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As North Park University students returned home for summer break last year, many of them heard a disturbing piece of gossip: Don Wagner, a popular Middle-Eastern studies professor, would be fired the following year—in May 2010—after teaching at the Chicago school for 15 years. Rumors circulated that the decision, made without any student input, was due to his outspoken views on Palestine and Israel.
An activist for Palestinian human rights, Wagner, director of North Park’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), was popular with students but controversial within the evangelical Christian university’s larger community. School administrators have cited financial pressures as the reason for Wagner’s departure, but from the beginning many students—and some faculty members—believe his position was eliminated because of his political views.
In a June 2009 e-mail, students learned that CMES, founded by Wagner in 1995, would be absorbed into a “collaboratory” beginning in the fall. The new entity, a one-stop-shop of sorts for North Park’s cultural centers’—including centers for African-American, Korean, Scandinavian and Middle Eastern studies—would employ “faculty fellows,” rather than directors of centers. Wagner, who became a fellow at the “collaboratory” for the 2009-10 academic year and no longer works at the school, declined an interview with In These Times.
Student leaders and faculty members started a petition—which eventually had more than 500 signatures, including some from members of North Park’s board of trustees—to rehire Wagner as an adjunct professor. But on May 18, after negotiations with faculty members, North Park announced that it would not rehire Wagner. Spanish Professor Cherie Meacham helped lead the push to rehire Wagner, and wrote in an e-mail to In These Times that North Park alumni agreed to fund Wagner’s salary, but President David Parkyn and other administrators declined to hire him.
“The faculty and students who have done everything possible over the last year to avoid this outcome are in a state of mourning,” Meachman wrote. “We have lost the presence of a gifted colleague, professor, mentor and friend who in every way epitomizes our best efforts toward being a truly multicultural, urban and Christian campus.”
Parkyn did not respond to requests for a comment on why Wagner was not rehired. An adjunct professor has been contracted to teach Middle Eastern studies, Meacham says. (As of late May there were no Middle Eastern studies classes open for registration for the Fall 2010 semester.)
North Park is the only evangelical Christian university in the United States with a center for Middle Eastern studies; the fact that its director questioned the United States’ alliance with Israel made it all the more unusual. As director, Wagner organized lectures, taught classes and brought one Palestinian student to North Park each year, says Lukas Dahlstrom, a former vice president of North Park’s student association. Wagner’s books include Anxious for Armageddon and Dying in the Land of Promise: Palestine and Palestinian Christianity from Pentecost to 2000.
In a 2003 article titled “The Evangelical-Jewish Alliance,” originally published in the journal The Christian Century and available at Religion-Online.org, Wagner wrote that “[m]uslims and other non-Jewish religious minorities in the U.S. have no standing with the Christian right; indeed, Christian Zionists are openly hostile toward Islam.” He criticized the Christian right for pro-Israel views loosely rooted in scripture.
Students say Wagner has paid for his outspokenness before. Five years ago, he was not awarded tenure, a decision many of his students say was related to his political views. (Parkyn wrote in an e-mail to In These Times that he “was not at North Park during that time and does not have a good handle on the details which surrounded that process.”)
Katie Cavallo, a student of Wagner’s who graduated from North Park this month, decided to challenge Wagner’s impending departure. In May 2009 she created a Facebook group called “Help Keep Don Wagner at North Park!” which quickly grew. Eve Adams, a former student of Wagner’s who is Jewish, wrote on Facebook in support of the academic: “As one of about a dozen Jews who have ever attended North Park, I found myself in distinct disagreement with Dr. Wagner in just about every classroom setting—and I have the utmost respect for him and his opinions.”
Hundreds of letters began pouring into Parkyn’s office from students and donors asking why Wagner had been fired, and why CMES was effectively being dissolved. Throughout the entire process, according to each student interviewed for this article, no one within the administration would say more than that Wagner’s firing was due to “financial” reasons.
Due to the recession’s impact on the university’s endowment and a September 2008 flood that forced costly repairs to several campus buildings, North Park had to make cuts. Ho-Youn Kwon, director or the Korean studies center, was also fired in May 2009 as the school’s vision for the “collaboratory” came together.
But Dahlstrom, who met with Parkyn throughout his four years as a North Park student, challenges the idea that financial problems caused Wagner’s firing. “I don’t see how the process of firing someone, finding [a replacement] and then keeping the program [as part of the “collaboratory”] is a good use of resources,” Dahlstrom says. “The ‘financial’ reason just doesn’t make any sense.”
In recent years, other Chicago-area universities have also sparked controversies about intellectual freedom and academics’ political views.
In 2007, political scientist Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure at Chicago’s DePaul University after a very public battle with university officials and Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and fervent supporter of Israel. Finkelstein, whose parents survived a Nazi death camp, has accused Jews of using the Holocaust as a tool to gain power and money. Although many DePaul faculty members supported Finkelstein and his department recommended him for tenure, he did not receive it, effectively ending his career at DePaul. Finkelstein said the decision was based on “transparently political grounds” and was an “egregious violation” of intellectual freedom.
In 2005, Northwestern University declined to fire Arthur Butz, a Holocaust denier and tenured electrical engineering professor. Butz was criticized for speaking in support of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmajinedad, saying ” I congratulate him on becoming the first head of state to speak out clearly on these issues [the alleged fabrication of the Holocaust], and regret only that it was not a Western head of state.” Former Northwestern President Henry Bienen called Butz “an embarrassment to Northwestern,” but Butz continued to teach at Northwestern despite faculty protests.
Parkyn denies that Wagner’s views on Palestine had anything to do with his termination. “Dr. Wagner wasn’t “fired”—which would imply a decision based on performance review … rather, a year ago we decided to terminate the position which he held … all based on our need to keep the University’s budget balanced and to appropriate available resources as judiciously as possible,” he wrote to In These Times.
Cavello describes Parkyn as “a politician,” and Dahlstrom criticizes the president for his top-down vision of the school and being “completely out of touch with … students.” Dahlstrom worries that consolidating multicultural programs into the “collaboratory” will harm the school by decreasing its diversity. Parkyn maintains that its creation would not affect availability of Middle Eastern studies classes.
On April 29, students organized a forum to discuss the “collaboratory,” which Parkyn and other administrators attended. Students were angry and many spoke out of turn, asking why Wagner had been fired, according to Dahlstrom. (Cavallo says one forum audience member offered to pay Wagner’s salary to avoid a firing; administrators didn’t respond to the proposal.)
Rebecca Ewing, a former student of Wagner’s who helped organize the forum, says he has invaluable connections to Palestine and scholars of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “He has a lot of Muslim and Jewish friends who he doesn’t reject, and there aren’t many evangelical academics who walk that path, Ewing says. “He’s a lot more liberal regarding interfaith relations. … He asks a lot of questions.”
In the summer of 2009, Cavallo met with Parkyn, who, she says, was angry with her for mobilizing so many students and concerned about upset donors who had contacted him. Cavallo pled her case, saying, “If you shut down Don Wagner, you shut down the Middle East studies program. Then you shut down the center, which is such an asset to North Park.”
Wagner’s 15-year North Park career is now officially over. For many students, alumni and faculty members, a question mark remains.
This article was updated on May 20 to acknowledge the outcome of faculty-administration negotiations.