The AAUP rebukes Hamline University for academic mistreatment of a professor

May 24, 2023 • 11:45 am

I’ve discussed “Muhammadgate” at Hamline University quite a few times before, and, at any rate, the details are given in the update below from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP; click on screenshot) and especially in the AAUP’s report here and pdf here. 

In short, in June, 2022, an adjunct professor of art history, Erika López Prater, was giving a class on World Art that included two sessions on Muslim art.  Those sessions included showing two images of the prophet Muhammad from famous paintings. In one his face was visible, in the other it was blotted out.  López Prater had given the students a “trigger warning” in the syllabus and also right before the online class, so they knew what they were going to see, and had the opportunity to leave. (The warning came because some Muslims, but not all, consider showing an image of Muhammad to be blasphemy.)  López Prater also vetted the syllabus and its warning to the administration and  the chair of the Art and Digital Media department, who had no problem with it.

The class went forward, and shortly thereafter a student, Aram Wedatalla, who was also president of the school’s Muslim Student Association, was outraged, and reported the incident to President Fayneese Miller and Dean Marcela Kostihova. Wedatalla also expressed her dissatisfaction to López Prater.

Read this summary by clicking on the link, but I especially recommend the AAUP report to show you what happened next: a perfect storm of outrage that led to the total violation of López Prater’s academic freedom

This ensued:

1.) López Prater  met twice with the dean about the complaints.

2.) Her Department chair suggested that López Prater tender an apology to the student body and her art class. But the apology that she wrote was just for the offense she caused; López Prater deliberately did not apologize for showing the images, which would have been ludicrous given the context.

3.) The University Vice President then issued a fulsome and apologetic statement about the Islamophobia supposedly caused by López Prater’s showing the paintings. It was almost a direct rebuke to the faculty member.

4.) López Prater was informed that she would no longer be teaching in the school. Effectively, as an adjunct, she was fired.

5.) The university held a “community conversation” that was clearly meant to reinforce the dastardly Islamophobia of López Prater. The topic was in fact “Islamophobia,” the panel of students were all black women (Muslims, I suspect), and a professor who tried to speak in defense of López Prater was told to shut up.

6.) The story had now become national news with a New York Times article devoting a front-page story to it on January 8 of this year.  Other people wrote in defending López Prater.

7.) The administration, realizing it had embarrassed itself and violated academic freedom, walked back its statements on January 17. The President and Chair issued this statement:

“Hamline University is the epicenter of a public conversation about academic freedom and students with diverse religious beliefs,” the statement began, and “many communications, articles, and opinion pieces . . . have caused us to review and re-examine our actions.” It continued, “Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep. 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 ends with a retraction: “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. Faculty have the right to choose what and how they teach.”

8.)  “That same day Professor López Prater filed suit against the university in Ramsey County District Court, seeking damages for violations of Minnesota’s Human Rights Act, breach of contract, promissory estoppel, defamation, and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

8.) Meanwhile, the regular faculty met and overwhelmingly gave a vote of no confidence to President Miller.

9.) President Miller resigned.

I’ll reproduce just two documents that were part of this kerfuffle. First, López Prater’s “trigger warning” on her syllabus (again, she also gave a verbal one right before class):

I aim to affirm students of all religious observances and beliefs in the content of the course. Additionally, this course will introduce students to several religious traditions and the visual cultures they have produced historically. This includes showing and discussing both representational and non-representational depictions of holy figures (for example, the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ, and the Buddha). If you have any questions or concerns about either missing class for a religious observance or the visual content that will be presented, please do not hesitate to contact me.

That’s pretty good, right? Nobody could object to being blindsided by being shown the two paintings, which I reproduce here.

And here is the damning statement that the school’s Vice President issued, which was then shared with the student body by the Dean of Students:

Several weeks ago, Hamline administration was made aware of an incident that occurred in an online class. Certain actions taken in that class were undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic. While the intent behind these actions may not have been to cause harm, it came at the expense of Hamline’s Muslim community members. While much work has been done to address the issue in question since it occurred, the act itself was unacceptable. . . . I want to make clear: isolated incidents such as we have seen define neither Hamline nor its ethos. They clearly do not meet community standards or expectations for behavior. We will utilize all means at our disposal, up to and including the conduct process, to ensure the emotional health, security, and well-being of all members of our community.

It makes my blood boil to read this even now. There was NO Islamophobia, no disrespect, no harm, and certainly lots of consideration.  This, more than anything else, I think, brought down the AAUP’s wrath on Hamline.

Oh, one other comment. The reports says this, which may account for why the school’s reaction was so strong:

In 2019, a new strategic plan set a goal of increasing enrollment by diversifying the demographic makeup of the student body and improving student retention. According to faculty members who worked on the plan, an unstated goal was to recruit more students from the growing population of East African Muslims in the Twin Cities.

What did the AAUP do about this? I haven’t read the longer pdf file of the report, but I’m not sure that the AAUP can really do anything to Hamline University save censure and embarrass it.  Further, the faculty have already spoken in opposition to the President, Dean’s, and Chair’s mishigass, and the President is toast. Nevertheless, the AAUP’s judgment will stand as a warning to other schools. The last half of the report censures Hamline for doing these things:

a. Retracting López Prater’s teaching assignments.

b. Not affording López Prater academic due process. There was no formal procedure used to assess what she did before they got rid of her.

c. Denying López Prater her academic freedom to teach what she wanted (courts have ruled that so long as material like these pictures serve a didactic purpose, they are protected by academic freedom.

d. Relying largely on part-time appointments, meaning that faculty like López Prater get low pay, not many benefits, and huge workloads. This practice is increasing in American Universities, and it must stop, as it’s a form of indentured servitude.

e. Not creating a climate of academic freedom at the school. As the AAUP report notes:

The implications for academic freedom in art and art history of the events recounted in this report are clear. If a Muslim student can prevent the display of an image of the Prophet Muhammad, why cannot an evangelical Christian student seek to censor a work like the controversial Piss Christ by Andres Serrano or a devout Hindu student object to studying the work of Indian artist M. F. Husain? But art history is not the only field of study potentially at risk. Indeed, as Professor López Prater wrote the committee, “My situation presents a slippery slope not only for the discipline of art history, but for all of academia.”

They do praise the University’s governing board for acting rapidly and forcing the University to retract the charge of Islamophobia. They probably also asked Miller to resign, though it’s not clear.

Finally, the AAUP made a number of conclusions and recommendations, which I’ll put below the fold as this is getting too long. Click “read more” below to see them:

Continue reading “The AAUP rebukes Hamline University for academic mistreatment of a professor”

The Washington Post decries the suppression and deplatforming of speech by students

May 1, 2023 • 9:30 am

Is a turning point really being reached in the War Against Wokeness?  Every time I read a piece in the mainstream media decrying  the pernicious antics of the Authoritarian Left (one of the terms I use for “the woke”), I think to myself, “Is the tide really turning at long last?”

Well, it’s not going to any time soon—if for no other reason than that most of the mainstream media (and this still includes the NYT) is still woke, and because DEI initiatives have firmly installed themselves on college campuses, grasping onto academia like an octopus. (The idea behind these isn’t bad, but the way these initiatives are perpetrated, hand in hand with Diktats against “hate speech”, is harmful.)  Such initiatives, employing thousands of minions throughout the U.S., won’t easily go away, even if the Supreme Court, as expected, rules against affirmative action based on race.

BUT, here we have the entire editorial board of the Washington Post applauding the actions of schools like Stanford and Cornell in resisting the demands of the woke. Yep, the entire editorial board; this is no one-off by a disaffected academic.  And it mentions at least two schools whose anti-wokeness I hadn’t heard of. Click headline below to read:

Here are the incidents of pushback they describe (quotes from the Post are indented:

a.) The statement by the president of Cornell University that trigger warnings should not be mandatory.

In March, a Cornell University sophomore and member of the undergraduate student assembly saw a friend become visibly disturbed while reading “The Surrendered,” a Chang-rae Lee novel with a graphic rape scene. So she spearheaded a resolution that “implores all instructors to provide content warnings on the syllabus for any traumatic content that may be discussed.”

On the surface, this story has all the trappings of a wider phenomenon increasingly prevalent on American university campuses: the curtailing of academic inquiry, and sometimes even free speech, for the protection of perceived student “sensitivities” — invisible boundaries whose contours are never quite clear but almost always couched as barriers against “harm.” What happened next is cause for celebration: The Cornell administration immediately struck down this resolution, a welcome reminder that academic institutions have the power to defend their fundamental values — and are willing to use it.

“We cannot accept this resolution as the actions it recommends would infringe on our core commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, and are at odds with the goals of a Cornell education,” wrote Cornell’s president, Martha E. Pollack, and its provost, Michael I. Kotlikoff, in a letter rejecting the student assembly’s plea for trigger warnings. Although they did note, understandably, that “in some cases faculty may wish to provide notice,” an outright trigger warning requirement, they noted, “would have a chilling effect on faculty, who would naturally fear censure lest they bring a discussion spontaneously into new and challenging territory, or fail to accurately anticipate students’ reaction to a topic or idea.”

b.) Penn State strikes back as well:

Earlier this month, Neeli Bendapudi, the president of Penn State, released a recorded statement defending her university’s embrace of controversial speakers. The Supreme Court, she reminded her viewers, has long held that public universities such as Penn State are bound by the First Amendment. But she also reiterated a moral reason to continue welcoming diverse, and even offensive, opinions: “For centuries, higher education has fought against censorship and for the principle that the best way to combat speech is with more speech.”

Watch the video.  Bendapudi naturally has to say that she deplores the message of many of the “hate speech” speakers whose rights she nevertheless defends.  But she shouldn’t have to say this to defend freedom of speech; she should maintain institutional neutrality and leave her personal opinion out of this.  Still. . .it’s better than nothing, and a good lesson for Penn State students. (It’s a reiteration of Mill’s arguments from “On Liberty”.)

c.) From Vanderbilt (and Harvard):

A similar defense is being waged at private institutions. At Harvard University, a group of more than 50 faculty members last month established the Council on Academic Freedom, a group “devoted to free inquiry, intellectual diversity, and civil discourse.” Vanderbilt University, likewise, announced last month that it would become the U.S. foothold for the Future of Free Speech project, an initiative of the Danish think tank Justitia. “For a university to do its work, faculty and students must have maximum freedom to share their ideas, assert their opinions, and challenge conventional wisdom — and one another,” said Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel Diermeier in a statement.

A few years ago, Diermeier was the Provost of the University of Chicago.

The article then mentions the results of the long survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE; download its 54-page report here).  FIRE’s own summary:

  1. Roughly three-in-five faculty (61%) surveyed said that “a university professor should be free to express any of their ideas or convictions on any subject,” and more than half (52%) said speech should only be restricted “where words are certain to incite physical violence.”
  2. On average, 81% of faculty supported allowing four different hypothetical controversial speakers on campus, compared to 48% of the students who were asked about the same speakers in FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings (CFSR) survey.
  3. More than half of faculty (55%) said students shouting down a speaker is never acceptable. Four-in-five said this about students blocking entry into a campus speech and 92% said this about students using violence to stop a campus speech. In FIRE’s CFSR the percentages of students who say these actions are never acceptable are 38%, 63%, and 80% respectively.
  4. Roughly one-in-10 (11%) faculty reported being disciplined or threatened with discipline because of their teaching, while 4% reported facing these consequences for their research, academic talks, or non-academic publications.
  5. Liberal and conservative faculty have starkly different views on mandatory diversity statements for job applicants, the value of political diversity on campus, and when freedom of speech should be restricted. They also have very different social and professional experiences on campus.
  6. Faculty are split evenly on whether diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements are a justifiable requirement for a university job (50%) or are an ideological litmus test that violates academic freedom (50%). Three-in-four liberal faculty support mandatory diversity statements while 90% of conservative faculty and 56% of moderate faculty see them as political litmus tests.
  7. More than half of faculty (52%) reported being worried about losing their jobs or reputation because someone misunderstands something they have said or done, takes it out of context, or posts something from their past online. Almost three-quarters of conservative faculty (72%), 56% of moderate faculty, and 40% of liberal faculty reported feeling this way.
  8. A significant portion of faculty (ranging from 18% to 36%) endorsed their college’s administration launching a formal investigation into other faculty members for their controversial expression.
  9. Roughly one-third (34%) of faculty said they often feel they can not express their opinions on a subject because of how students, colleagues, or the administration would respond, compared to one-fifth of students surveyed for FIRE’s CFSR.
  10. The percentages of faculty who said they were very or extremely likely to self-censor in different contexts ranged from 25% (in academic publications) to 45% (on social media). Only 8% of all faculty said they do not self-censor in any of the four contexts asked about.

Yes, these data are pretty distressing, especially the disparity between faculty, who are generally favorable towards free speech and academic freedom, and students, who are substantially more censorious. The degree of chilling of speech is high.  Of course, conservative faculty are far less supportive of mandatory DEI statements (which may well be unconstitutional) than are liberal faculty.  I was going to write more about the FIRE report, but it’s long and you can get the gist of it above.

Finally, the Post counts the “turning point” of the Zeitgeist to the letter by Stanford’s President and Stanford Law School (SLS) Dean Jenny Martinez to Judge Kyle Duncan, apologizing for the abysmal and juvenile behavior of SLS students at a talk by conservative judge Kyle Duncan. Well, it’s a letter, and yes, they did put the offending DEI dean, Tirien Steinbach, on leave, but there was no attempt—and we don’t know if there will be in the future—to discipline students who try to disrupt talks or deplatform speakers. So far Stanford has talked the talk but not really walked the walk.  Is it a turning point that prompted other schools to grow a backbone, or only one of the earliest efforts of pushback by schools? Who knows. The Post op ed ends this way:

Thankfully, trigger warnings and other such measures are not always successful in taking root. But, at least in certain universities, they’ve triggered long-overdue defenses of unimpeded academic inquiry. For far too long, administrators and professors have been silent. Not anymore.

Well, we’ll see, won’t we?

I should add that several universities have adopted some of my own University’s Foundational Principles, most notably the Principles of Free Expression, which have been adopted in some form by over 80 universities. Unfortunately, only one school—the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—has adopted our powerful statement of institutional neutrality, the “Kalven report.”  Despite this, the University of Chicago has, up to now, lacked a formal committee for monitoring these violations, but this is now being fixed.


h/t: Ginger K.

Harvard starts new faculty council to promote academic freedom

April 13, 2023 • 11:00 am

This is an op-ed from yesterday’s Boston Globe announcing the formation of a new organization devoted to promoting academic freedom and free speech at Harvard. When I wrote this last night the op-ed, written by Steve Pinker and Bertha Madras (biographical info at bottom), was paywalled, so I decided to just paste in the text.

This morning I find that the paywall was lifted, but I’ve left the text in anyway, or you can click on the headline/subheadline screenshot below and read it in the paper. At the bottom I’ve put a link to the council’s new webpage.

The article explains the rationale for the new council (so far about 50 faculty). While the members haven’t had trouble expressing their views, they formed the council to stave off the encroachment of censors on academic freedom and speech in general at Harvard, of which there are already signs. As the authors note:

Harvard ranks 170th out of 203 colleges in FIRE’s Free Speech Rankings, and we know of cases of disinvitation, sanctioning, harassment, public shaming, and threats of firing and boycotts for the expression of disfavored opinions. More than half our students say they are uncomfortable expressing views on controversial issues in class.

Three more points. The letter conflates academic freedom (the freedom for faculty and researchers to study what they want without suppression) and freedom of speech (the freedom to say what you want as an individual, though not necessarily in class!). These rights are, of course, closely connected, and the new council will fight to preserve both.  Thus they’re not distinguished in the letter, which would be pedantic.

Second, note the paragraph beginning “The counter-intuitiveness of academic freedom is easily reinforced by several campus dynamics”, which goes on to explain why a small group of loud activists can take power over an academic institution whose members are, by and large, in disagreement with the activists, but afraid to speak up.

Finally, note that the Council on Academic Freedom is going to take action; they’re not just a passive body to adjudicate claims. Their main activities will be seminars, workshops, lectures, and orientation of faculty about the meaning of free speech and academic freedom, as well as to provide a line of defense for scholars beleaguered by censors, Pecksniffs, and authoritarians on both Left and Right. (I’m pretty sure that at Harvard the repression has come mainly from the Left.) Students are mentioned several times, but it’s not clear whether they, too, will get orientation in freedom of expression.

I believe my own school is forming a group like this, though it’s only in the beginning stages.

Confidence in American higher education is sinking faster than for any other institution, with barely half of Americans believing it has a positive effect on the country.

No small part in this disenchantment is the impression that universities are repressing differences of opinion, like the inquisitions and purges of centuries past. It has been stoked by viral videos of professors being mobbed, cursed, heckled into silence, and sometimes assaulted, and it is vindicated by some alarming numbers. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, between 2014 and 2022 there were 877 attempts to punish scholars for expression that is, or in public contexts would be, protected by the First Amendment. Sixty percent resulted in actual sanctions, including 114 incidents of censorship and 156 firings (i44 of them tenured professors) — more than during the McCarthy era. Worse, for every scholar who is punished, many more self-censor, knowing they could be next. It’s no better for the students, a majority of whom say that the campus climate prevents them from saying things they believe.

The embattled ideal of academic freedom is not just a matter of the individual rights of professors and students. It’s baked into the mission of a university, which is to seek and share the truth — veritas, as our university, Harvard, boasts on its seal.

The reason that a truth-seeking institution must sanctify free expression is straightforward. No one is infallible or omniscient. Mortal humans begin in ignorance of everything, and are saddled with cognitive biases that make the search for knowledge arduous. These include overconfidence in their own rectitude, a preference for confirmatory over disconfirmatory evidence, and a drive to prove that their own alliance is smarter and nobler than their rivals. The only way that our species has managed to learn and progress is by a process of conjecture and refutation: Some people venture ideas, others probe whether they are sound, and in the long run the better ideas prevail.

Any community that disables this cycle by repressing disagreement is doomed to chain itself to error, as we are reminded by the many historical episodes in which authorities enforced dogmas that turned out to be flat wrong. An academic establishment that stifles debate betrays the privileges that the nation grants it and is bound to provide erroneous guidance on vital issues like pandemics, violence, gender, and inequality. Even when the academic consensus is almost certainly correct, as with vaccines and climate change, skeptics can understandably ask, “Why should we trust the consensus, if it comes out of a clique that brooks no dissent?”

There are many reasons to think that repression of academic freedom is systemic and must be actively resisted. To start with, the very concept of freedom of expression is anything but intuitively obvious. What is intuitively obvious is that the people who disagree with us are spreading dangerous falsehoods and must be silenced for the greater good. (Of course the other guys believe the same thing, with the sides switched.)

The counter-intuitiveness of academic freedom is easily reinforced by several campus dynamics. The intellectual commons is vulnerable to the collective action problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs: A cadre of activists may find meaning and purpose in their cause and be willing to stop at nothing to prosecute it, while a larger number may disagree but feel they have other things to do with their time than push back. The activists command an expanding arsenal of asymmetric warfare, including the ability to disrupt events, the power to muster physical or electronic mobs on social media, and a willingness to smear their targets with crippling accusations of racism, sexism, or transphobia in a society that rightly abhors them. An exploding bureaucracy for policing harassment and discrimination has professional interests that are not necessarily aligned with the production and transmission of knowledge. Department chairs, deans, and presidents strive to minimize bad publicity and may proffer whatever statement they hope will make the trouble go away. Meanwhile, the shrinking political diversity of faculty threatens to lock in the regime for generations to come.

One kind of resistance will surely make thing worse: attempts by politicians to counter left-wing muscle with right-wing muscle by stipulating the content of education through legislation or by installing cronies in hostile takeovers of boards of trustees. The coin of the realm in academia ought to be persuasion and debate, and the natural protagonists ought to be the faculty. They can hold universities accountable to the commitments to academic freedom that are already enshrined in faculty policies, handbooks, and in the case of public universities, the First Amendment.

In this spirit, we have joined with 50 colleagues to create a new Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard. It’s not about us. For many years we have each expressed strong and often unorthodox opinions with complete freedom and with the support, indeed warm encouragement, of our colleagues, deans, and presidents. Yet we know that not all is well for more vulnerable colleagues and students. Harvard ranks 170th out of 203 colleges in FIRE’s Free Speech Rankings, and we know of cases of disinvitation, sanctioning, harassment, public shaming, and threats of firing and boycotts for the expression of disfavored opinions. More than half our students say they are uncomfortable expressing views on controversial issues in class.

The Council is a faculty-led organization that is devoted to free inquiry, intellectual diversity, and civil discourse. We are diverse in politics, demographics, disciplines, and opinions, but united in our concern that academic freedom needs a defense team. Our touchstone is the “Free Speech Guidelines” adopted by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1990, which declares, “Free speech is uniquely important to the University because we are a community committed to reason and rational discourse. Free interchange of ideas is vital for our primary function of discovering and disseminating ideas through research, teaching, and learning.”

Naturally, since we are professors, we plan to sponsor workshops, lectures, and courses on the topic of academic freedom. We also intend to inform new faculty about Harvard’s commitments to free speech and the resources available to them when it is threatened. We will encourage the adoption and enforcement of policies that protect academic freedom. When an individual is threatened or slandered for a scholarly opinion, which can be emotionally devastating, we will lend our personal and professional support. When activists are shouting into an administrator’s ear, we will speak calmly but vigorously into the other one, which will require them to take the reasoned rather than the easy way out. And we will support parallel efforts led by undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students.

Harvard is just one university, but it is the nation’s oldest and most famous, and for better or worse, the outside world takes note of what happens here. We hope the effects will spread outside our formerly ivy-covered walls and encourage faculty and students elsewhere to rise up. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and if we don’t defend academic freedom, we should not be surprised when politicians try to do it for us or a disgusted citizenry writes us off.

Steven Pinker is Johnstone Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard. Bertha Madras is Professor of Psychobiology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Laboratory of Addiction Neurobiology at McLean Hospital.

The website of the Council is here; and its executive director is Dr. Flynn Cratty.


Déjà Vu: S.F. State University investigates professor for showing Muhammad picture in class

April 7, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Both FIRE and The Chronicle of Higher Education report that, mirabile dictu, yet another professor is in trouble for showing a picture of Muhammad—this time at San Francisco State University (SFSU).  He hasn’t been fired, but he’s under investigation.  FIRE is of course campaigning to nip this in the bud, and so they have both a blog post about it as well as a four-page letter they sebnt to SFSU letting them know that they’re violating the professor’s academic freedom and that even investigating him is chilling speech and violates the First Amendment (SFSU is a public school).

Here’s the backstory from the Chronicle (the “Muhammadgate” incident is at the very end, part of a longer article about academic freedom).

Maziar Behrooz, an associate professor of history at San Francisco State University, does not yet know what a teaching decision he made might cost him.

In the fall of 2022, Behrooz was teaching the history of the Islamic world between 500 and 1700 and showed a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad. He’s taught the course, and the image, for years. One student, a devout Muslim, strongly objected, outside of class. His main point, Behrooz told The Chronicle, was that it’s not permissible for an image of the Prophet Muhammad to be shown in any shape or form.

“This is the first time that this has happened,” Behrooz said. “I was not prepared for somebody to be offended, in a secular university, talking about history rather than religion.”

Behrooz said he told the student that, as the professor, he is the one who decides what’s shown in class. The student then complained to Behrooz’s department chair, who broached the issue with the professor, according to Behrooz. He said he explained to his chair that the student’s view is not uniform among all Muslims. The type of drawing he shows in class can be bought at markets in Tehran near holy shrines. Many Shiite Muslims have such drawings on walls in their homes, said Behrooz, who was born in Tehran and has written books on Iran’s political history.

The student also apparently complained to “authorities higher up” at the university, according to Behrooz. The professor said the institution’s office of Equity Programs & Compliance informed him in March that it would investigate the incident and asked him to attend a Zoom meeting.

A staff member in the vice president’s office at San Francisco State told The Chronicle in an email that she could not comment on specific reports or investigations. She instead described the process for assessing reports of potential misconduct. An investigator meets with the complainant to gather information and discuss options, she said. If it’s decided the conduct could violate the California State University nondiscrimination policy, an investigation begins, and both parties are notified.

The Zoom meeting is slated for early April. Behrooz said he’s not overly worried, though he thinks an investigation by this office — which fields reports of harassment and discrimination — is unnecessary. He’s not sure what the inquiry portends. “How it goes from here is anybody’s guess,” he said.

FIRE’s letter is very good, with all the legal citations and bells and whistles, implying that the investigation should end tout suite and requesting that SFSU should respond by April 13.  I sense a lawsuit in the offing, and if SFSU doesn’t stop this investigation, they’ll be in a Hamline-University-like situation where they’ll get negative national publicity and a fat lawsuit filed against them by Dr. Behrooz.  Remember, even an investigation for charges that don’t carry weight, as these don’t, serves to chill speech and is a form of punishment.

It looks like Behrooz is going to at least accede to giving trigger warnings, but he doesn’t seem sufficiently angry! From the Chronicle:

In the meantime, Behrooz is thinking through what, if anything, he should change about his teaching. As a principle, he said he doesn’t think religious groups, or students, should decide how an instructor teaches a course at a secular institution. “But one has to also take into consideration, I think, the sensitivities of some religious people, be it Muslim or otherwise.”

Should he talk about the drawing without showing it? Should he still show it, as he’s done for years? Or, should he offer a compromise — warn students that the image is offensive to some and perhaps allow them to leave the class and come back?

He hasn’t decided, but he’s considering the compromise.

Finally, if you want to send either a boilerplate message to SFSU objecting to this stuff, or confect your own letter (I did the latter), just go to this site (bottom of page) and fill in the form. I wrote my own short letter, which follows. Feel free to appropriate from it if you wish.

Subject: End Investigation into History Professor ImmediatelyDear President Lynn Mahoney (show details) 

I understand that your university is investigating Professor Maziar Behrooz for showing a picture of Muhammad in a class about Muslim history. One student objected because some sects of Muslims consider this forbidden, and now SF State is investigating Behrooz.

I taught on the faculty of the University of Chicago for 36 years, and, unlike you, this university understands the meaning of the First Amendment and of academic freedom. Even investigating this didactic and proper use of the picture is itself a violation of the First Amendment, for it acts to chill speech.
I urge you to not go the way of Hamline University and try to punish this professor, for you will end up like they did: a national laughingstock and an academic embarrassment. Please stop this baseless investigation now.
Jerry Coyne

Brian Leiter makes hash of a recent claim that DEI objectives can sometimes supersede academic freedom

March 3, 2023 • 1:20 pm

Two days ago I wrote about a misguided article in the Chronicles of Higher Education:  “Sometimes diversity trumps academic freedom” by Stacy Hawkins, vice dean and a professor of law at Rutgers Law School. Dr. Hawkins doesn’t seem to know the law too well, for even I could spot the flaws in her claim that DEI objectives (mostly involving “harmful speech” that subverts DEI objectives) can sometimes override academic freedom. That could happen only rarely, usually when the “academic freedom” wasn’t really “academic freedom” as normally construed or, more often, when the “harmful speech” is speech that’s perfectly allowable under the First Amendment or university regulations.

But Brian Leiter, my colleague in the Law School here, knows the law and academic precedents better than I, and he found Hawkins’s piece even more objectionable, giving me a quote that began “The article is not just ‘troubling,’ it’s legally incompetent.” Now Leiter has written a Chronicle rebuttal of Hawkins’s claims, showing that they’re based on ignorance of freedom of speech, academic freedom, and contract law. It leaves Dr. Hawkins with no leg to stand on (is that ableist?) You can read Leiter’s letter by clicking on the link below:

Here are the first and last paragraphs; there are two in between. Go to the Chronicles (or to Leiter’s own website) to read them:

Rutgers law professor Stacy Hawkins writes that, “The First Amendment, and the principle of academic freedom which emanates from it, is not exempt from the rule that no right is absolute” (“Sometimes Diversity Trumps Academic Freedom,” The Chronicle Review, February 28). The First Amendment protection for academic freedom, however, only applies to faculty at public universities; faculty at private universities typically enjoy a contractual commitment from their university to protect academic freedom pursuant to the AAUP definition. Employers cannot violate contractual rights because they want to pursue other objectives incompatible with them: It is thus false that “academic freedom may sometimes…need to cede to the responsibility academic administrators have to effectuate the institutional commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.” Academic administrators who take that approach are breaching a contract with their employees. (Many public university faculty, it should be noted, also enjoy contractual protection for academic freedom.)

. . . Professor Hawkins asserts that the AAUP and University of Chicago statements defining academic freedom “were conceived and drafted [when] academe was largely governed by and on behalf of a narrow set of interests (most notably white, male, and Christian).” Many of those involved in conceiving these principles were, in fact, Jews and atheists, but in the litany of mistakes in Professor Hawkins’s essay, this is minor. What is outrageous is the implication that the “interests” served by academic freedom have a race, gender or religion. Academic freedom protects the pursuit of truth within the various scholarly disciplines, as well as the right of faculty to speak as citizens in the public square without professional sanction. It is an equal opportunity principle. Ironically, there is is some evidence that violations of this principle in recent years have affected non-whites and women slightly more often than others, so the groups Professor Hawkins professes an interest in protecting may well be among the first victims of the weakening of academic freedom protections she advocates.



When does DEI supersede academic freedom?

March 1, 2023 • 11:45 am

This article from the new Chronicles of Higher Education (click on screenshot below) is deeply misguided. It argues that academic freedom must sometimes give way to DEI initiatives; the argument is based on a balancing of two “rights” (one of which, DEI initiatives, is arguably not a “right”); conflates a professor’s rights with a professor’s preferences, construes student “rights” largely as “the right to not be offended”; and misunderstands the nature of academic freedom. First, though let’s define academic freedom. This construal, from the University of California at Santa Cruz, is as good as any (definitions vary)

Academic freedom: is the freedom of teachers, students, and academic institutions to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead, without undue or unreasonable interference. At the minimum, academic freedom involves the freedom to engage in the entire range of activities involved in the production of knowledge, including choosing a research focus, determining what to teach in the classroom, presenting research findings to colleagues, and publishing research findings. Still, academic freedom has limits. In the United States, for example, according to the widely recognized “1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure”, teachers should be careful to avoid controversial matter that is unrelated to the subject. When they speak or write in public, they are free to express their opinions without fear from institutional censorship or discipline, but they should show restraint and clearly indicate that they are not speaking for their institution. Academic tenure protects academic freedom by ensuring that teachers can be fired only for causes such as gross professional incompetence or behavior that evokes condemnation from the academic community itself.

Note that this freedom is already limited by several constraints.  Although I know of no strictures on the freedom to study what a faculty member wants, there are constraints about what one can say in class. You cannot, for example, teach creationism as factual in a biology class. You cannot insult a student or create a climate of harassment in the classroom.  And you have to generally teach as true what is accepted in your field as true, though of course you can offer your opinion, as long as it’s clear that it’s your opinion.

For students the issue of academic freedom is actually the issue of “freedom of speech,” and they are not the same thing. Both faculty and students, at least at publicly funded universities, have full First Amendment rights, but that refers to expression, not research direction. (Most private colleges and universities do claim to adhere to First Amendment standards, and all of them should.) There are limitations on free speech, too; these are well known, having been carved out by the courts over decades and decades. Those limits prohibit repeated personal harassment or threats, speech that promotes imminent and predictable harm, defamation, false advertising, and so on.

But that is not the subject of this article, which is about whether professors are allowed to say things about diversity in the classroom that “harm” students.

The article’s author is Stacy Hawkins, vice dean and a professor of law at Rutgers Law School.

First they argue in the abstract, though it would have helped to start by giving examples of these clashes. Those, however, come later.

From the piece:

Academic administrators, much like judges, need to take seriously the responsibility to weigh the competing interests involved when academic freedom and DEI efforts collide. They must measure the relative harms, evaluate facts and circumstances, and render judgments that elevate the needs of the many over the needs of the few. The First Amendment, and the principle of academic freedom which emanates from it, is not exempt from the rule that no right is absolute. The authors, in fact, acknowledge this need for balance by recognizing that “there is no academic freedom without academic responsibility.”

In particular, academic freedom may sometimes (perhaps also increasingly often) need to cede to the responsibility academic administrators have to effectuate the institutional commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Equally important, academic administrators also have an obligation to protect members of the community from discrimination and harassment on the basis of protected characteristics, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. In discharging these responsibilities, some people’s right to express themselves cannot come at the expense of other people’s right to dignity, safety, and equal participation in the academic community. More pointedly, the faculty’s academic freedom cannot always trump student well-being.

The institutional commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is not a “right” like the contractual obligations of academic freedom, but a choice. However, bigotry, unequal opportunity, and denial of rights to protected groups are already protected by civil rights law.  As you see by the last two sentences, Hawkins is not talking about two clashing rights but one (academic freedom). The other “right”, of people to be protected against bigotry and unequal opportunity, is already protected, and coexists with academic freedom.  What Hawkins is talking about is a newly confected “right”, but one that does not exist, and what’s she means is not protected by either academic freedom or the First Amendment.

Hawkins argues that this clash of “rights” is new because when the concept of academic freedom was formulated,

. . . academe was largely governed by and on behalf of a narrow set of interests (most notably white, male, and Christian). In this context, the content and the terms of the academic-freedom debate were largely ideological (references to Communism, for instance, were common). Accommodating the presence or needs of other (historically marginalized) groups was neither contemplated by nor reflected in the statements about academic freedom that were developed in these earlier periods. The focus was exclusively on promoting the free exchange of ideas among equals.

But let’s cut to the chase. What are some examples of clashes between academic right and the presumed “rights” of DEI? The latter are never really spelled out, but we can guess them as the right to not be harmed or offended by words”.

Some recent, high-profile examples reveal the nature of these conflicts. Consider, for example, a professor who refused to use a student’s preferred pronouns, or another who repeatedly requested a student use an Anglicized name in class, or another who instructed international students to speak English while on campus. In cases such as these, professors commonly defend their actions as protected, sometimes even well-intentioned, speech. A more common example are the numerous instances when a professor has defended the right to use racial epithets or other content considered highly offensive and demeaning to some students in the classroom. Intentions notwithstanding, the impact of this speech on students matters.

The first two seem to me matters of preference, and may involve academic freedom. I’m not sure that you can be fired for not using a student’s preferred pronouns (though I think Jordan Peterson quit his job in Canada because there it is required).  Asking a student to use an Anglicized name is rude and may constitute personal harassment, which would be a violation of academic freedom. As far as I know, there is no right to ask students to “speak English while on campus”, though it seems proper to request a student to use English when answering or asking questions.

As for racial epithets, you have the right to use them if they are used didactically, as Geof Stone used to do in his class on freedom of speech here at the law school (see below), or on an exam as a hypothetical example of speech that’s offensive (as in the case of Jason Kilborn at the University of Illinois at Chicago Law School). That is, the right to use epithets is protected by academic freedom if the intent is an academic one, but not if the words are meant as pejoratives.  You should not be disciplined for using them that way, but of course a professor, like Geof Stone, may decide that they’re too inflammatory to serve as examples and their use would derail the discourse. But the students have no right not to have them said didactically in the classroom. Note that in the discussion above, Hawkins implies that the “impact” of this speech matters, and it does, but only psychologically. There is no “right” not to not be impacted. In other words, in terms of academic freedom rights, intent matters and impact doesn’t.

Any well meaning professor will, of course, try to avoid insulting students if it can be avoided, but sometimes you cannot help it. Such was the case of the instructor at Hamline University who showed a picture of Muhammad’s face from an old and famous painting. This was done didactically, as part of an art history course, and the instructor issued two trigger warnings before she showed the painting. But it didn’t matter: Muslim students were offended, complained to the administration, and the instructor was fired. (She is since suing the university.) This is exactly the same kind of conflict between “rights” that Hawkins is writing about. Should the DEI “right” (not showing the picture) triumph? No, because there IS no DEI right here.

Re Geof Stone, here’s what happened at Chicago:

Balancing academic freedom with academic responsibility will sometimes require harmful and offensive speech to be condemned, especially when it serves no legitimate educational purpose. Even within the hotbed of academic freedom, Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor and an avowed defender of faculty free speech, has recently agreed to forgo use of a racial epithet that he has used in class for many years. The reason? He realized that it was causing real harm to his students (both Black and white), and their harm matters. Also, “things change,” according to Stone.

The word was the “n-word”, used to demonstrate how racial epithets should still constitute free speech. As far as I understand, Geof dropped that example not because he realized that the DEI “right” to use it trumped his academic freedom, but because he realized that it really riled up people and derailed the discussion.  His was a decision based on both civility and pedagogy, but not on adhering to one “right” that trumped his academic freedom. Had he persisted in using that word, he would not have been disciplined by the University.

Hawkins’s whole article seems to me a straw man, because it conflates too many things, construes DEI as producing a “right not to be offended”, and because many of the rights asserted aren’t “DEI rights” but simple civil rights already in force. I’m surprised that the dean of a law school would write some of this, for, as my colleague Brian Leiter, a professor at our law school, argues, Hawkins’s article is legally incoherent. Here’s what he wrote in an email and has given me permission to quote:

The article is not just “troubling,” it’s legally incompetent.  It fails to recognize that for all academics at private universities, but also for most faculty at public universities, academic freedom is a contractual right (not simply a constitutional one as the author writes).  Employers can’t breach contractual rights just because they have other objectives they want to pursue.  And while there are some very narrow exceptions to First Amendment protections, there is no DEI exception ot the First Amendment:  indeed, the U.S. does not even have a “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment.   It would be consistent with academic freedom for Rutgers to investigate what this person [JAC: author Stacy Hawkins] is teaching in the classroom, since these mistakes raise serious questions about her competence.

FIRE drafts a model “intellectual freedom protection act” for states

February 24, 2023 • 9:15 am

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is getting dead serious about opposing mandatory DEI statements, statements increasingly used and even required by universities for students applying for admission or candidates applying for faculty jobs.  By any sights, these statements are ideological litmus tests that have nothing to do with the purposes of higher education and everything to do with social engineering by those on the extreme Left.  Although many of us agree on the need to provide much more equal opportunity to minorities than now exists, it can’t be achieved by these pledges and pious asseverations.

Further, these are far from pledges to not discriminate à la Dr. King’s famous statement. Rather, they are used to judge academics’ philosophy of DEI, their plans to implement it in the school to which they belong or applying to, and their background in diversity-enhancing activities. This subverts the purpose of higher education in three ways. First, by chilling speech and forcing students and faculty to mouth adherence to a specific construal of DEI. Second, by diverting academia from its true mission, which is not to change society in line with current political views, but to teach students facts, to teach them to think, and to produce research.  Third, the statements divert resources from this mission into expensive, bloated and often hamhanded DEI bureaucracies, which in some large schools have dozens of employees and pay out millions in salaries.

DEI statements constitute illegal compelled speech, a violation of the First Amendment, and it’s just a matter of time before someone damaged by not producing the “right kind of statement” brings a lawsuit against a university.

Thus FIRE has announced a draft “intellectual freedom protestion act” meant to be passed by state legislatures. They announced it this way in an email:

There’s no getting past this: Many colleges are now considering or requiring diversity, equity, and inclusion statements for applicants, students, and faculty. DEI statements are consistently used as partisan litmus tests — imposed by campus bureaucrats needing to justify their paychecks. They often target controversial, dissenting, or simply unpopular voices. Consider these abuses of DEI rationales:

  • An art history professor out of a job for displaying medieval artwork depicting the Prophet Muhammad in her class. The president and vice president of inclusive excellence claimed that respect for Muslim students should have “superseded academic freedom.”
  • Pro-choice law students investigated by their Office of Equity & Title IX for disagreeing with a religious student about the leaked Dobbs decision.
  • A literature professor told by his associate vice president for diversity that it is unacceptable to discuss a racial slur mentioned in a recording of a Civil Rights Movement-era poem.

DEI bureaucracies cast a shadow over campuses, routinely violating student and faculty freedom of speech and conscience — regardless of their political ideology.That’s why FIRE crafted the Intellectual Freedom Protection Act, a model bill that can be used in every state. Our bill bans all political and ideological litmus tests — whether “patriotism” or “social justice” — for admission, hiring, promotion, and tenure.

Click below to read it:

I expect that people will now say that “FIRE has gone right-wing”, since DEI statements are, after all, a product of the “progressive” left, and those who oppose them are often tarred with the label of “alt-right” or even “racist”. But you have to realize what a diversion from the mission of universities DEI statements—or any pledge to an ideology—are.  They force people to think in a certain way rather than question “received wisdom”, and they use colleges as levers to promote political platforms. FIRE is simply adhering to its goals of promoting intellectual and academic freedom in colleges, both of which are violated by ideological pledges or tests of suitability for admission.

You can read the proposed intellectual freedom act here or by clicking the screenshot above. It has the usual format of a bill: preceded with a number of “WHEREAS” statements (the rationales), followed by “resolved” statements (the proposed laws themselves). I’ll give just a few of each. Note below how many supposedly liberal professors favor DEI statements.

The “Whereas”s (this is just a sample):

WHEREAS many colleges and universities require or invite current and/or prospective faculty to demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), often through a written statement that factors into hiring, reappointment, evaluation, promotion, or tenure decisions; and

WHEREAS vague or ideologically motivated DEI statement policies can too easily function as litmus tests for adherence to prevailing ideological views on DEI, penalize faculty or applicants for holding dissenting opinions on matters of public concern, and, as the Supreme Court warned against in Keyishian, “cast a pall of orthodoxy” over our public college and university campuses; and

WHEREAS a survey by the American Association of University Professors of hundreds of colleges and universities found that more than one-fifth of higher education institutions include DEI criteria in tenure standards, and of the institutions that do not include tenure standards, nearly half indicated they are considering adding such criteria in the future; and

WHEREAS a survey by the American Enterprise Institute of academic job postings found that nearly 20 percent required DEI statements. . .

It goes on to note that data presented at a conference at USC last year showed that most tenure-track faculty have already disfavored a job candidate when their DEI statement didn’t adhere to the preferred ideology, and adds this chilling paragraph:

WHEREAS according to a forthcoming FIRE survey, faculty are split evenly on whether DEI statements are a justifiable requirement for a university job (50%) or are an ideological litmus test that violates academic freedom (50%), and three-in-four liberal faculty support mandatory diversity statements while 90% of conservative faculty and 56% of moderate faculty see them as political litmus tests. . .

Not surprising, given that “liberal” faculty have recently abandoned the free speech that once characterized liberalism. They are no longer liberals, but authoritarians.

The proposed law: The first two stipulations below (there are eight more) are what I see as the most important out of the 12 given; note that they ban any ideological pledge, not just those related to DEI.

A. No public institution of higher education shall condition admission or benefits to an applicant for admission, or hiring, reappointment, or promotion to a faculty member, on the applicant’s or faculty member’s pledging allegiance to or making a statement of personal support for or opposition to any political ideology or movement, including a pledge or statement regarding diversity, equity, inclusion, patriotism, or related topics, nor shall any institution request or require any such pledge or statement from an applicant or faculty member.

B. If a public institution of higher education receives a pledge or statement describing a commitment to any particular political ideology or movement, including a pledge or statement regarding diversity, equity, inclusion, patriotism, or related topics, it may not grant or deny admission or benefits to a student, or hiring, reappointment, or promotion to a faculty member, on the basis of the viewpoints expressed in the pledge or statement.

C. Nothing in this Act prohibits an institution from requiring a student, professor, or employee to comply with federal or state law, including anti-discrimination laws, or from taking action against a student, professor, or employee for violations of federal or state law.

D. Nothing in this Act shall be construed to limit or restrict the academic freedom of faculty or to prevent faculty members from teaching, researching, or writing publications about diversity, equity, inclusion, patriotism, or other topics.

Now let’s not fool ourselves: this bill, while admirable in every way, has a snowball’s chance in hell of passing. Perhaps it could in the conservative states of the South and Southwest, but not in more liberal states, which happen to be those harboring schools that need these laws the most.  But I applaud FIRE for confecting this proposed legislation, and hope that, because it promotes free speech at the expense of ideological manipulation, it passes somewhere.

Chronicle: DEI erodes academic freedom

February 7, 2023 • 9:45 am

For a while I’ve been making the obvious point that free speech (or academic freedom) and “inclusivity” don’t always go hand in hand. In fact, that’s exactly what you should expect, for free speech and academic freedom guarantee that some people will be offended, and the offended are clearly not “included.”  Likewise, the compelled speech inherent in today’s versions of DEI is incompatible with freedom of speech and with academic freedom.  This is why the phrase “inclusive excellence”, which we see everywhere these days, is an oxymoron. “Excellence” is having academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Yet it’s taboo to mention this conflict, and universities and academics blithely float the notion of “inclusive excellence”. The recent incident at Hamline University, in which instructor Erika López Prater was fired for showing an ancient painting of Muhammad (with his face clearly in view) to her art history class, shows this tension clearly. López Prater was simply exercising her academic freedom, teaching what she thought was important in the history of Islamic art. Yet after Muslim students raised an uproar, saying that they had been “excluded” (as well as offended), the teacher was let go. López Prater jas filed a lawsuit, and she’ll either win that or will receive a generous settlement. Hamline has fallen into disrepute, a nationally notorious example of abrogating academic freedom; and the faculty has called for its president to resign.

We have other examples of professors fired for giving offense, but you can consult FIRE to read about them.

Now there are some construals of DEI that aren’t in potential conflict with academic freedom and free speech, but those aren’t the ones that universities are pushing. If “diversity” means “diversity of ideas”, if the “E” stood for “equality of treatment” rather than “equity” (proportional representation), and if “inclusion” meant “a university and workspace free from personal harassment,” then DEI would be okay, and wouldn’t conflict with any other freedoms. But of course that’s not what universities mean by DEI, as the authors note below.

But I digress: here’s an article by Anna Khalid (“an associate professor of history at Carleton College and host of the podcast Banished“) and Jeffrey Snyder (” associate professor in the department of educational studies at Carleton College”), who decided to say what nobody else dare.  What surprises me is that it’s in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Click to read:

In fact, the authors use the Hamline case, which I’ve discussed in detail, to outline the incompatibility of DEI and academic freedom.

Here’s the authors’ evidence for the ubiquity of the false claim that DEI and lack of offense are totally compatible:

The assertion that inclusion and academic freedom are not in tension is an article of faith for many of those dedicated to promoting campus inclusion. In 2018, the Harvard University Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging released an 82-page report stating that the “values of academic freedom and inclusion and belonging provide each other with synergistic and mutual reinforcement.” According to this report, the two should not be conceived of as “distinct values that must be accommodated to each other” or, worse still, as “antagonistic goals.” This view is central to the frameworks advanced in books such as Ulrich Baer’s What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth, and Equality on Campus, John Palfrey’s Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education andSigal Ben-Porath’s Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy.

And here’s the going version of DEI, which the authors call “DEI Inc.”:

DEI Inc. is a logic, a lingo, and a set of administrative policies and practices. The logic is as follows: Education is a product, students are consumers, and campus diversity is a customer-service issue that needs to be administered from the top down. (“Chief diversity officers,” according to an article in Diversity Officer Magazine,“are best defined as ‘change-management specialists.’”) DEI Inc. purveys asafety-and-security model of learning that is highly attuned to harm and that conflates respect for minority students with unwavering affirmation and validation.

Lived experiencethe intent-impact gapmicroaggressionstrigger warnings, inclusive excellence. You know the language of DEI Inc. when you hear it. It’s a combination of management-consultant buzzwords, social justice slogans, and “therapy speak.” The standard package of DEI Inc. administrative “initiatives” should be familiar too, from antiracism trainings to bias-response teamsand mandatory diversity statements for hiring and promotion.

You can see that saying anything that contradicts this notion, for example criticizing Kendi’s claim that what is not “antiracist” is supporting racism, will cause offense.

Here’s how Hamline stated explicitly that academic freedom could cause “harm”—harm because it violated the rules of DEI Inc.

In December, President Miller and David Everett [Associate Vice President for Inclusive Excellence] sent an open letter to the campus asserting that “appreciation of religious and other differences should supersede when we know that what we teach will cause harm,”and in particular “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.” After the news made national and international headlines, Miller doubled down, explaining that her decisions were guided by “prioritizing the well-being of our students,” especially by“minimizing harm.”

Miller’s comments at least had the virtue of offering an honest diagnosis of the tension between academic freedom and inclusion. This tension has only ratcheted up in recent years, as colleges make grand promises to create “environments in which any individual or group feels welcomed, respected, supported, and valued.” With institutions promoting such an expansive definition of “inclusion,” we shouldn’t be surprised when they become ensnared in their own rhetoric and policies. How will DEI administrators respond when a Chinese national complains that a political-science discussion about the persecution of Uyghurs is “harmful anti-Chinese propaganda”?Or when a Christian evangelical says her faith was insulted in a contemporary art class after seeing a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of two men kissing? The permutations are endless and, for professors who teach sensitive or controversial material, alarming.

There’s the old trope of “harm” again, which really means “offense”.  And can you imagine this fracas occurring if, say, López Prater offended fundamentalist Jews (perhaps by showing a meal containing dairy and meat) or Christians (perhaps by showing Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ“)? I can’t. It’s Muslims who have the leverage to get a professor fired, for, unlike Christians and Jews, they are perceived as victims because they’re also perceived as people of color. DEI is not meant for Christians and Jews. But that’s really irrelevant: the point is that if your legitimate teaching in the classroom offends students, then it’s too bad for them. Art, of course, is particularly prone to this because a lot of art is designed to shock, offend, or shake people out of their complacency.

Firing someone for violating academic freedom abrogates a number of university regulations in schools that avow academic freedom, and can violate the law in government-funded schools and state schools. The AAUP states this explicitly:

The American Association of University Professors clearly states that students do not have the right to shield even their “most cherished beliefs” from challenge or scrutiny:

Ideas that are germane to a subject under discussion in a classroom cannot be censored because a student with particular religious or political beliefs might be offended. Instruction cannot proceed in the atmosphere of fear that would be produced were a teacher to become subject to administrative sanction based upon the idiosyncratic reaction of one or more students. This would create a classroom environment inimical to the free and vigorous exchange of ideas necessary for teaching and learning in higher education.

Khalid and Snyder also point out that it’s not just the Woke who try to overturn academic freedom because it causes offense. “Anti-CRT laws”, now being passed by right-wingers throughout the South, restrict a teacher’s right to teach about race and gender if that teaching makes “any individual. . . feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”  That’s a recipe for disaster, and I oppose such laws.

But let’s be clear. A teacher doesn’t have the right to teach anything in their classroom, especially in secondary schools. You can’t teach creationism, for instance, as it violates the First Amendment. And you can’t just go nuts and teach crazy stuff, for schools have prescribed lesson plans and material that must be covered. But if what you’re teaching fits well into your curriculum, and isn’t just a political or ideological harangue with no didactic purpose, they should leave you alone.

At the end, the authors call for a vigorous defense of academic freedom (that also goes for freedom of speech, which is not identical but related) and bring up the University of Chicago:

When institutions proclaim that academic freedom and inclusion coexist in a kind of synergistic harmony, they are trafficking in PR-driven wishful thinking. In the hardest cases, there is no way of upholding an “all are welcome here” brand of inclusion while simultaneously defending academic freedom. Instead, we should turn to the wise words of Hanna Holborn Gray, former president of the University of Chicago: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.”

I should put that as the tagline on all of my emails!

Here’s “Piss Christ” (1987) a photo of a crucifix submerged in a beaker of the photographer’s urine. For many it’s a highly regarded work of art, for others an egregious and blasphemous offense.

Hamline University faculty calls for their President to resign

January 25, 2023 • 12:30 pm

I saw this tweet early this morning, and was surprised (Hamline University is a small—ca. 2000 student—private liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota:

I was surprised at the vote because up to now the faculty, after the “Muhammad’s Face Affair”, haven’t openly criticized Hamline University’s president, Fayneese Miller, for firing an art-history instructor, Erika López Prater. Prater was dumped by Miller after the instructor showed her class a 14th-century painting of Muhammad that clearly revealed the Prophet’s face. (See my posts on this issue here.) Some—though not all—Muslims think that it’s blasphemous to show any depiction of the Prophet, but other existing sects have no objection, and showing a full-on Muhammad was quite common in older Muslim art.

But even though López Prater put a trigger warning about this painting in her syllabus, and also mentioned it in class so that students didn’t have to look, she was still fired—or rather, Miller didn’t renew her contract. López Prater has since filed a lawsuit against Hamline, the incident has gotten national publicity, and Miller has dug in her heels instead of backing off. I’m certain Hamline will have to pay big time for what they did to the instructor. Meanwhile, the Muslim students are still disaffected and angry.

The two articles below, from the newspaper Sahan Journal, a Minnesota news site catering to immigrants and people of color, show how the faculty has lined up to give Miller (Hamline’s first black president, and a woman) her pink slip. The second piece shows that the students are ticked off that the faculty is upset at the firing. To the students, Miller is a hero.

Click on either headline to see the data, and note that the paper is generally supportive of the Muslim students who were upset.

As the tweet above notes, the faculty voted en masse ask President Miller to resign:

Full-time faculty at Hamline University voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to ask the school’s president, Fayneese Miller, for her resignation. The vote marked the latest turn in the crisis that has embroiled the school for weeks.

“The reputation of Hamline was deeply tarnished, and I think it’s clear the majority of the full-time faculty do not believe that Fayneese is the one to carry us forward,” said Jim Scheibel, the president of the Hamline University Faculty Council.

Miller did not immediately respond to a Sahan Journal request for comment.

An overwhelming number of the 92 full-time professors at an all-faculty meeting Tuesday voted to adopt a statement asking President Fayneese Miller to resign, said Jim Scheibel, president of the Hamline University Faculty Council. Scheibel said turnout at the meeting was strong, with about 70 percent of the university’s 130 full-time professors in attendance.

“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,” the statement reads. “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.”

The statement also expresses support for academic freedom, an inclusive learning community, and due process.

The faculty vote does not bind Miller to any course of action, as only the board of trustees can remove the president from her position. Ellen Watters, the chair of Hamline’s board of trustees, declined to comment. The first Black president of Hamline, Miller has held the position since 2015.

But with so many faculty calling for her resignation, the academics have lost all confidence in Miller. It would be a miracle if the trustees keep her in office. My bet is that Miller is as good as gone. As I wrote earlier, I usually don’t call for someone’s job in a situation like this, but Miller refused to back down several times and clearly lacks any understanding of academic freedom. She doesn’t deserve to remain as Hamline’s President.

But, as the article notes, the students are on the side of Miller, not the faculty. They wanted the faculty to support the offended students, including the Muslims, and they didn’t. The faculty finally spoke with their votes. And that poured gasoline on the fire:

On January 22, a group of anonymous Muslim students sent an email to faculty, criticizing professors for their response to the crisis. “While we have been getting threats and targets on our backs, what hurts the most is knowing our faculty members don’t care much for us,” reads the letter. “Additionally, they are willing to go to the extent of going after and blaming President Miller who has been supportive throughout this difficult time.”

Returning to campus Monday for the first day of spring classes, several Muslim students told Sahan Journal they appreciated the administration’s support throughout the crisis. “I think our admins have been nothing but wonderful, actually,” said Ubah, a senior public health major. Administrators had reached out repeatedly to check on Muslim students, she said. But she criticized faculty members for using this crisis to target Miller.

“The worst-case scenario would be if the president gets overthrown,” Ubah said. “It leaves people that look like us vulnerable.” Without Miller, she said, the next campus incident might leave marginalized groups on campus to fend for themselves.

The students are as clueless as President Miller; they don’t want academic freedom, but someone to hug them and hold their hands. And I’m sorry, but the President will be overthrown and it will NOT make Muslims look vulnerable. It will make them look fragile, which they are—at least the ones who made a fuss after getting a trigger warning. I’m convinced that a big part of the “offense” is ginned up as a way to gain power.

A sign of the website’s political affiliation is that this second article, about the hurt Muslim students, now extra fearful after the faculty vote, is three times as long as the article above, which in terms of University governance is far more important.

A few quotes from students:

Many Muslim students, who had unexpectedly found themselves at the center of the storm, felt mixed emotions: Excited to be back. Overwhelmed by their new syllabi. Tired of the debate about academic vs. religious freedom.

. . . “It’s obviously really hard,” said 18-year-old Edna, a freshman education major, at the campus’s Anderson Center on Monday. “I’m just trying to take it day by day.”

For Edna, the hardest part of the firestorm was the threats her classmates received in light of the incident’s international media attention. (Some students and staff received death threats from people outside the Hamline community; at least one email address was temporarily disabled in an effort to curb harassment.) Overall, she found the media reaction “extreme.” She wished people could understand how much the incident had affected Muslim students.

Still, she said, “I’m glad to be back.”

But for some students, the return to class prompted another painful question: can I trust my professors?

“It’s great to be back because it is my last semester,” said Ubah, a senior public health major from St. Paul. “But it’s also the worst-case scenario that you could ever walk into.” The worst part, she said, was fearing that professors would not understand or support her.

The faculty also issued an earlier statement of support to Muslim students, so I don’t think the students should worry about a lack of concern from faculty, though I can see how the students would be distressed since their President is on the ropes and will likely be fired.

But one set of statements implies that the students want the faculty to understand how valuable Islam is to them, and that that’s why the students protested. In my view, the faculty shouldn’t care about what the students believe by way of religion, for that’s the students’ business, not the faculty’s. The faculty’s concern here was academic freedom, which they clearly value above any religious offense claimed by the students.

In a Sunday email to faculty from Muslim Student Association members, students expressed disappointment that many professors had stood with López Prater. Since the letter was unsigned “because of concern of retaliations from faculty members or others who don’t support our cause,” it’s not clear how many students endorsed the letter.

“While we have been getting threats and targets on our backs, what hurts the most is knowing our faculty members don’t care much for us,” read the letter. “Additionally, they are willing to go to the extent of going after and blaming President Miller who has been supportive throughout this difficult time….Your silence shows us as students that Hamline is not a place for us, and in your classrooms, we don’t feel safe, welcomed, or belong.”

Although Hamline is a small school, Ubah said, few professors had taken the time to get to know her or understand her religion.

“You have to know who your students are in the class, more than just the name and the pronouns or what their major is,” she said. “Even asking little things like getting to know their religion. That will give you what they value as a person. Then incidents like that wouldn’t even take place, because then you know that a Muslim student values their Prophet so much, you understand that you should not be showing a picture.”

Ubah is wrong.  Academic freedom is the principle at stake, not the students’ religious feelings, and López Prater did warn the students about showing Muhammad’s face. Since she was making a point about art history with that famous painting, she had a genuine didactic purpose, and that trumps “feelings”.

These students need to learn two lessons: one is about academic freedom and the other is the fact that if you’re getting properly educated, you will come across things that you find offensive.  Religion is only one such topic; others are politics, sex, and race. Offense, which students must learn to deal with, is an inevitable byproduct of the clash of ideas that you encounter at a good university.

h/t: cesar, Luana

Minnesota art-history faculty, as well as a Muslim organization, support fired instructor who showed her class a painting with Muhammad’s face (and a new video with the instructor)

January 14, 2023 • 10:45 am

As I’ve written about several times, Erika López Prater, an instructor at Hamline University in Minnesota, was fired by the school for showing a 14th-century image of Muhammad’s face in her art-history survey course. (She also showed a painting of the Prophet with his face veiled but rest of his body complete). The instructor warned the students, both in the syllabus and before the class, that they didn’t have to go to the class or look at the image of this famous painting (TRIGGER WARNING: MUHAMMAD FACE):

López Prater’s warning didn’t matter: some offended Muslim students (mostly black Muslims but probably not from the Nation of Islam) complained, and the instructor’s contract was not renewed. The story made the NYT and Hamline got some severely bad publicity, but their President, Fayneese S. Miller, signed a statement that prioritized student comfort over academic freedom, and argued that the instructor was not “fired”—her contract simply wasn’t renewed. That is a distinction without a difference.

FIRE reproduces Miller’s statement, which includes this (scroll down on the FIRE page to see it):

Prioritizing the well-being of our students does not in any way negate or minimize the rights and privileges assured by academic freedom. But the concepts do intersect. Faculty have the right to teach and research subjects of importance to them, and to publish their work under the purview of their peers.

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. Why? Because on the other end of a professor claiming academic freedom may be a student — a student who lacks tenure, who must rely on that professor for a grade and who may be emotionally, intellectually, or professionally harmed by the professor’s exercise of the power they hold.”

Well, clearly López Prater was not using her academic freedom as a weapon to demonize Muslims or make fun of Islam. Miller was simply out to lunch here, trying to confect reasons for violating the instructor’s acemic freedom.

According to the NYT, Miller also said that “respect for the Muslim students ‘should have superseded academic freedom.’ ” Clearly Miller (below) has no idea what academic freedom really means, and now I do think she should be fired—for complete cluelessness. Nobody should be President of a university if they think that student complaints like the ones leveled against López Prater are grounds for dismissal.

As FIRE said, Miller has “tripled down,” refusing to reconsider her decision and making even more extreme statements defending the firing (i.e., not renewing a contract). FIRE wrote Miller asking her to reconsider (she didn’t respond), and then reported Hamline University to its accrediting agency.  Fortunately, López Prater seems to have several other job offers.

President Fayneese Miller

Another reason Miller should go is that she’s lost the confidence of the entire Art History faculty of the University of Minnesota, which issue a unanimous statement (with an emeritus signing on) supporting the right of López Prater to have taught about that painting. Here’s the statement.

You can read it for yourself, so I’ll provide just one excerpt. Note the sarcastic subtitle, as the statement shows a painting of Jonah, a big fish, and the angel that resembles the Muslim painting above:

Jonah and the Whale,” Folio from a Jami al-Tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles), ca. 1400, Metropolitan Museum of Art (

The big support is here:

In its removal of Dr. López Prater from its teaching roster, Hamline’s administration took an explicit stand against higher education’s longstanding tradition of instructional prerogative, compromising the freedom of college-level instructors to make individual selections and decisions in presenting expert knowledge of all stripes (factual, theoretical, interpretive, editorial). This prerogative goes by the term “academic freedom” and it is an extraordinary privilege. As faculty, we cherish this privilege as necessary to our scholarly enterprise and earned through our pursuit of scholarly inquiry, knowledge, and insight. We take the responsibility that comes with this privilege seriously, practicing it within the social contract of the university classroom and the responsive learning communities we seek to forge there. Academic freedom, too, is a privilege we fear is currently under threat, a precarity made worse specifically by the casualization of academic labor via the underpaid adjunct gig economy and the disposability of expertise in pursuit of rising revenues.

In response to Dr. López Prater’s non-renewal, we speak strongly against Hamline’s intertwined attacks on academic freedom, on the integrity and dedication of faculty (especially those vulnerable to dismissal), and on the related enterprises of knowledge dissemination and debate. We strongly urge Hamline’s administrative leadership to examine critically its approach to this instance and its broader policies and procedures, not only regarding student complaints and controversies, but also with respect to hiring, training, setting expectations for, and listening to adjunct faculty.

And kudos to the faculty who signed it (below):

The Tenure-Stream Faculty of the UMN Department of Art History
Dr. Jane Blocker, Professor
Dr. Emily Ruth Capper, Assistant Professor
Dr. Sinem Casale, Assistant Professor
Dr. Michael Gaudio, Professor
Dr. Daniel Greenberg, Assistant Professor
Dr. Laura Kalba, Associate Professor
Dr. Jennifer Jane Marshall, Professor & Chair
Dr. Steven Ostrow, Professor
Dr. Anna Lise Seastrand, Assistant Professor
Dr. Robert Silberman, Associate Professor

Co-signed by Dr. Catherine Asher, Emerita Professor, in her capacity as an expert in Islamic art

Wouldn’t it be lovely if the HAMLINE faculty issued a statement of support? One professor in another department has spoken out, but I suspect most of the faculty are cowed and chilled.

And, if you click below, you’ll see an additional statement of support from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which seems to be a mainstream organization advocating for tolerance and understansing of  Muslims—much like the anti-Defamation League. And it’s firmly on the side of the fired non-renewed instructor.

Brief excerpt. The message comes right at the beginning rather than at the end:

It is with great concern that the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) views the firing of an art professor, Erika López Prater, from Hamline University on the grounds of showing a fourteenth-century painting depicting the Prophet Muḥammad. We issue this statement of support for the professor and urge the university to reverse its decision and to take compensatory action to ameliorate the situation.

. . . As a Muslim organization, we recognize the validity and ubiquity of an Islamic viewpoint that discourages or forbids any depictions of the Prophet, especially if done in a distasteful or disrespectful manner. However, we also recognize the historical reality that other viewpoints have existed and that there have been some Muslims, including and especially Shīʿī Muslims,  who have felt no qualms in pictorially representing the Prophet (although often veiling his face out of respect). All this is a testament to the great internal diversity within the Islamic tradition, which should be celebrated.

This, it seems, was the exact point that Dr. Prater was trying to convey to her students. She empathetically prepared them in advance for the image, which was part of an optional exercise and prefaced with a content warning. “I am showing you this image for a reason,” stressed the professor:

. . . The painting was not Islamophobic. In fact, it was commissioned by a fourteenth-century Muslim king in order to honor the Prophet, depicting the first Quranic revelation from the angel Gabriel.

Here’s a video that was just posted involving a discussion with López Prater, Christine Gruber (a Michigan art-history professor who defended her in an eloquent statement at New Lines), and several others (Mr. Salam Al-Marayati from MPAC, and Dr. Hyder Khan) who have also defended López Prater. The moderator is Muqtedar Khan, a professor at the University of Delaware. I found the video while looking for images of López Prater, which don’t seem to appear on the Internet. In the YouTube image below, she’s on the upper right. But she talks at length below, and do listen to hear her story.

The You-Tube statement:

Dr. Erika López Prater was fired from Hamline university after she showed classical paintings of Prophet Muhammad in her Art History class. She discusses the sequence of events, her syllabus, and her pedagogy. Dr. Christine Gruber explains that Islamic tradition is diverse and sheds light on the practice of painting Prophet Muhammad specially from the 13th to the 16th century in Iran and Turkey. MPAC President Salam al-Marayati shares the concerns that prompted MPAC to make the statement in support of Dr. Prater. Dr. Hyder Khan discusses the diversity of opinion in the Muslim Community of Minnesota. He feels the issue is not over and once the internal debates are over the community will take a more deliberated position on the matter.

And the video.  López Prater acquits herself well, and it’s outrageous that she was let go. Well, Hamline’s loss is some other university’s gain.

h/t: Luana, Colin