In wake of controversy over showing images of Muhammad, and a faculty vote of no confidence, the president of Hamline University “retires”

April 5, 2023 • 9:45 am

If you read this site you almost certainly remember the controversy beginning in late December, 2022 at Hamline University, a small liberal-arts school in Minnesota. I wrote several times about what ensued when an art-history teacher,  Erika López Prater, showed her class two images of Muhammad depicted as a person. One, very famous (below), showed the Prophet’s face, and in the other painting the face was blotted out.  As you may know, some (but not all) sects of Islam consider it blasphemous to depict Muhammad in any form.

To forestall “offense,” Dr. López Prater warned the students on her course syllabus that the images would be shown, letting them know they didn’t  have to look at them. Further, she made the same announcement verbally right at the beginning of class. Here’s the most famous of the images, considered a masterpiece of Islamic art; it’s from the 14th century and shows the angel Gabriel dictating the Qur’an to Muhammad.


Well, the warnings were of no avail. Several students complained about the depiction, apparently unaware that showing Muhammad is blasphemous to only some Muslims, and apparently ignored the two “trigger warnings” that López Prater issued. Big “harm” and “offense” ensued and the President of Hamline, Fayneese Miller (see photo below) issued a weaselly statement that firing the instructor was not a violation of academic freedom:

At the same time, academic freedom does not operate in a vacuum. It is subject to the dictates of society and the laws governing certain types of behavior. Imara Scott, in an April 2022 article published in Inside Higher Ed, noted that “academic freedom, like so many ideological principles, can be manipulated, misunderstood, and misrepresented…academic freedom can become a weapon to be used against vulnerable populations.”  —Fayneese Miller

A ton of publicity ensued, none of it favorable to Hamline. The faculty rebelled, with 86% of full-time faculty (71/83) voting to ask Miller to resign, and López Prater, who apparently has other job offers, is suing the school.  All of this makes for a perfect storm of bad publicity, sending a message that Hamline University doesn’t practice academic freedom.

The results were predictable, especially because it’s likely the instructor will win big bucks in her suit against Hamline. Click to read this NYT article, or see it archived here.

Although Miller just announced that she’d retire in about a year, there isn’t much doubt, after the faculty vote, that her hand was forced.

The president of Hamline University, who had been under sharp criticism for the treatment of an adjunct professor who showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class, announced on Monday that she would retire in June 2024.

Fayneese S. Miller, the president of the Minnesota school, had initially defended the university’s decision to not reappoint the lecturer who had shown students, after providing warnings, images of the Prophet Muhammad, igniting a debate about academic freedom and Islamophobia.

Many Muslims say they are prohibited from viewing images of Muhammad out of concerns of idolatry, but Muslims have varying views about such representations.

On Monday, an email from the administration to the campus announced that Dr. Miller would step down, but made no mention of the controversy.

In the message, Ellen Watters, the chairwoman of the university’s board of trustees, called Dr. Miller an “innovative and transformational” leader and said she had ably led the university through a time of change while centering the needs of students. “Hamline is forever grateful for Dr. Miller’s tireless and dedicated service,” she said. The university will conduct a national search for a successor.

But Miller had also been criticized for going too easy on students who exercised their freedom of speech:

In the Muhammad controversy, she was criticized for bending to the will of student activists. But Dr. Miller, the university’s first Black president, also found herself targeted by students for resisting the calls of activists.

In 2019, four white student athletes were seen on video singing along to a popular song that included a racial epithet. Students demanded that she punish the students in the video. Dr. Miller refused, stating that the matter was a teachable moment. She said her response would have been different if the students had directed the word at another student.

Students also protested her last fall after she suggested to a gathering of student leaders that they donate money to the university while students there. The comments, students said, were oblivious to their financial struggles.

The decision about the song was the correct one, though a single epiphet directed at a student is probably permitted by Hamline’s speech code, and certainly by the First Amendment. But if it’s done repeatedly to create at atmosphere of harassment and bigotry, that speech is not protected.

Later on, the University walked back Miller’s statement, now admitting that it made a misstep. But it was too late: López Prater had already been fired:

Eventually, the university — in a statement signed by Dr. Miller and the university’s board chair, Ms. Watters — walked back its most controversial statements, including that Dr. López Prater’s actions were Islamophobic.

“Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep,” the statement said. “In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom. Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term ‘Islamophobic’ was therefore flawed.”

The statement added, “It was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students — care does not ‘supersede’ academic freedom, the two coexist.”

The university statement also came the same day that Dr. López Prater sued the university’s board for defamation and religious discrimination. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, states that Hamline’s actions have caused Dr. López Prater the loss of income from her adjunct position and damage to her professional reputation and job prospects.

The third paragraph is of course a lie: it was indeed the President’s intent to show that religious “offense” overrides academic freedom. And the school will pay big-time for it in simoleons (they’ve already paid in the loss of their reputation). As for the whole statement above, it was made when López Prater had already been dumped, so my reaction resembles an apocryphal statement of Beethoven, who, informed on his deathbed that a case of Rhine wine had arrived as a gift, reportedly said, “Pity, pity. . . . too late.”

Too late for López Prater, but not for academic freedom. What this whole sad story shows is that academic freedom and freedom of speech in universities—at least the decent ones—is not negotiable. Nothing save the law—the speech that is not protected by the First Amendment—can override these freedoms. For the freedom to work on what you want, and say what you want (subject to judicial strictures) are the very bases of a university. College students may not get lessons in free speech and academic freedom, though all entering students should, but what happened at Hamline University is an object lesson in how offense is an inevitable byproduct of a good college education.

It’s also a lesson to colleges themselves. If they advertise themselves as promoting academic freedom and free speech, they’d better walk the walk. Otherwise, even in these woke times, they risk losing their reputation and a lot of dosh.

I am heartened at Miller’s firing resignation, and at the overwhelming faculty vote against her. But I am not convinced by a long shot that this marks a turning point in colleges’ teaching and enforcing freedom of expression. As I write this, similar clashes are going on at other universities (the one at Stanford Law School just occurred), and some universities that have lost badly on these issues just didn’t learn their lesson (I’m looking at you, Oberlin).

h/t: Greg

11 thoughts on “In wake of controversy over showing images of Muhammad, and a faculty vote of no confidence, the president of Hamline University “retires”

  1. [ bolding my own ]:

    “academic freedom, like so many ideological principles, can be manipulated, misunderstood, and misrepresented…academic freedom can become a weapon to be used against vulnerable populations.” —Fayneese Miller

    “vulnerable populations” can simply be applied to any “minoritized” group. This appears to be standard strategy for critical-theoretical argumentation. One could assert another “vulnerable population” as incurring “harm” from rules, perhaps the freedom to look at things or not by one’s own volition – with the intent to generate fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about the individuals in “power” of the rules. In a word, to “problematize” academic freedom. And we don’t worry about evidence, measurement, or data for this.

    I think I’m getting it – it is kind of fun!

  2. I repeat that this Mohammed picture affair does not even rise to the level of an academic freedom issue. Rather, it reveals the contradiction between simple professionalism in higher education and the cults of DEI orthodoxy/victimhood Olympics. The art history teacher’s offense was simply teaching art history. President Miller’s dictum about “vulnerable populations” could also prohibit teaching about evolution (offends vulnerable religious believers), astronomy (offended the Church in the 1600s), the germ theory of infectious disease (offends Indigenous beliefs), statistics (developed by Pearson, Galton, and others not sanctified by DEI), and in fact every science (citations and terminology not sufficiently “decolonialized”), etc. etc. The important straw in the wind here was the heavy faculty vote against the soon-to-be-ex-President, at a college which has been very “woke” until, well, until this latest travesty.

    1. ““vulnerable populations” could also prohibit teaching about evolution (offends vulnerable religious believers), astronomy (offended the Church in the 1600s), the germ theory of infectious disease (offends Indigenous beliefs), statistics (developed by Pearson, Galton, and others not sanctified by DEI), and in fact every science (citations and terminology not sufficiently “decolonialized”), etc. etc. ”

      Exactly, except “offend” needs to be “harm” or “erase”. This forwards a different scenario of oppression to choose between. Never assess the merit of this, as it is not a truth claim, and will only – by design – promote the narrative of hegemony and power from authority.

  3. Lawsuits are a great equalizer. Let them be pursued vigorously and often. The specter of a lawsuit focuses the administrative mind.

  4. Unless the teacher was Muslim, and belonged the sect banning images of Mohammed, the religious rules don’t apply to them as they don’t belong to that religion. The warnings to the students should have been more than sufficient.
    How is that case any different than a culinary teacher teaching a class on how to cook chicken cordon bleu, and warning any Jewish students in the class that they would be working with ham that day?
    Oh I know, the offended students would be Jewish, not Muslims.

    1. Is that even true? Would kosher-observing Jewish students in a cooking class expect to be warned that they would be handling ham or other non-kosher items? Even putting cheese together with chicken is non-kosher if you eat it. Or would they feel patronized at the warning? “Thanks. I know what ham looks like. Don’t worry. I won’t eat it.” No one is going to force them to eat it, or serve it to kosher-observing Jews. I could be excessively sheltered but I’ve never heard anyone express this idea.

      By the same token, the art prof ought not to have been expected to warn the Muslim students that a course on medieval art is going to feature Muslim iconography. The danger with expecting generic course instructors to make uninformed guesses about what people of different religions “need” to be warned against is they will be criticized every time they guess wrong. Who knew that ethno-religious sect XYZ considers it blasphemy for its adherents to listen to “thunder and lightning” spoken together in the same phrase? Muslims aren’t special.

      1. Ah, but Muslims are special—, as is made clear every time the term “Islamophobia” is applied to every reference to Islam other than bent-knee reverence. Hamline President Miller’s swallowing of this meme illustrates not only her own intellectual limitations, but the dopiness of the entire woke posture—not only is “race” at once a social construct and the most important thing there is, but Islam has been appointed to be in effect a race, and thereby sanctified.

  5. “Too late for López Prater, but not for academic freedom.”

    Eh. We’ve seen before that people like Miller “retire” after such controversies, only to receive an equally or even more lucrative job at another, more “progressive” institution. And, if she doesn’t want to go that route, I’m sure she could make much more as a “consultant” at a DEI firm, or even start up her own! A seemingly ironclad fact of academics who get sacked in the rare instance of sufficiently intense backlash against being too far to the Left is that they continue to fail upwards. Heck, didn’t the person who kicked off the $150 million shebang at Oberlin end up getting a position at another school, or is my memory betraying me (wouldn’t be the first time; I’m getting old…).

    Speaking of failing upwards, I’m again reminded of the people I commented on last night, who should have shown us decades ago that this institutional rot was spreading an needed to be stopped. Can anyone think of better examples of failing upwards than people like Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, Kelly Boudin, and other far-Left terrorists- and murderers-turned-professors? To go from imprisonment for bombings and felony murder to prestigious professorships and enormous clout in political circles is the ultimate in failing upwards. I guess a former career as a terrorist/murderer (so long as it was for the “right side of history!”) it’s the rap equivalent of “street cred.”

    (geez, from my posts on this website, my family would think I’m some Right-wing nutcase, even though I’ve never voted for anyone but Democrats in my entire life and am pretty far to the Left both culturally and economically. It’s amazing how 95% of our country is now watching two completely separate versions of their own “reality.” I feel like this comments section is one of the last few bastions of sanity I can find. Thanks for providing it, Jerry!)

    1. I agree with you, Carbon Copy, about the falling up.

      I wonder when Miller will claim she is a(nother) victim of systemic racism.

  6. “The university will conduct a national search for a successor.” No white males need apply, they might as well add. Twin Cities colleges and universities in my informal and incomplete research are overwhelmingly female (assuming there are two sexes) and many non-white. NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT. As a graduate of a couple of those schools (not Hamline College — “University” is a joke in this case), I fully support qualified anybodies as college presidents. I did not see anywhere whether anything has happened to the execrable DEI (called something sillier at Hamline) goon who immediately poured gas on the flames and called for jihad.

  7. How did this rise to the level of termination? Clearly, the professor would have no incentive to spring offensive images on her students. The administration seems to think that the level of pain they inflict upon her is an indication of how sincerely they support their minority students. If the university is going to respond this way, they had best batten down the hatches because “offenses” are going to arise all over the place. The library certainly has books on the shelves containing images of the prophet. Does a student working on an assignment, flipping a book open to be confronted by such an image have a grievance? Is the university obligated to inspect the books and put warning stickers on the covers? (I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt and not even entertain the possibility that they may be attempted to remove those books from the shelves.) As one who is, in fact, sympathetic to the concerns of those who are unfairly seen and treated as “outsiders”, I really hate to see those who support inclusion going out of there way to hand our opponents their talking points. I’m sure Fox loved this.

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