We previously discussed the action of Hamline University not to renew the contract of an art professor, Erika Prater, who showed an image of Muhammad as part of an arts class. The action was an affront to both free speech and academic freedom. Prater has sued. In the meantime, the faculty has voted 72-12 to condemn the action and demand that Hamline President Fayneese Miller resign. With the exception of the 12 faculty dissenters, it is a relatively rare demonstration of academic courage in standing up to an anti-free speech mob. They are correct. Miller should resign immediately based on what we already know about this scandal.
“Neither before nor after these declarations was the faculty member given a public platform or forum to explain the classroom lecture and activity. To fill in the gap, on Dec. 6, an essay written by a Hamline professor of religion who teaches Islam explaining the incident along with the historical context and aesthetic value of Islamic images of Muhammad was published on The Oracle’s website. The essay was taken down two days later. One day after that, Hamline’s president and AVPIE sent a message to all employees stating that ‘respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.’”
Professor Eugene Volokh has posted some of the correspondence. There is also a petition to support this professor. PEN America has condemned Hamline’s actions.
The now removed defense from the student newspaper was written by Prof. Mark Berkson, Chair of Hamline’s Religion department. Professor Berkson acknowledges that such works must be shown with great sensitivity toward Muslim students:
“First, a majority of the world’s Muslims today believe that visually representing the prophet Muhammad is forbidden. Many observant Muslims would never create an image of Muhammad and will strive to avoid seeing one. So professors must not require Muslim students who believe that representation is forbidden to look at these images, and they must give students fair warning if such images are going to appear anywhere in class—in a book, a slide show, a video, etc. It is my understanding that, in the Hamline class, the professor gave students advance notice that the image would be shown (both in the syllabus and verbally), allowed students to turn off the screen if they wished, and did not require them to visually engage with the painting. The intent was to educate, not to offend or show disrespect.”
However, he insisted that the work was germane and valuable from a pedagogical standpoint. His insightful and respectful letter should be read by everyone before reaching any conclusions in this controversy. The fact that it was removed only adds to the chilling environment of intolerance by Hamline.
The student editors of The Oracle have much to explain in removing the letter. The fact that they will not even allow a reasoned, alternative view to be read is an indictment of their newspaper and journalistic values, though it is hardly unique today. Indeed, it is the same intolerance shown increasingly by mainstream media.
In this now deleted letter, Professor Berkson noted:
“Since some Hamline administrators labeled the showing of the painting “Islamophobic” (in one case, the phrase “undeniably Islamophobic” was used), my question for those who use that word is – Exactly where does the Islamophobia lie? Islamophobia is often defined as fear, hatred, hostility, or prejudice against Muslims. The intention or motivation behind the act would seem to be essential here. In this case, the professor was motivated only to educate students about the history of Islamic art. The professor tried to ensure that Muslim students who have objections would be able to avoid seeing the images. So, when we look at intention, we can conclude that this was not Islamophobic.
Another possibility is that the very act of displaying an image of Muhammad is itself Islamophobic. But if this were the case, there are a number of very disturbing implications. First, it would mean that anybody who showed these images in a classroom, a book, or on their wall, would be an Islamophobe. Any scholar who wrote a book about Islamic art and included these images for discussion or analysis would be an Islamophobe. Even Muslims (and, as we will see, many Muslims throughout history have created and enjoyed these images) would be Islamophobic if they did this. Second, it would mean that these images could never be seen by, or shown to, anybody. In effect, it would require an erasure of an entire genre of Islamic art.
Should no student be able to see this art? And what would it mean for a liberal arts institution to deem an entire subject of study prohibited?
Finally, it seems that the interpretation of the administrators means that if an act is prohibited to members of a particular religion, then everyone has to incorporate that prohibition into their own lives. Let’s quickly consider an analogy. Eating pork is forbidden to observant Muslims and Jews. Clearly, it would be an act of Islamophobia or antisemitism if someone were to intentionally sneak pork into a dish that was going to be eaten by someone for whom it is forbidden. But does this mean that Aramark can no longer serve any dish with pork? Must everyone consider pork forbidden? Most of us would agree that as long as there are plenty of alternatives for Muslims and Jews, then the mere offering of a pork dish is not Islamophobic or antisemitic. In the case of images, does the fact that many (not all) Muslims consider images forbidden mean that all of us have to incorporate this prohibition into our lives? Giving students the opportunity to see the images as part of an education in Islamic art (since using images is an essential part of the pedagogy of art historians) is not Islamophobic as long as Muslim students are not required to see them and steps are taken to ensure that no student sees them unintentionally.”
Professor Berkson is trying to balance interests while striving to preserve the essential academic freedom needed in higher education.
“This incident is about balancing academic freedom and religious commitments, not about Islamophobia. The situation is not helped by making accusations against a faculty member who is simply trying to share and teach the history of Islamic art with students. It is especially disturbing that some administrators who used the word ‘Islamophobia’ never even spoke with the faculty member to get their perspective. When, as in the case here at Hamline, everyone involved has good intentions (intention is a key concept in Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad himself said that people will receive consequences for actions depending on their intentions) and is doing their best to honor principles (religious and academic) that are important to them, we can find our way forward in open conversation and mutual respect.”
In contrast, President Miller and Vice President Everett show utter disregard for countervailing values, particularly free speech and academic freedom. Indeed, they declare that “when we harm, we should listen rather than debate the merits of or extent of that harm.” So, as an academic institution, you do not debate “the merits” of such controversies?
Instead, they insist that “it is not our intent to place blame; rather, it is our intent to note that in the classroom incident…respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom…Academic freedom is very important, but it does not have to come at the expense of care and decency toward others.”
So academics have academic freedom only to the extent that it is not considered by some to be a denial of care or decency? Notably, that standard is based on how a lecture is received by any student rather than how it was intended.
The faculty have now called for Miller’s resignation and there is ample reason for her removal if a resignation is not forthcoming. University presidents have a core obligation to protect free speech and academic freedom. Miller not only failed to offer due process to a faculty member, but she proceeded to yield to the mob in demanding her effective termination.
The case is reminiscent of the costly and cowardly of Oberlin in pursuing a family restaurant that it falsely accused of racism. The vengeful litigation continued despite the early refutation of the claims. It ended costing a breathtaking $36 million for defamation. Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar and the Board burned through millions in litigation costs above the damages rather than admit that the college was wrong in the targeting of this grocery. That money could have been used for scholarships and other worthy purposes. Instead, Amber and the Board will simply ask alumni to foot the bill for a legal effort that seems to become little more than a revenge fetish. There has been no serious pushback against Ambar by alumni or faculty.
Miller likely thought that there would be not costs to this action. After all, who wants to stand up to a mob for some lone art history teacher?
That is why this faculty vote is so important. It is a vote of no confidence and it is well based. My only regret is that there are 12 professors who voted against the very essence of our profession. The student editors at The Oracle could also learn from the courage of their faculty about the protection of free thought and free speech at their university.
Here is the letter.
Statement from Full Time Faculty of Hamline University
January 24, 2023
In response to the current events and crisis facing the Hamline community concerning academic freedom, the faculty of Hamline University stand by these statements:
We are distressed that members of the administration have mishandled this issue and great harm has been done to the reputation of Minnesota’s oldest university.
We, the faculty of Hamline University, stand for both academic freedom and the education of all students. We affirm both academic freedom and our responsibility to foster an inclusive learning community. Importantly, these values neither contradict nor supersede each other.
We respect the diverse voices, backgrounds, and experiences of the entire Hamline community (students, faculty, staff, and administrators), and support the right of all to have their voices heard.
We believe our diversity of knowledge and experience makes us a stronger, richer community. Without this diversity, we would incompletely represent the community we strive to be.
We defend the right to academic freedom for the purpose of a strong liberal arts education and to uphold the principles of democracy.
We reject unfounded accusations of Islamophobia.
We condemn the hateful speech and threats targeting students and other Hamline community members.
We stand for intellectual debate and sharing of resources and knowledge without fear of censorship or retaliation.
We stand for the right to challenge one another’s views, but not to penalize each other for holding them.
We call for the fair treatment of and due process for all Hamline community members.
We thank and applaud students, faculty, and others in the Hamline community and beyond, who have taken the time and had the courage to speak out.
As we no longer have faith in President Miller’s ability to lead the university forward, we call upon her to immediately tender her resignation to the Hamline University Board of Trustees.
We are united in this statement.
We are the faculty of Hamline University.