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The Never-ending Academic Freedom Saga
A faculty member at Hamline University takes issue with the administration's event on academic freedom.
As many of my readers know, earlier this year an academic freedom controversy at Hamline University made national and international headlines. Adjunct art history professor, Erika López Prater, lost her position after a Muslim student complained about her showing a 14th century Islamic painting of Muhammad in class. Hamline’s administration’s declared her showing of the art work “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” Her contract was not renewed. Mark Berkson, Professor of Religion at Hamline, criticized the administration’s statement and actions. So steadfast was his support for his adjunct colleague’s academic freedom that in October FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, honored Mark with the inaugural Berkson Courageous Colleague Award — the award is named after him. In his gracious acceptance speech, which I encourage you to watch (click here for the video) Mark said, “I was literally just doing my job…I stood by my colleague professor Lopez Prater because all she did was teach art history, in this case educating students about Islamic and Persian art in a world art class. So how can I let her be criticized, labeled, investigated and punished for doing this. I supported Erika because I could not do otherwise.”
At the start of this academic year the administration at Hamline organized an event titled, “Academic Freedom and Cultural Perspectives: Challenges for Higher Ed Today and Tomorrow.” Mark attended this event hoping for it to be the first of many steps that the administration would take to reflect and learn from the controversy. The discussion he witnessed left a lot to be desired. Disappointed, Mark penned the following piece outlining his objections:
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On September 12, Hamline University held a forum on academic freedom. The forum was presented as a response to the incident that occurred last year involving the teaching of a work of Islamic art containing a 14th-century image of the Prophet Muhammad in a world art history course. A religiously observant Muslim student complained; the administration called the lesson “undeniably ... Islamophobic” and failed to rehire the instructor, Erika López Prater. These actions were widely criticized across the political spectrum and around the world.
The American Association of University Professors conducted an investigation and concluded that the professor’s conduct in the classroom “was not only justifiable and appropriate on both scholarly and pedagogical grounds; it was also protected by academic freedom. The Hamline administration was wrong to characterize this decision as ... ‘Islamophobic.’” (After the media firestorm, the president and board chair issued a statement acknowledging that the use of the word “Islamophobic” was “flawed.”) Hamline’s administration, the AAUP report stated, had an “inaccurate and harmful understanding of the nature of academic freedom in the classroom.” The report called out the administration’s “de facto campaign of vilification” against the professor and criticized its failure to extend due process to her.
It has been almost one year since the classroom incident, and despite the damage to the university’s image, there has been no internal inquiry. Not a single administrator has issued an apology or taken responsibility. Instead, Hamline’s administration — after having had a long period to reflect on the media response, the AAUP report, and the statements of outraged faculty — organized “Academic Freedom and Cultural Perspectives: Challenges for Higher Ed Today and Tomorrow.” Despite its promising title, the event — which included introductions from David Everett, Hamline’s chief diversity officer, and Fayneese S. Miller, Hamline’s president; and a keynote address by Michael Eric Dyson — was essentially a full-throated defense of the administration’s actions against López Prater. Of the four panelists who convened after the keynote, only one, David Schultz, was drawn from the Hamline faculty.(Unsurprisingly, he alone seemed to evince any skepticism about the administration’s actions, albeit in a rather indirect way.) The others — Stacy Hawkins, of Rutgers Law School, and the antiracist activists Tim Wise and Robin DiAngelo — did not discuss the controversy in any substantive way.
The event was opened by David Everett, who had said, last year, that the act of teaching a work of art in a classroom after having given many content warnings in writing and in the classroom was “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic,” thereby setting the entire debacle in motion. Everett said these things about a faculty member who was teaching her class in accordance with the standards of her profession and who did nothing wrong, and he said them without ever talking with the professor or even exchanging emails with her. Nor did Everett, in his handling of the student complaint, ever bring López Prater and the student together in a room to discuss the issue, surely a “best practice” for a diversity office. López Prater, Everett said, was “no longer a part of the Hamline community” in light of her actions. In the right institutional context, this classroom event could have been a powerful “teachable moment.” But Hamline’s leadership, which in the past has advocated the approach of “restorative justice,” decided to be retributive.
Next up was President Miller, who was eager to note that she did not see this event as a defensive move, “but rather an offensive” one (with the stress on the first syllable). Miller’s insistence that “this is not defensive” foreshadowed an event that was, in many ways, highly defensive.
Miller’s comments at the event were clearly directed at the faculty, who, she said, “continue to teach in ways that are more likely to mirror the educational experience that we endured.” When we exercise academic freedom, she said, we must “still see who is in our classrooms.” And she advised us that faculty must “not treat [students] as cattle to be prodded and moved in the direction we want.” The real threat to academic freedom, she concluded, occurs in places like Florida and Texas. “It is not being threatened that way in Minnesota. It is not being threatened that way at Hamline University.” Miller fails to see that there are many ways that academic freedom can be threatened. Despite the important differences, there is a key similarity between much of what is happening in places like Florida and Texas and what happened at Hamline last year. In both instances, a particular religious or ideological viewpoint is being used in an attempt to deny everyone in the community the opportunity to see certain material.
Then there was the keynote, which featured soaring, powerful rhetoric from Michael Eric Dyson, who combines deep historical and cultural knowledge with the oratorical skills of a preacher (he is a minister). Dyson set the current debates about academic freedom in the historical context of exclusion and white male dominance in the academy, reminding us that claims about “academic freedom” rang hollow when so many women, people of color, and members of religious minorities were excluded from colleges. Regarding last year’s controversy, the student’s identity as a Black Muslim woman is certainly relevant to understanding what transpired, because Black Muslim students have in recent years endured actual hate speech and discrimination, and they have not received sufficient support in the past. While the important subject of racial diversity was discussed in great depth by many speakers, Dyson was the only speaker to make any mention of the highly relevant topic of religion, and in doing so seemed to allude, practically alone among the participants, to last year’s incident.
“If I got Muslim students,” Dyson said, “and I know what upsets them, I got the freedom to show what I want to show, but why would you? What’s your point? What’s your intention?” Then Dyson referred to “people who, if they look upon religious images, will be punished [by] religious orthodoxy for which you have no consciousness or conscience. ... If you exercise your freedom of speech, you place that person in vulnerable positions.”
In context, we can take this as a challenge to López Prater. Why would she do it? Because she is educating her students about Islamic art, which includes a genre of art prominently seen in Persian, Turkish, and other contexts, in which Muslim artists honor and remember Muhammad by depicting him respectfully and beautifully. In doing so, López Prater was presenting Islam in all of its diversity, a form of intrafaith diversity that Hamline’s administration completely disregarded.
“What’s your intention?” Dyson asks. It is clear that López Prater had no intent to upset anyone. She was teaching an important work of Islamic art, which is part of her job. She showed concern for her Muslim students by giving them multiple warnings, in writing and orally, to avert their eyes when she showed the image if they so wanted. This is nothing like the examples — some given more than once by many speakers at the event — of Holocaust denial, flat earth theory, fomenting an insurrection, and using the N-word in the classroom. None of these absurdly inappropriate disanalogies are remotely similar to the challenge that arose in López Prater’s art history class and that many of us regularly face — responsibly teaching relevant and suitable academic content that might be disturbing to some students.
The event concluded with a panel discussion featuring Hawkins, Wise, DiAngelo, and Schultz. Not only was the actual classroom event never mentioned, but nothing remotely analogous to it ever came up. While speakers alluded to some of the complexities of navigating the tensions that can arise when controversial material is taught, no relevant example was ever given. Faculty received no guidance or insight regarding the kind of situation that put Hamline in the national spotlight.
The panelists spoke as much about free speech as academic freedom, and while the two are certainly related, they are not interchangeable. At no point did any panelist, except for David Schultz, tease out the differences between the two. Schultz made the interesting point that whereas free-speech protection requires viewpoint neutrality, academic freedom is exercised in the service of seeking truth. This distinction would explain why anyone can advocate the flat earth theory on social media or on a soapbox, but a professor who did so could not be hired to teach geology. Faculty were told at the forum that we cannot teach flat earth theory. Well and good. We weren’t told, though, what to do when we teach evolution and a creationist in the classroom files a complaint. That would have been a pertinent comparison.
That freedoms and rights are not absolute was a dominant theme at the event, woven throughout Dyson’s talk and echoed in the comments of Tim Wise and Stacy Hawkins. Dyson: “The very absolute insistence on absolute [freedom of] speech is itself absolutely flawed.” Tim Wise: “The people who talk about it [freedom of speech] in absolutist terms — as in ‘I want to say what I want to say because I have a right to do it’ — ... run roughshod over rights and liberties of others.” Stacy Hawkins: “There has been a lot of reference to the idea that people have the right to do and say whatever they want.” She corrected such a misunderstanding, claiming that “no absolute rights exist in this country. Rights are always mediated by other interests.” She concluded, “The idea that these ... rights are absolute is simply false.”
All of this is true, of course. But who is making these arguments about the absoluteness of academic freedom? The AAUP’s statements on academic freedom clearly recognize that academic freedom must be balanced with responsibility and care for students. The 1940 statement places limits on what can be taught (e.g. instructors should avoid "persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject”), and the AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics states, “Professors demonstrate respect for students as individuals... [and] avoid any exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students.” So, when DiAngelo says that students can’t be invisible or subject to hostility, she is restating what the AAUP has already made clear.
Instead of giving us helpful examples of what happens when a professor who is in accord with these standards receives complaints from students based on the student’s religious (or other) beliefs, the speakers threw an army of straw men at us. The inflammatory false equivalence of Holocaust denial or hate speech is completely unhelpful; they have nothing to do with López Prater’s classroom or with the hard cases that we might face in our classrooms.
If we are going to imagine more analogous examples to what happened last year, situations that would be much more applicable to the challenges we actually face in the classroom, we might look at something like this: What should a faculty member do if a fundamentalist Christian objected to the assigning of a book about LGBT pastors? Or what if students are assigned to watch and analyze The Last Temptation of Christ (which imagines an alternate version of the life of Jesus, in which he has a sexual relationship)? What if a student found the very idea so offensive, so un-Christian, that the student refuses to watch it? Perhaps we might conclude that the student should be given an alternative assignment (although this would be problematic in many cases). But what if the student insisted, “I don’t want anyone to read that book or watch that movie. It goes against my religion and doesn’t belong in any classroom.” Any competent administrator would explain to the student that this is not how college works.
Hawkins, in discussing those times when we should “restrict our rights,” explains that the exercise of our rights “can’t come at the expense of other people’s right to safety, right to liberty, right to freedom, right to dignity, right to an education, the right to know the truth about our history.” That last point is particularly relevant here, because this is precisely what López Prater was helping students to do. She was giving Muslim students a chance to understand an element of their own history, which happens to include a wide diversity of opinions about the question of the representation of Muhammad.
Hawkins further said that “academic freedom must include the whole community.” That’s a good point. What about the Muslim students — many of whom have been in my classes over the years — who disagree with what the offended student and her allies (including administrators and staff) were saying? Muslim students who disagreed were effectively silenced. They did not get a seat at the table. In fact, Muslim students who wanted to take my Islam course in the spring of 2023 had to endure a campaign of pressure from the Muslim Students Association and their allies, some of whom, among other things, stood outside my classroom on the first day of class trying to persuade Muslim students not to enter.
An element often left out of many diversity conversations is internal diversity within religious traditions. One of Lopez Prater’s purposes in her approach to teaching Islamic art (or any tradition of world art) is to show that Islam (or any religion) is “not a monolith.” This is a lesson I impart to my students in every class I teach, and my students can often recite a statement I make regularly - “Differences within religions are as great as, if not greater than, the differences among them.”
This point was illustrated by an experience I had a few months ago at an event attended mostly by Muslims. I was the only non-Muslim at my table, and I was joined by people from a variety of backgrounds and origins, including Somalia, Syria, and Pakistan. During introductions, they found out that I was from Hamline, and after a period of polite conversation, someone finally asked about “the incident involving the painting of the Prophet.” I did not know what their position was, but I gave a brief overview of what happened and the unfortunate fallout. Then, one of my table mates said, “We were really upset at your administration. They made us look intolerant, as if we don’t know the difference between a classroom and a mosque.” In the ensuing conversation, it became clear that while most Muslims at the table would not look at an image of the Prophet, they were all fully capable of understanding why such an image would be studied in the classroom (and why the teaching of such images is not “Islamophobic” in any way). They all agreed that as long as students are given the chance to opt out, it is simply wrong to deny others the opportunity to study the paintings. So, it is clear that Jaylani Hussein, David Everett, and the group of students claiming that such images should never be shown in a classroom clearly do not speak for all, or even most, Muslims.
This is why, after the controversy blew up, multiple national Muslim organizations argued that the administration was wrong in considering the teaching of the artwork Islamophobic. This included the national office of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), which helpfully explained the difference between actions that some Muslims would consider “Un-Islamic” (like drinking alcohol), and actions considered “Islamophobic” (which include hate speech, violence and vandalism, but not a non-Muslim drinking alcohol, even in front of a Muslim, or, of course, teaching a work of art after giving students the chance to opt out).
One lesson that we can learn from this incident is that we can see three different Muslim perspectives on the study of figural representations of the Prophet. At first, it seems that there might be two groups -
1. Those who believe that it is forbidden to create or look at representations of the Prophet. This is the majority of Muslims in the world.
2. Those who believe that as long as certain conditions are met, it is permissible. And, for some Muslims, it is very meaningful, inspiring and beautiful.
However, there is a third group -
3. Those who believe that not only must they themselves not look at such images, and that it is not Islamically permissible, but also that nobody should ever show or look at these images. This is a very small subset of the first group. And this is what we, in a liberal arts institution, must reject. We should not require anyone to look at these images if it violates an important religious value (one which I genuinely respect given the understandable theological concerns about representation, an important theme in multiple religious traditions with a history of iconoclasm). But we must vigorously oppose those who would deprive others of the opportunity to look at a historical treasure and a vitally important part of Islamic art and history.
Therefore, a university can easily accommodate the first two groups, but must refuse to allow the third group to dictate our curriculum. Our administrators thought that they were simply doing the former, but ended up throwing their weight behind the third group with disastrous consequences. One irony of the entire episode is that Erika Lopez-Prater was more attentive to religious diversity than our administrators and DEI professionals were. Lopez Prater’s course on world art exemplified the kind of diversity that DEI professionals should value. They would see that faculty should be their allies, not, as this forum would have it, the problem.
Much of what I am discussing here would be clear to anyone who has engaged in the academic study of religion, and I have argued that the study of religion is essential for citizens in a multi-faith democracy. However, as I discuss in my recent essay in The Journal of Religious Ethics, Hamline’s Religion Department, along with many religion departments and majors around the country, are being neglected or directly threatened (I am the only full-time faculty in religion out of what was once a robust, highly regarded department). Last year’s incident is an illustration of the consequence of religious ignorance. This point, not addressed by any panelist, was made by one of our talented religion majors, June Gromis, at the forum. She pointed out that courses in religious studies are where much of the diversity work on campus happens, and that an education in the world’s religious (or artistic) traditions “prepares students for a workplace with diverse communities.” This is an important reminder that intensifying the divide between faculty and DEI professionals, as Hamline has done, is counterproductive.
What happened to López Prater, whose academic freedom was clearly denied, was outrageous and unfair. It also serves as a chilling cautionary tale to all of us, especially those of us who teach controversial subjects. An administration that issues statements professing their commitment to academic freedom, as Hamline’s did in the wake of the avalanche of criticism, must be willing to support faculty in such situations — including adjunct faculty — or the statements mean nothing. Nothing said at “Academic Freedom and Cultural Perspectives: Challenges for Higher Ed Today and Tomorrow” gave me confidence that our administration understands this.
A theme throughout the forum, particularly in the presentations of Dyson and Wise, was the power differential between faculty and students. In some senses, the entire forum focused on that particular power divide, and in doing so served to underscore that tension over all others. Of course faculty must be cognizant of this power disparity and exercise their authority responsibly and thoughtfully. But two power divides that were highly relevant to the events of last year were almost entirely absent from the forum: the ever-expanding power disparity between administrators and faculty (“shared governance,” a concept mentioned by Schultz alone, is hardly ever mentioned by administrators at Hamline), and between tenured faculty and contingent faculty.
A few speakers talked about “who has a seat at the table” and “who is in the room” when decisions are made at colleges, and they argued that students’ voices must be included. I fully agree. In last year’s controversy, the seats at the table were taken by students, administrators, and professionals who handle diversity, equity, and inclusion matters. There was no faculty voice in the room (it is worth noting that the forum, despite focusing on a largely faculty-centered topic, was organized without any input from faculty members regarding the selection of speakers or any significant aspect of the event). In the conversations following the student’s complaint, the absence of López Prater’s perspective, or indeed of any faculty member’s perspective, especially those with expertise in the areas of art history or Islamic studies, was a key factor in why things went so wrong. Hamline’s former president, Linda Hanson, made this point when she wrote that faculty “who are highly qualified to offer counsel on religion and art history were not consulted, and their participation in decision making could have changed the course of fallout of the crisis.” To put it simply, if anyone in that room had made one phone call or sent one email to me, the only person at Hamline who teaches Islamic studies, the entire episode could have been avoided. I would have explained that I, along with colleagues in the field around the world, have shown these paintings in our classrooms for decades.
In all this talk about power at the forum, discussion of the complete lack of power held by adjuncts like López Prater was conspicuously absent. If a student in my class had complained to the dean’s office about my showing of a painting of the Prophet Muhammad, the outcome would have been very different for the simple reason that I have tenure. Miller admitted as much in her interview with the AAUP team conducting the inquiry. If the faculty member had been tenured or probationary for tenure, they “would still be here,” she said. The AAUP report concluded that “the de facto campaign of vilification against Professor López Prater would have been much more challenging to sustain had she held a tenured or tenure-track appointment.” It is important to recognize the power that faculty members exercise over students, but this power differential can operate both ways, since an adjunct’s job prospects are often tied to course evaluations. How many adjunct professors would want to risk challenging their students too strongly, or creating too much intellectual discomfort, if it might lead to complaints and the loss of their job? In this climate, the vulnerability of contingent faculty can compromise their ability to teach the challenging material that is central to a liberal-arts education.
In her opening remarks, Miller said, “Let’s not devolve into triviality and blaming.” The events of last year and its aftermath are hardly trivial, and they deserved real discussion. As for blaming, it is hard to avoid the sense that, throughout the event, blame for the conflicts that occur at the university was assigned exclusively to faculty. Never was there even a suggestion that uninformed administrators or DEI officers showing poor judgment might have something to do with problems that arise. With the exception of Schultz, all the speakers gave the impression that faculty members routinely abuse their academic freedom — that we insist on the absolute right to do and say whatever we please.
It is easy to see why many faculty members would find these accusations offensive (emphasis on the second syllable). Most faculty — certainly most faculty at Hamline — care deeply about their students, want to responsibly serve a diverse community, and are committed to continuous improvement in their pedagogy. There will be challenges in navigating diversity in the classroom, in remaining sensitive to students’ backgrounds and identities, and in covering important and relevant topics when doing so is difficult or uncomfortable. We will sometimes get it wrong, and we can use support in thinking through how to do it effectively. But the Hamline forum provided none of that support. Instead, it focused on divisions between faculty and students, and cast administrators (and some of the speakers they invited) as the heroes who are students’ only recourse against faculty who subject students to patently false, racist, and exclusionary speech. The implication that we aspire to use academic freedom as cover to say whatever we want, no matter how false, offensive, or outrageous, is a profound insult to faculty members at Hamline and everywhere.
David Schultz, during the panel conversation, perhaps said it best: “Our discussion here about diversity and academic freedom ... is probably at the most superficial level that we can have. ... At the end of the day, let’s have a real discussion.” Amen.
Mark Berkson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University. A version of this piece was originally published on September 21, 2023 by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
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