways,’ and a commitment to eradicate racism and favoritism wherever it continues to exist in our covenant community,” the document stated.
The west suburban school’s extensive historical review, which was made public Sept. 14, follows similar reports from other universities and colleges around the country, as higher education institutions increasingly confront their histories of racism, discrimination and inequity.
Unlike Wheaton College, many other historical investigations of this kind have focused heavily on institutional ties to slavery.
Harvard University last year issued a report on the legacy of slavery at the Ivy League school, offering recommendations to guide “the work of reckoning and repair now beginning.”
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s history is “intertwined with the history of American slavery and the commitment to white supremacy which supported it,” according to a 2018 report on historical slavery and racism at the theological institute in Louisville, Kentucky.
Brown University was among the first higher education institutions to chronicle its “historical entanglement with racial slavery,” issuing a seminal report in 2006 that many colleges have used as a framework for their own self-examinations.
In contrast, Wheaton College’s report tells the story of a higher education institution that sometimes fell short of the values and spirit of its founding.
Responses to the review have been mixed. Some alums and supporters expressed pride that the nationally prominent evangelical college — often dubbed the Harvard of Christian schools — committed to recognizing and delving deeper into its sometimes painful past.
“The report upholds the ideals of Scripture against the failures of individuals and policy in ways that give hope,” one commenter posted on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter. “What a model!”
But some critics noted that the task force’s review spans only the first 140 years of the college’s historyafter its 1860 establishment, cutting off the inquiry at 2000.
The report makes no mention of more recent events — including the high-profile case of former faculty member Larycia Hawkins, who wore a hijab in 2015 to signify support for her Muslim neighbors.
Hawkins, the first Black female tenured professor at Wheaton College, was suspended by the school for saying Muslims and Christians worship the same God in a Facebook post, a message some evangelicals said should have been clarified to explain what makes Islam distinct from Christianity.
Dawn Wright, a Black Wheaton College alum, praised the task force for its work, “especially for the candor of some parts of the report.”
Yet she expressed shock and disappointment that the document ended at 2000, omitting any mention of major national events including the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the 2016 election of President Donald Trump fueled by conservative evangelical support and the rising influence of white nationalism.
“I don’t know if the task force is planning a Part 2, but given the evolution of events in this country and in the entire world, how could one not include the 21st century that we are nearly a quarter of a way through?”
In particular, she lamented the lack of any mention of Hawkins in the report.
The controversy made national headlines and sparked protests by students, staff members and alumni, as well as criticism by influential theological experts; many attributed the college’s treatment of Hawkins to racism, discrimination and Islamophobia. Wheaton College and Hawkins reached a settlement agreement in 2016, and an administrator who had called for her termination apologized, but she left the college.
Hawkins could not be reached by the Tribune for comment on the task force’s report.
“I think there might be a clear line between (Hawkins’s) treatment and parts of Wheaton’s history,” Wright said. “And I think it was indeed about race.”
Wheaton College Trustee Dale Wong, who is on the task force, said the school of roughly 2,900 students had already conducted a review of the Hawkins case years ago.
“There is information out there, including from the college, (which) did a fairly extensive review of that,” he said.
Wheaton College President Philip Ryken said the limited time span was chosen because it was “sufficiently in the past to give us an appropriate sense of historical distance, so that we truly would be doing historical work in understanding the college.”
The task force — which includes trustees, staff and faculty members, students and alumni — also issued a series of recommendations to begin tackling the school’s complicated history.
One concrete example is the college’s decision to rename its library: The building’s namesake, former Wheaton College President J. Oliver Buswell, had denied Black applicants admission to the college based on their race decades ago, according to the report.
“As a public acknowledgement of our collective grief and institutional repentance over the rejection of Black applicants, we will remove ‘Buswell’ from signs and other public descriptions where it is used as the present name of Wheaton’s Library,” the report states.
Instead, the building will simply be called “the library,” without an eponym.
Ryken described the name change as one tangible response to the task force’s report and “a symbol of our desire to be hospitable to students of all races and ethnic backgrounds.”
“The publication of the report is not simply the end of something, although it is the end of our historical review, at this moment in our history,” he said. “But it’s actually the beginning of a response.”
‘A more faith-filled way’
Wheaton College’s report is laced with celebratory periods when people of color were embraced and supported by the prominent evangelical college, even against the social and cultural grain of the era.
After it was founded by abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard, “a small cohort of students of color attended and graduated from” the college in its earliest years, many of them boarding in his home, according to the report.
During World War II, Wheaton College agreed to accept an influx of students of Japanese descent who would otherwise have been taken to internment camps, at a time when many other colleges and universities refused them admission.
In the late 1980s, Wheaton College started hosting a major missions conference for Korean pastors and ministry leaders; the report noted that many of them were drawn to the campus because of its deep ties to internationally renowned evangelist Billy Graham, who had graduated from the college in 1943.
“This familiarity provided an impetus for Korean leaders to encourage their church members to consider Wheaton for their children,” the report said.
Yet there were also darker moments of discrimination, racial hostility and missed opportunities to foster diversity and inclusion at Wheaton College.
After the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery, the school’s founder, Blanchard, “never matched his earlier zeal for the abolition of slavery with a commensurate zeal for the promotion of racial equality,” and after the Civil War, he shifted his focus to other causes, the report found.
“(Wheaton College’s) principled opposition to slavery was not synonymous with a commitment to promote racial equity in all respects,” the report said. “Nor did it lead to active promotion of racial integration or the full realization of the civil and political rights of African Americans after emancipation.”
The task force delved into the notable case of a Black student named Nellie Bryant, who attended in 1909 after she was forced out of a college in her home state of Kentucky due to segregation laws.
She came expecting acceptance, given Wheaton College’s anti-slavery reputation. Instead, Bryant was ostracized; other students refused to eat at the same table with her and the school debated whether it could lawfully expel her, according to the report.
Bryant did not return the next year.
In later years, the report recounts administrative opposition to interracial dating and failed attempts to recruit a more diverse student body.
The college launched its Compensatory Education Program in the late 1960s, designed to recruit and support minority students from urban areas; but some of these students reported feeling singled out and humiliated by some of the program’s special mandates, like a course in study methods and required tutoring, the report said.
Some participants were also embarrassed when sensitive details were taken from the student admission files “and then used to communicate to the alumni the great strides the institution was making in minority student education,” the report added.
“It was basically a failure because the institution really wasn’t sufficiently prepared, culturally, to accept that sort of thing, notwithstanding the really fine motivation for doing so,” said Wong, a college trustee serving on the task force. “So those are all things that are troubling, but they’re part of our history. And these are things that God is speaking to us to learn from, so that we can lead in a more faith-filled way going forward.”
For most of the 1990s and early 2000s, fewer than 10% of students were people of color, though the college reached a milestone of briefly exceeding 10% during the 1995-96 academic year, according to the report.
In the 1990s, the college had struggled with minority faculty recruitment, though the report praised the commitment of department chairs and committees to seek out diverse candidates.
“At the close of the decade, the number of minority faculty remained meager relative to the overall size of the faculty ranks,” the report said. “(The task force) has identified 17 minority faculty members in 1999, comprising just about 10% of … the entire Wheaton College faculty.”
Wheaton College alum David Congdon called the historical review “commendable,” adding that it was a “brave and bold action” on the college’s part, especially given the politically divisive climate nationwide, a fracturing that’s particularly deep within American evangelicalism.
But Congdon, an adjunct instructor of religion at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, also urged on his alma mater to apply similar self-reflection to the treatment of other historically oppressed groups, including the LGBTQ community.
“I want to see Wheaton put forward the energy and resources to examine other areas of systemic injustices that have hindered the college’s ability to live up to its mission,” he said. “The treatment of LGBTQ students, in particular, needs the same level of repentance and restitution exhibited in this report regarding race relations.”
Some of the report’s critics say their biggest concern is what the document omits — namely, any mention of the two decades or so of college and national history.
“I don’t know why they would take up such an inquiry and ignore recent, relevant history,” said Wheaton College alum Benjamin Esposito. “Unless it’s too sensitive to folks currently employed, to other alumni, etc.”
He ticked off major events in more recent years such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the COVID-19 pandemic and the #MeToo movement, as well as a rise in political extremism, all of which have shaped race relations, discrimination and equity in the area and across the United States.
Besides the Hawkins case, Wheaton College has faced other incidents that touched on race relations and discrimination in more recent years.
In 2015, a group of Wheaton College football players performed a skit donning Ku Klux Klan robes, attempting to parody a popular movie that poked fun at the KKK. During the performance, the students — including some who were Black — wore Klan-style white hoods and robes and carried Confederate flags, according to a Tribune report at the time.
While the participants apologized and explained they were trying to be satirical, the incident sparked outrage on campus.
As for Wheaton College’s historical review, Esposito added that “intentional, visible change to the institution” will be needed following the report.
“The problem is, you can say that you are sorry for the events of the past,” he said. “But those events and practices are what created the institution as it stands today.”