To Protect Religious Students’ Feelings, Hamline University Jettisons Academic Freedom

 

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asserting in a joint email with Everett that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”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 General
Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 16 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Henry Racette Moderator
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    I have often spoken out against burning down the institutions, against the urge to destroy critical aspects of our culture and society and political system in a probably-doomed effort to create something vastly better.

    That concern does not apply to our colleges. We have a lot of colleges, and a great many of them are now doing more harm than good. We are in no danger of losing our institutions of higher learning, not in the same sense that we might lose our democratic tradition or our critical governmental  institutions — or, for that matter, the political party that stands, however imperfectly, between those political institutions and a ravenous progressive Democratic Party.

    So we can afford for this college, and for a great many colleges, to fail. Community colleges, technical schools, on the job training, and a few bastions of true independent thought and open inquiry can replace all the Hamlines and Middleburys and similar breeding grounds of woke fever.

    And the sooner the better.

    • #1
  2. Manny Coolidge
    Manny
    @Manny

    Oh but I bet an image truly insulting Christianity would not have caused a ripple. This is why I’m against immigration from non western nations. We are made to compromise our culture but they are not. In fact, they are untouchable with kid gloves. If they want to immigrate to this country, they should not violate our free speech traditions. Fie on this college. 

    • #2
  3. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    What is truly ironic is the accusation of the professor being Islamophobic.  If this report is correct, the professor treated the students like adults who could choose whether or not to participate in this part of the class.  It is the administration which is exhibiting an irrational fear of Islam and will go to any lengths to avoid even the slightest emotional discomfort in some of their Muslim students.

    Manny (View Comment):
    Oh but I bet an image truly insulting Christianity would not have caused a ripple. This is why I’m against immigration from non western nations.

    I cannot go along with this statement.  I have no reason to believe that immigrants from Europe automatically have a higher regard for freedom of speech, expression, and religion than immigrants from the rest of the world. 

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    I had never heard of Hamline University before. If this is indicative of the quality of education they provide, I never expect to again.

    • #4
  5. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Anyone who insults the prophet Mohammed is in danger of their life.  Angry Muslims murder people who do and say things they don’t like.

    Islam is incompatible with Western Civilization, and no Muslim should be allowed to immigrate to any Western country.

    • #5
  6. Manny Coolidge
    Manny
    @Manny

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    What is truly ironic is the accusation of the professor being Islamophobic. If this report is correct, the professor treated the students like adults who could choose whether or not to participate in this part of the class. It is the administration which is exhibiting an irrational fear of Islam and will go to any lengths to avoid even the slightest emotional discomfort in some of their Muslim students.

    Manny (View Comment):
    Oh but I bet an image truly insulting Christianity would not have caused a ripple. This is why I’m against immigration from non western nations.

    I cannot go along with this statement. I have no reason to believe that immigrants from Europe automatically have a higher regard for freedom of speech, expression, and religion than immigrants from the rest of the world.

    Then don’t.  Who said you did?  Other than grandstanding.

    • #6
  7. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    This is what happens when you privilege religion over other ideologies.

    Also, [CoC] Muslim student – karma [CoC], karma.

    • #7
  8. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Islam and ‘Wokeness’ are by no means compatible belief systems; yet many of our institutions as if they together constituted America’s Established Religion, which may not be challenged or citicized.

    • #8
  9. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Manny (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    What is truly ironic is the accusation of the professor being Islamophobic. If this report is correct, the professor treated the students like adults who could choose whether or not to participate in this part of the class. It is the administration which is exhibiting an irrational fear of Islam and will go to any lengths to avoid even the slightest emotional discomfort in some of their Muslim students.

    Manny (View Comment):
    Oh but I bet an image truly insulting Christianity would not have caused a ripple. This is why I’m against immigration from non western nations.

    I cannot go along with this statement. I have no reason to believe that immigrants from Europe automatically have a higher regard for freedom of speech, expression, and religion than immigrants from the rest of the world.

    Then don’t. Who said you did? Other than grandstanding.

    Pardon me.  I didn’t realize comments on your comments were unwelcome.

    • #9
  10. GrannyDude Member
    GrannyDude
    @GrannyDude

    Zafar (View Comment):

    This is what happens when you privilege religion over other ideologies.

    Also, [CoC] Muslim student – karma [CoC], karma.

    The Muslim students who remained in the classroom after all the absurd “trigger warnings” were, quite obviously, itching to be offended. It is, quite possibly, the whole reason they signed up for the class. 

    Since the image in question is from an Islamic source, it is obvious that not all Muslims everywhere and in all periods believe(d) themselves “harmed” by an artist’s rendering of Mohammad.   

     

     

    • #10
  11. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    GrannyDude (View Comment):

    Zafar (View Comment):

    This is what happens when you privilege religion over other ideologies.

    Also, [CoC] Muslim student – karma [CoC], karma.

    The Muslim students who remained in the classroom after all the absurd “trigger warnings” were, quite obviously, itching to be offended. It is, quite possibly, the whole reason they signed up for the class.

    Since the image in question is from an Islamic source, it is obvious that not all Muslims everywhere and in all periods believe(d) themselves “harmed” by an artist’s rendering of Mohammad.

    That’s right.  

    • #11
  12. Nick Baldock Member
    Nick Baldock
    @NickBaldock

    Why does a little institution in Minnesota have an “associate vice president for inclusive excellence”?

     

    Actually, why does anything?

     

    I agree with @Manny, not about immigration but that Christianity would not have received the same treatment.

     

    Mordred was invited onto the Round Table for the sake of inclusivity, and look how that turned out.

    • #12
  13. Chowderhead Coolidge
    Chowderhead
    @Podunk

    Peter Bonilla: 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.”

    So, our constitution should be suspended to prevent voluntarily offensive speech. I say voluntary because they were given an ‘off ramp’ as you stated. This Fayneese Miller should be immediately fired.

     

    • #13
  14. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Nick Baldock (View Comment):
    Mordred was invited onto the Round Table for the sake of inclusivity, and look how that turned out.

    According to that miserable hack Malory.

    (There are all sorts of versions of the legends. Relating idiosyncratic versions of “the way it truly happened” was a medieval staple among troubadours.)

    • #14
  15. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    At first I was skeptical about this report. Was this an exaggeration of something with a lot of nuance? I could not imagine any American institution claiming to be a “university” allowing the most sensitive person to control what can and cannot be studied or discussed.

    But I did read some more, and it seems to be as bad as presented, and the “university” president’s communication is every bit as idiotic as it initially sounded. Which leaves me wondering: For the “university” president (and the “university” for which he presumes to speak), is there a limiting principle to this insistence that the university must provide a “safe” environment by not studying or discussing something that might bother an individual student? Can anyone stop any discussion that might offend him or her? Is that not handing to the most sensitive person in the room or in the class control of the study or discussion? Can a student with a high sense of modesty prevent the showing and discussion of medieval art featuring nude people? Can a Christian student prevent discussion of the many pieces of “art” that denigrate Jesus Christ? Can an atheist student prevent study or discussion of art or architecture or writing that elevates Jesus Christ to deity status? Or is stopping discussion available exclusively to strict Muslims? Can a student who has been the victim of a crime prevent discussion of similar or related crimes? Can a black student prevent the display of art depicting past enslavement of black people in America?

    We saw a few years ago efforts in law schools to bar study of sex crimes because students who had been victims of sex crimes would be “triggered.” Most of those efforts were rejected because avoiding such topics would leave students with an incomplete education. But it sounds like in at least one university specific students control the scope of study. 

    • #15
  16. Manny Coolidge
    Manny
    @Manny

    This was once called t

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    At first I was skeptical about this report. Was this an exaggeration of something with a lot of nuance? I could not imagine any American institution claiming to be a “university” allowing the most sensitive person to control what can and cannot be studied or discussed.

    But I did read some more, and it seems to be as bad as presented, and the “university” president’s communication is every bit as idiotic as it initially sounded. Which leaves me wondering: For the “university” president (and the “university” for which he presumes to speak), is there a limiting principle to this insistence that the university must provide a “safe” environment by not studying or discussing something that might bother an individual student? Can anyone stop any discussion that might offend him or her? Is that not handing to the most sensitive person in the room or in the class control of the study or discussion? Can a student with a high sense of modesty prevent the showing and discussion of medieval art featuring nude people? Can a Christian student prevent discussion of the many pieces of “art” that denigrate Jesus Christ? Can an atheist student prevent study or discussion of art or architecture or writing that elevates Jesus Christ to deity status? Or is stopping discussion available exclusively to strict Muslims? Can a student who has been the victim of a crime prevent discussion of similar or related crimes? Can a black student prevent the display of art depicting past enslavement of black people in America?

    We saw a few years ago efforts in law schools to bar study of sex crimes because students who had been victims of sex crimes would be “triggered.” Most of those efforts were rejected because avoiding such topics would leave students with an incomplete education. But it sounds like in at least one university specific students control the scope of study.

    This was once called “the closing of the American mind.”  I think we can say it’s been closed for quite a while now. 

    • #16
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.