Faculty, Staff, Administration and Students Speak Up about Chaplain Blackmon’s Dismissal

Six months after the chaplain’s firing, questions remain.

By Tennyson Bush and Carolina Lumetta | Managing Editor, Associate Editor
December 11, 2020
Wheaton’s former chaplain, Rev. Tim Blackmon. Photo:Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Wheaton College announced on July 3 its termination of Timothy Blackmon as chaplain following a Title IX complaint and investigation conducted in the winter and spring of 2020. This was the first time in the school’s history that a chaplain was fired. The college has since removed Blackmon’s chapel messages from its YouTube channel

 

In a public statement following early media coverage of the firing, President Philip Ryken outlined the specific allegations leading to the decision. Blackmon and his lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, have disputed the allegations. 

 

According to the college’s statement, a complainant reported that the former chaplain had engaged in a variety of actions which violated the college’s racial and sexual harassment policies. The complainant reported they had witnessed Blackmon suggest a female employee sit on his lap to take his online sexual harassment training for him, he had addressed a member of the Chaplain’s Office by a racial slur and he had emailed employees a meme about masturbation. The complainant also alleged that Blackmon arranged to have “The Idiot’s Guide to Kama Sutra” placed on their desk and made a comment regarding their sex life.

 

According to a faculty member, the complainant spoke to personal mentors at the time of the alleged incidents first occurring in 2015. In November of 2019, the complainant filed a claim with Wheaton’s Title IX office. 

 

Blackmon went to the press in the weeks following the president’s announcement and claimed that his statements were taken out of context. He attributed the disconnect to a cultural barrier between his Dutch sense of humor and Midwestern stigmas around topics of race and sexuality. According to Leslie Weinzettel, a former Chaplain’s Office coordinator and the alleged victim of the harassment training comment, Blackmon’s “friendly banter” was a distinct shift from the previous chaplain’s reserved demeanor. Weinzettel has since said that the college’s description of the event was taken so far out of context as to be “not factually correct,” according to an email she sent to Ryken obtained by the Record.

 

In an exclusive interview with the Chicago Tribune, Blackmon called the allegations “a complete misconstrual of events” and said that the administration ignored due process in his termination. In the article, Miltenberg said Blackmon has a strong case for a lawsuit against the school. Miltenberg added in another interview that the Black chaplain’s race factored into his firing. 

Blackmon declined the Record’s requests for interviews or comments on the advice of his legal counsel.

 

The Record spent over three months investigating Chaplain Blackmon’s firing and interviewed 15 witnesses, students, faculty, staff and administrators to learn how the decision was made. All information attributed anonymously has been confirmed with multiple sources.

The Investigation

Most Title IX investigations at Wheaton are conducted and adjudicated in-house by volunteer staff members, according to Title IX Coordinator Diane Padilla. After the Title IX office received the complaint against Blackmon in November 2019, however, the Title IX Office commissioned an outside firm, Aequitask, to investigate the allegations. According to the firm’s website, Aequitask employs contractors to perform workplace and campus investigations. In the Wheaton case, CEO and founder Bruce Melton personally conducted the investigation into Blackmon’s alleged misconduct. 

 

Melton declined the Record’s requests for an interview or comment. 

 

After interviewing at least eight current and former Wheaton College employees, Melton sent the investigator’s report to Minneapolis-based attorney Kathryn Nash, an external adjudicator assigned by the Title IX office who has presented on disability law and trauma-informed interviewing techniques at Wheaton. According to Padilla, the Title IX office gives adjudicators the authority to make decisions on Title IX investigations. Following Nash’s determination that Blackmon’s employment should be terminated, the former chaplain was placed on administrative leave effective April 7. 

 

Blackmon appealed the adjudicator’s decision. The college’s then-current Title IX policy stated that an appeal can be made based on three conditions: a procedural error in the investigation affecting the outcome, the emergence of new evidence or penalties disproportionate to the offense. According to another faculty member, Blackmon made his appeal on all three grounds.

 

According to trustee and chair of the appellate panel Dale Wong, President Ryken decided to assign the appellate role to trustee members due to the case’s high profile and the chaplain’s senior position at the college. Four members of the Wheaton Board of Trustees comprised the appellate committee that heard Blackmon’s appeal. 

 

“We had access to all the materials: the investigative report, the responses from both the complainant and the respondent and the letter of decision and pretty much all the things that were in the record,” said Wong. The appellate committee chose to uphold the adjudicator’s decision and fire Blackmon on May 26.

 

Several people interviewed during the investigation said Melton did not record their sessions. 

 

“[The interview] was not recorded; he was taking notes on his laptop,” Weinzettel said. “I was given zero information other than that Chaplain Blackmon had made some comments and they were doing an investigation. [Melton] just asked me to talk about Chaplain Blackmon, talk about the office, talk about his strengths and weaknesses, talk about my experience — so it was all just very general.”

 

Interim Chaplain Greg Waybright, who served on the appeals committee that chose to uphold Blackmon’s employment termination, confirmed the committee did not have access to direct witness testimony through recordings or interview transcripts. According to a staff member, multiple employees wrote emails to Ryken and chairman of the Board of Trustees Jim Goetz providing character references for the chaplain and requesting a reversal of their decision. Wong said he was not aware of these emails and that they were not forwarded to members of the appellate committee. 

 

Multiple sources confirmed that Melton did not offer witnesses the opportunity to review their statements. 

 

“I wish that I had even been able to see his report. You know, I never got to see his summary,” Weinzettel said. “I had no idea how serious this could be. So I did my best, but if I could redo that interview knowing what I know now, I really could have spoken a lot more directly into the specific scenarios.”

 

Weinzettel also said that Melton never asked her about the allegation that Blackmon had suggested she sit in his lap and take a sexual harassment training for him. Following the public announcement of Blackmon’s termination of employment, Weinzettel wrote emails to Ryken and Goetz to request a public correction.

 

“Your description of this event is not factually correct,” the email said. “I am the female employee referenced in this allegation and you must know Rev. Blackmon never invited me to sit on his lap.” Weinzettel told the Record that Blackmon had spoken in a joking manner that was obviously not intended as a literal suggestion. She said Blackmon’s comment was made in a public space and that she never interpreted it as a private invitation.

 

While Weinzettel said Ryken and Goetz were gracious in their email replies, she said that they did not consider her statement a compelling reason to issue a public correction. President Ryken declined the Record’s request for an interview but responded to select questions via email.

 

“That particular allegation was maybe one of the worst I felt like the public statements made it sound like there were two female complainants,” Weinzettel said, explaining her decision to email Ryken and Goetz. “I wanted to clarify there aren’t two people coming forward saying they’re victims here. Because that sounds way worse; it sounds like a pattern. I really was not a victim at all; it never even occurred to me.” 

 

Under Wheaton’s Discrimination, Harassment, and Sexual Misconduct policy, complainants and respondents are required to adhere to strict confidentiality during and after an investigation. According to multiple sources, during the investigation, the complainant blind copied several faculty and staff members in a February email that contained the allegations against the chaplain. 

 

Aaron Hann, who served as Blackmon’s assistant starting in July 2019, was in the chaplain’s office when Blackmon read the document. He said the chaplain was “visibly shaken and disturbed” by what he read. When Hann privately spoke with two witnesses, they both reported saying “many positive things” about the chaplain to the investigator. But Hann said Blackmon told him there was “one half-sentence that reflected positively about him” in the report. 

 

Hann resigned in protest following Blackmon’s unsuccessful appeal.

Rev. Blackmon and President Ryken posing in Edman Chapel in 2015. Photo: Record Archives.
Title IX or Matthew 18?

On July 3, the President’s Office released an email to the Wheaton community announcing Chaplain Blackmon’s termination. According to Hann and another source close to the chaplain, the administration was in the process of negotiating the wording with Blackmon and his lawyer and then released the email before reaching an agreement. The same day, the President’s Office introduced Greg Waybright as the interim chaplain. Later on July 9, the administration sent another email — this time only to staff and faculty — responding to an interview in the Chicago Tribune in which Blackmon cited the possibility of a lawsuit against the college. The email from the President’s Office responded to this article by revealing the specific allegations against the chaplain.

 

According to Hann, the work culture in the chaplain’s office revolved around Blackmon’s “Dutch humor.” He said that Blackmon was typically blunt and liked to poke fun to “establish rapport.” Weinzettel also commented that the former chaplain created an atmosphere of friendly, direct banter.

 

“The whole aspect of context was totally missed,” Hann said. “That’s where I think the decision was bound to go wrong. If you walk through the specifics, that’s just the nature of how speech works. If you take stuff out of context, it can be totally misinterpreted.” 

 

“He was quick to joke and not shy away from topics that other people might find awkward. He would just be direct,” Weinzettel said. “I think he was trying to give people permission to be direct as well and to create an environment that was acceptable and safe.”

 

In his resignation letter to President Ryken, Hann wrote: “I have lost faith in the College’s claim to be ‘a community of Christians who seek to live according to biblical standards laid down by Jesus Christ for his body, the church.’”

 

Hann told the Record that he thought the appellate committee and the adjudicator failed to uphold due process and “caved to external pressures” in choosing not to give Blackmon a path to restoration. 

 

“I couldn’t stomach continuing to work in that position seeing what they did to Tim,” Hann told the Record. “The part that was sickening is [the] failure to uphold [the Community Covenant and Matthew 18] while at the same time saying that Tim’s conduct was unbecoming a chaplain and a Christian.”

 

Weinzettel and another witness also said the appellate committee missed an opportunity to practice Christian reconciliation.

 

“I’m grieved, and I don’t think that it had to go this way. I think if it had been addressed differently or sooner or if there had been opportunities to clarify intentions or clear up misunderstandings or apologize. If there had even been some warning, I don’t think he would have necessarily had to have been fired at all,” Weinzettel said. 

 

Goetz echoed Weinzettel’s grief but affirmed the committee’s decision to terminate Blackmon’s employment for conduct inconsistent with Wheaton College policies.

 

“Everyone had a heart to say, ‘Is there any way that God can redeem and reconcile, restore?’ All along that’s what we were praying for, and that did not happen,” Goetz said. “I’m still seeking to understand God’s purposes and healing and plan. Everyone found this really, really difficult, including me.”

 

Waybright previously chaired the trustee committee that reviewed the departure of former professor of political science Larycia Hawkins, which was not related to a Title IX claim. Although Waybright said these processes are never easy, he said he felt a responsibility to join when Goetz invited him to the panel evaluating Blackmon’s appeal. 

 

“I love reconciliation; I love restoration of relationships. I think God loves to step into those broken places and see that restoration happen,” Waybright said. 

 

Several sources interviewed by the Record said that by not confronting Blackmon with his behavior and offering a chance for this restoration, Wheaton’s administration had failed to abide by the conflict resolution process laid out in Matthew 18:15-17. Ryken said in an email to the Record that Matthew 18 is not the only consideration in legal matters such as Title IX.

 

“Many aspects of our Community Covenant are relevant to the legal standards of Title IX, including Christ’s call to live with loving regard for others, to pursue holiness in all our actions, to embrace ethnic diversity without prejudice, to uphold chastity without impurity or obscenity, and to remove anything that hinders us from fulfilling those high callings in our community,” the email said.

A view of campus from the south east corner. Photo: Ruth Wu
Campus Voices 

While Blackmon’s lawyer and other sources have stated that he was blindsided by the allegations, two employees of the college said that Blackmon’s behavior had caused problems for years. One of these employees said students privately shared complaints about the chaplain several times, though the frequency of complaints decreased over the chaplain’s five year tenure.

 

“Over the years, it was clear that Blackmon had alienated many women and racial minorities to the degree that they would note that they didn’t trust the Chaplain’s Office. It’s hard to believe that he was unaware of these concerns,” another employee said. 

 

Senior Bible and theology major and former Unidad cabinet member Estefy Hernandez said that Blackmon consistently resisted efforts to give Unidad and other student ethnic heritage groups standalone chapel services. “He said, ‘if I give you a chapel, then what about the German students?’”

 

Unidad was given their first standalone chapel in Fall 2019. 

 

A current student who formerly served on the cabinet of “Where Are the Women?,” an annual leadership conference for empowering Christian women, said she frequently met with staff and administrators to discuss hosting a chapel service for the group, but she felt Chaplain Blackmon stonewalled the plan. 

 

“I was not expecting him to agree with me,” the student said, “but I did expect our spiritual leader to at least speak with me.”

 

Eventually, “Where Are the Women?” was granted a chapel service. The student said Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer Sheila Caldwell was “instrumental in advocating for the group.” Even so, the student said she continued to perceive resistance from Blackmon. 

 

“I had to fight for every word in my prayers,” the student said. “It felt like I was being questioned as a heretic.” 

 

Junior anthropology and Spanish major Sydney Baugh had a positive experience with the former chaplain. She said that Blackmon began mentoring her during freshman year when she was grieving the loss of a family member immediately after Passage. 

 

Since receiving the email announcement informing students of Blackmon’s firing, Baugh said she has struggled to come to terms with the difference between her deep respect for the chaplain and the person portrayed in the allegations. 

 

“This doesn’t sound like him; this isn’t how I know him,” Baugh said. “I still don’t know what to believe.”

 

Senior anthropology major Tess De Pretis said she always felt supported by Blackmon. She said that after she transferred to Wheaton in Spring 2019, Blackmon arranged an opportunity for her to speak at the first All-School Communion of the semester. 

 

“It wasn’t just empowerment through saying ‘Wow, you’re amazing,’” De Pretis said. “Instead, he was also empowering through giving me an opportunity to actually speak in front of a large group of people. I had been reprimanded for preaching as a woman before coming to Wheaton, and when I was talking about these things with Chaplain Blackmon, there was never a point where he reprimanded me for that but was instead completely empowering and said the kindest things.”

Moving Forward

Shortly after the announcement of Blackmon’s dismissal, a Michigan-based friend of the former chaplain set up a GoFundMe which netted $21,010 to be used for a future ministry called Bellhop Media, a reference to Blackmon’s father, who experienced racial discrimination as a bellhop at a hotel in North Carolina. At publishing time, Blackmon has not announced official plans for the ministry. 

 

Goetz and Wong confirmed that the trustees will be appointing a search committee to hire a new chaplain as Waybright has only committed to fill the position for one academic year.

Wheaton College, IL

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