The angry emails came in a flurry to the president’s office at Wheaton College, a small, picturesque campus near Boston. But they all shared one simple mistake. They were sent to the wrong Wheaton.
More than 1,000 miles away, another Wheaton College near Chicago was planning to fire a professor after she declared solidarity with Muslims. That Wheaton, the intended target of the emails, is known for its evangelical Christian mission. The Wheaton College in Massachusetts is a secular liberal-arts school. They aren’t related.
But the two schools are a frequent source of confusion. Students apply to the wrong college. Donors send money to the other Wheaton.
"The name confusion is a longstanding and deep-rooted problem," said Dennis Hanno, president of the Wheaton in Massachusetts. "But it’s one that we often just chuckle about."
On the Norton campus of 1,600 students, roughly half the size of the Illinois college, everyone has heard about mix-ups.
Take the case of Charis Chu, who arrived from Hong Kong as a freshman in 2008 thinking the college shared the same religious mission as the other Wheaton. Classes had already started when she realized the error; she ended up staying until 2011, when she transferred to New York University. Now back in Hong Kong, Chu said it’s something she can laugh about.
Freshman Rowan Rice nearly applied to the other Wheaton, stopping when the form asked for a pastor’s recommendation. Campus athletes and admissions officers tell stories about visiting schools to find welcome signs adorned with the Wheaton Thunder logo, the Illinois school’s mascot.
In one gaffe from a 2010 commencement speech, former "Today" show anchor Ann Curry listed several alumni, including the Rev. Billy Graham and film director Wes Craven, who actually attended the Wheaton in Illinois.
Such tales are common at schools that share similar names. It’s easy to imagine when there are more than a dozen universities called Wesleyan and four Loyolas of some variation. At Miami University in Ohio, officials say an international student once arrived expecting to see Florida beaches.
But the mix-ups have taken a darker tone after the religious Wheaton started the process in early January to fire a professor who wore a headscarf to support Muslims, saying they worship the same God as Christians. Some emails sent to the wrong school have included violent threats.
Officials from the Illinois college did not respond to requests for comment.
Hanno has launched a campaign to promote civility and clear up the confusion. He penned an essay in The Washington Post rebuking the "unbridled hostility" in those emails. He is asking students and faculty to spread tolerance on social media.
"We want to be proactive in getting the word out to as many people as possible that there are two Wheatons, and that we have very different philosophies," Hanno said in an interview.
Courtney Leach, a senior at the Massachusetts school, said the increase in attention has united the campus.
"The confusion encouraged people to speak up about what we are as a school and what we believe in, and that we encourage expression of all religions and backgrounds," she said.
Still, there’s worry about damage done. One email from a high school counselor in Texas said she would never recommend the school again because of its attitude toward Muslims. One father called to remove his daughter from the application pool for the same reason.
Officials cleared up the mistake in those cases, but they wonder how many others made the same error without contacting the school.
To avoid confusion, the Massachusetts Wheaton now emphasizes the state’s name on marketing materials, and it has circulated emails explaining the differences.
Both schools are still very fond of their names, Hanno said. His school is named after the family that founded it. The Illinois school is named for its town. Even so, the recent confusion has rekindled a debate about a name change.
"I think this incident has certainly spurred more consideration of that," Hanno said, "but we’re not at a point that we’re going to make a change just yet."
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