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I’ve spent nearly 15 years advocating for free speech in higher education and defending the rights of students and faculty to do the same. That’s to say that hopefully the following statement carries a bit of weight: In defending the non-renewal of an art history instructor’s contract for showing a 14th-century painting depicting the Prophet Muhammed, Hamline University president Fayneese Miller made one of the worst pronouncements on academic freedom I’ve ever seen a university president make – maybe the very worst.
The instructor in question showed the painting – in a class session on Islamic art, it can’t be stressed enough – as part of an optional exercise, one students were given the opportunity to opt out of, and which was preceded with a warning about its content. In spite of the exit ramp offered by the instructor, a Muslim student in the class complained about the display, and the administration took swift action. David Everett, Hamline’s associate vice president for inclusive excellence, denounced the classroom exercise “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic.” Days later, he announced that the instructor would be “no longer part of the Hamline community.”
It only got worse from there. The chair of Hamline’s religious studies department authored an op-ed defending the exercise on the merits and challenging the contention that the display was Islamophobic. The paper’s editors removed the article two days later on the grounds it caused “harm.” (Law Professor Eugene Volokh has since reposted the text.) Then president Fayneese Miller poured gas on the fire, asserting in a joint email with Everett that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”
With that shocking statement, Hamline went beyond discarding the rights and sullying the character of a professor whose academic freedom inarguably protected their decision to show the painting and went out of their way to make the experience as frictionless as possible for students. Indeed, it has unwritten our entire doctrine of academic freedom to make it subservient to sectarian interests. And not just any sectarian interests; Carleton College professor Amna Khalid writes that “in endorsing the view that figurative representations of the Prophet are prohibited in Islam, Hamline has privileged a most extreme and conservative Muslim point of view.” (As Sarah McLaughlin of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression notes, Hamline has essentially installed a blasphemy code.)
FIRE, PEN America, and the Academic Freedom Alliance have all condemned Hamline’s actions and called for reinstatement of the instructor. Hamline’s response has been, essentially: Shove off. In a recent campus email, Miller stood by the professor’s dismissal, stating that “it was important that our Muslim students, as well as all other students, feel safe, supported, and respected both in and out of our classrooms.” FIRE responded by filing a complaint with Hamline’s accreditor, which requires its institutions to protect academic freedom – a duty Hamline seems intent on showing it isn’t up to the task for.
If you’d like to speak up, there are a few ways you can do so. Through FIRE’s website, you can write to president Miller directly. If you’re a professor, you can sign FIRE’s open letter urging the instructor’s reinstatement, which nearly 200 academics have joined as of this writing. You can also sign (as I have), the Change.org petition started by University of Michigan professor Christiane Gruber, which has collected nearly 2,500 signatures.
(Gruber’s coverage of the case in New Lines Magazine, I should also note, has been essential, both in bringing the facts of the case to light and providing scholarly context on the significance of the painting and the general issue of visual representations of Muhammad.)
A final word: As of November 2022, I’ve moved on from FIRE, where I spent more than 14 years, and joined the MIT Free Speech Alliance as its Executive Director. Despite my lack of FIRE insider status, I feel pretty good wagering that Hamline has punched its ticket for FIRE’s next listing of the worst universities for free speech.Published in