Andrews University is a private, Seventh-Day Adventist University that prides itself on being one of the “most culturally diverse universities in the nation,” according to the U.S. News and World Report. I attended Andrews University as an undergraduate and graduate student, and was later employed there as a full-time faculty member in July of 2012. I was very excited to be a part of the university again and loved my job as professor and Director of Research at the Physical Therapy Program.
The entire time I was employed there, I always presented myself in a modest fashion, wearing a scarf across my shoulders. I recently moved my scarf, which had always draped and rested on my shoulders, to include covering my head as well. Ten days after I started wearing the scarf on my head, my contract was changed from a “high recommendation to continue, with pay increase and excellence in teaching, research and service” to a “non-renewal contract.” The change was based solely upon my “declaration of faith of adherence to the religion of Islam.”
Hijab was my only declaration, apparently, because prior to my wearing a headscarf, no one asked me if I had converted to Islam after being hired.
I wonder: If I were a male faculty member who started wearing a full beard on campus, would assumptions and statements have been made regarding my religious affiliation? In other words, is there gender discrimination on Andrews University campus?
Hijab is much more than the outer covering we, as Muslim women, place on our heads and use to cover our bodies. It is the hijab of the eyes, the speech, hearing, beliefs, and the ego. It is a piece of cloth that went from my shoulders to my head and is a reminder that I am constantly in need of God’s guidance, and that it is He alone that I worship.
I was extremely disappointed in Andrews University’s decision to not renew my contract, especially when I remembered that the Professor previously in my position for twenty years was Catholic and somehow that was considered acceptable. Other non-Seventh Day Adventists, such Jews and agnostics, were also permitted to hold faculty positions on campus. However, for Andrews University, Islam was deemed an “unacceptable faith” on campus. This diversity of terminology to create barriers between “us” and “them” is exactly what I have been trying to deconstruct for my children, in a society and media culture that is more than happy to label Muslims as the “other” rather than as the “brother.”
Here I was, sending my Muslim children to Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) schools and showing them the connections between our beautiful religions, thinking we could build bridges of interfaith dialogue, respect and understanding between Muslims and SDAs to start the peace process at “home.” Research shows that the presence of minority students, as minority advocates, at universities helps overcome prejudices.
But my intentions were met with something quite different. I was told by the President of Andrews University that, “If I were telling Andrews University that I was wearing my hijab because I was being coerced into wearing it by my ‘husband’ or because I wanted to ‘pretend I was Muslim in order to get close to the Muslim students to convert them’ I could, then, retain my position as a faculty member.”
In other words, Andrews University would support me in being deceitful to our Muslim students as part of its missionary agenda. I am certain that truth is never derived from deceit, and am appalled that this tactic is being utilized for missionary purposes at Andrews.
Truth stands out clear from error and only God can change hearts to embrace all Truth, without any coercion or disguise.
At first I felt abandoned by those who claimed to be my family. Then I felt sad because the knowledge of Islam was so incorrect and yet the university purposely recruited Muslim students (mostly to improve its enrollment of full paying patrons, from what I understand). In my view, there is an intrinsic brotherhood between Christians and Muslims. If one compares Christianity and Islam, it is evident that they hold more of the same spiritual teachings than any other two religions. And the Quran teaches Muslims to respect the “People of the Book and those who believe in one God.”
I was also devastated by the university’s decision to terminate my teaching contract merely because of my “declaration of faith,” as reflected in my headscarf. This was troubling for a few reasons:
- The fact that Andrews University seems to care more about what is on my head, than what is in my head as demonstrated by the fact that I received one of the highest Faculty Research Evaluation Reports on campus and excellent recommendations to continue based upon merit in teaching, service, and research, and recommendation for the highest pay raise for 2015.
- The future of my own children (one is Christian and two are Muslim) in relationship to the institution.
- Non-SDA Students, including Muslim students, on campus felt very marginalized because of this decision and were intimidated by the Administration from voicing their opinion regarding this decision. Furthermore, they were concerned about their own futures at Andrews University, since they are in the minority.
- Muslim Students who were actively recruited on campus were required to pay full tuition on campus to attend Andrews University. However, at best, Andrews University will only ever see them as “second class citizens,” with no ability to ever hold faculty status.
- I was told that “Andrews University is the Leader of the World Church” and that is the reason to give my contract, as a hijab-wearing woman, was not renewed. However, I believe deeply in the need for the World Church to be the leader of healing for Christian-Muslim relations and not the barrier in order for all children to have a future in this world and for Andrews University to be a true beacon of peace, light, and understanding between the two faiths that are more similar in nature than they are different.
Since being on campus with my hijab, with now greater insight into how Muslim students must feel on campus, it has been quite a shock regarding the negative and extremely prejudiced responses I have received from faculty and staff, such as:
“So, should we expect an explosion from your office now?”
“You know why Andrews University HAD to get rid of you…well, from administration’s point of view you were like a “Muslim Cancer” that had to be eradicated before it grew”
“For Andrews University to hire you back, they would need to dig deep into the cesspool to hire a ‘Muslim”
“Why did you have to go and wear that ‘thing’ on your head? If you just wouldn’t have worn that ‘thing’, you could have kept your job.”
“Why do you keep trying to educate us about Islam with Muslim students. We don’t, necessarily, WANT to be educated on Islam.”
Andrews University, sadly, you have failed your mission to “seek knowledge, affirm faith, and change the world.” Your Muslim students, and the world you seek to serve in the name of Jesus, need bridges to be built, not burned.
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. Indeed, God is All Knowing and Acquainted with all things.” Quran 49:13
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” Psalms 133:1
“Know therefore this day, and consider it in your heart, that the Lord He is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath: there is none else.” Deuteronomy 4:39
“Indeed, amazing are the affairs of a believer! They are all for his benefit. If he is granted ease of living he is thankful; and this is best for him. And if he is afflicted with a hardship, he perseveres; and this is best for him.” Hadith, Sahih Muslim
Dr. Lori Maria Walton, PhD, DPT, MS is a writer, researcher and international lecturer on Muslim women’s issues. She has over ten years experience as a Professor and Researcher, with over 25 peer reviewed publications and numerous national and international invited lectures on women’s issues, including maternal health, intimate partner violence, social justice, & cultural and socio-economic barriers for women in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Dr. Walton is the mother of three boys (Harun, Kashif, & Cyrus), who remain at the heart of all matters important.