Of all the reasons a beloved professor could be leaving the college where he has taught for the last 20 years, the one for Kent Gramm’s departure is peculiar: He is getting divorced, the college demands an explanation, and he refuses to give one.
So Dr. Gramm is packing up his office at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian liberal arts school where everyone signs an agreement to uphold certain biblical standards of behavior, and divorce for reasons other than adultery and abandonment is grounds for firing. Rather than be fired, Dr. Gramm, a professor of English and creative writing, has resigned effective the end of this semester.
“Why are college administrators better able to judge my divorce than I am?” Dr. Gramm, who has been married for 34 years, asked in an interview. “If I had thought this was the wrong thing to do, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Dr. Gramm’s departure has prompted hand-wringing, a petition drive by students on his behalf and deep reflection on this peaceful campus about 20 miles west of Chicago, where visitors are welcomed by the towering pillars of the Billy Graham Center, named for the evangelist and 1943 Wheaton alumnus. Wheaton students vow not to smoke or drink on campus, and until 2003, they had to promise not to dance. (Now they can do so, but only if it is not “immodest.”)
College officials say, and students seem to agree, that it is appropriate to require members of their voluntary religious community to adhere to Christian standards of behavior. The controversy here is over what to do when the messiness of life gets in the way.
College officials say their rules on employee divorce mirror those laid out in the Bible, sanctioning it only in cases of adultery or abandonment. It is unclear whether Dr. Gramm’s reasons for divorce would have allowed him to stay because he refuses to discuss any details. His wife, Lynelle, declined to comment.
College officials said they had made no attempt to contact Dr. Gramm’s wife. They said they typically did not contact the spouses of divorcing employees or verify the employees’ versions of events; rather, they are concerned with the emotional and moral disposition of the employees themselves.
Dr. Gramm rejects the idea that a spouse must accuse his partner of wrongdoing to be allowed to stay after a divorce. He questions why the judgment of college administrators matters more than the word of a valued, longtime employee. “God won’t fire anyone because of their marital status, politics, theology or sexual preference,” Dr. Gramm said.
“I’m accepting the policy as it applies to me because I knew it was in place and I don’t expect anyone to make any exceptions,” he said. “But in the long run I think the policy is not a good one, because in a sense it’s saying that Wheaton’s standards are higher than God’s. That’s an upside-down world.”
But college officials say because professors are models for the students, it is especially incumbent on them to abide by moral codes.
“Marriage matters to God,” said Wheaton’s provost, Stanton L. Jones. “Marriage and divorce are moral issues; they’re not simply matters of lifestyle choice.”