This year’s Q&A with President Ryken was a back-and-forth of the serious and the silly.
To those who are nostalgic for a bygone era of Wheaton community humor, never fear: chapel pranks are back, and so are students’ sober questions. If you missed it, here’s the blow-by-blow of the Feb. 6 town hall chapel.
The tradition of town hall chapels pre-dates Philip Ryken’s college presidency, but its exact origin is unclear. At mics in each corner of Edman Chapel, students line up to ask the president questions. The subject matter ranges widely. Students ask about everything from dating advice to facility renovations, from Ryken’s positions on politics to his theological convictions.
Unlike the rest of Wheaton’s thrice-weekly chapel services, this session was not live-streamed online or posted to YouTube afterward. According to the chaplain’s office, this is a long-standing policy agreed upon with AIT (Academic and Institutional Technology) and the president’s office.
Upon entering Edman, many students were handed a “Town Hall Bingo” sheet created by senior John Nicol. Each tile had a phrase, action, or situation that might occur, and students were encouraged to shout “Bingo!” as loud as they could when they filled a whole line. Some of the squares predicted complaints about the men’s swim team and faculty departures, technical difficulties, “someone tries to land a joke (it’s not funny)” and “Ryken expertly dodges a question.”
Many shouts of “Bingo!” punctuated the forty-minute session. There were other versions of the bingo card, made by senior Zach Lee, on various Instagram accounts, which were reposted by the anonymous and unofficial Forum Wall Instagram pages in the hours before chapel began.
After a short invocation from Student Body Vice President Kendra Patty and a reading of Scripture by Student Body President Stephen Stapleton, the Q&A began with a question about the college’s reaction to ChatGPT, an online AI chatbot, and instances of academic dishonesty at other campuses.
Ryken, in a gray suit and dark tie, stood solo at the lectern, backed by blue and purple lights on the wall behind. To his left, Patty and Stapleton sat in high-backed chairs next to Chaplain Angulus Wilson.
“There haven’t been any challenges to our plagiarism policy,” Ryken replied. “In fact, some professors I know are taking advantage of the opportunity to use some of those technologies in class to show the difference it makes to be a human being full of thought and creativity.”
When the first of many pleas for athletic facility updates began, students in the back row noticed three sophomore men in togas kneel behind the back row of the student seats, outside Ryken’s gaze. Obviously preparing for something, they stayed put while the questions continued, waiting for a cue.
Many student questions were weighty. They asked about suicide and the goodness of God, voiced concerns about the treatment of racial and sexual minority groups on campus and said that Title IX problems had gone ignored. A Chinese major asked about the fate of her degree in light of the announcement in November that there will be only one Chinese language professor over the next three years due to faculty cuts.
Another student raised questions about Wheaton’s new Course Program of Study (CPoS) policy going into effect next fall, voicing concern that students receiving financial aid may be prevented from exploring academic disciplines. CPoS is a program that the Department of Education expects all Title IV recipient schools to implement and requires that any student receiving financial aid from the government must be enrolled in at least 12 credit hours of classes in their major, minor, certificate, fellowship programs or general education.
Some years’ town halls have become tense, such as in 2015 when a student threw an apple at another student who was asking a question about the college’s stance on human sexuality. But in general, the town hall is anticipated for its silliness. This year, that included a spirited “Yeah T2” (the rallying cry of Traber Hall’s second-floor residents) from Ryken, who was a Resident Assistant on T2 in his day. One of the final questions was from Ryken’s niece, who asked “Uncle Phil” to describe his first date with his wife, Lisa. Ryken also received invitations to the Fischer 2 East Cheese Night in April, which he accepted, and the President’s Ball in February, which he did not.
For decades, town hall chapel has been the time and place of public, pre-planned student pranks, triggered by a student at one of the open microphones reading a long passage in Scripture. In 2016, a group of freshmen and sophomores wearing bedsheet togas staged a descent from the ceiling catwalk by rope while another read the story from Mark 2 about Jesus healing a man lowered through a roof. The following year, male students, also in togas, stood in their chapel rows and began distributing Krispy Kreme donuts to the student body while then-junior Jake Krogh ’18 read the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand from John 6.
Approximately halfway through this year’s town hall, sophomore communication major Rome Williams stepped up to the microphone. He told Ryken that he had a question regarding God’s provision in Exodus 16 and Numbers 11. Just then, more than thirty students in the sophomore class stepped to the edge of the balcony holding 550 homemade chocolate chip pancakes.
As Williams read the words “when the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna would fall with it,” the sophomores launched pancakes from the balcony and onto the student body below. Three male students dressed in togas, carrying plates stacked with pancakes and a jar of maple syrup, strode up the aisles and presented the “manna” to Ryken, Wilson, Patty and Stapleton. At this point, Williams, in a reference to the new chaplain’s weekly email devotionals, asked, “President Ryken, would you consider this the first Monday Manna Moment?”
In an interview with the Record afterwards, Williams said he was spurred to action by the inaction of the senior class to pull off a prank so far this year.
“The senior class is slacking,” said Williams. “They’re supposed to be the ones doing chapel pranks, and this is the third year in a row that the senior class has not done it. I believe that Wheaton College has a rich history of pranking, and it is incumbent upon us as the student body to live up to the legacy we shoulder and set the bar higher for future generations. Niche.com says we have a D+ for our party scene, not an F. Let’s act like it.”