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This has given rise to discussions on the right and the left about the supposed tensions between academic freedom and diversity and the purported dangers posed by concessions to identitarian politics. Those discussions miss the point. This case is not an example of any tension between diversity and academic freedom, but of the confusion between fair treatment of minority students (respect and care for their well-being) and capitulation to religious censorship. The one does not require the other.
There is no necessary opposition between academic freedom and diversity.
In the Hamline case, this confusion led the president of the university, Fayneese Miller, to hear the student complainant’s side of the story and then to act precipitously without having all the facts at hand. She might have asked why, despite warnings by Erika López Prater, the lecturer, that images of Muhammad would be presented, no student chose to take up the invitation to opt out of the session. Why, having been given the option not to view the offending images, did the student choose instead to demand that no one in the class be allowed (or required) to see them?
There was clearly a politics in operation on the student’s side that needed further investigation. That politics does not serve the liberal diversity principles the university administrators invoked, but it rather reflects unacceptable religious censorship. In the name of liberal ideals of equality, respect, and social justice, the Hamline University administration denounced the actions of the professor and thereby seemed to endorse a local Muslim cleric’s charge of “blasphemy.” But blasphemy is not a valid criticism of university teaching. It is a purely theological concept.
The president might also have asked whether any religious orthodoxy — Christian, Jewish, or Muslim — ought to prevail in a secular classroom. If an evangelical Christian student claimed that a biology professor’s teachings on evolution made him feel disrespected and unsafe because of his creationist beliefs, would President Miller have fired the professor for causing “harm”? Or is it that the president confused the minority status of Muslims in the U.S. and on her campus with the need to let their religious beliefs be imposed on an entire class and on the professor’s right to teach as she saw fit?
In an article in Slate, Jill Filipovic calls upon liberals to “stand up against illiberal acts, even when those acts are carried out in the name of a minority religion in the U.S.” She acknowledges the reality of discrimination that Muslims face in the U.S., but she draws the line at giving orthodox members of that community the right to censor what is taught in a college classroom. It is of a piece, she says, with the calls by right-wing politicians to impose “Christian values” on public education. “Standing up for a religious minority’s right to exist, believe, and worship freely does not mean leaving all your other values at the door, and allowing the most vocal and conservative members of that minority to demand censorship or compliance with their views.”
Filipovic makes an important distinction — one the Hamline administration failed to see in its rush to associate the university’s brand with social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. That distinction is between respect and fairness toward minority religious views (principles that seem to have informed López Prater’s sensitivity to her students, especially her granting them permission to skip the class) and what counts as censorship, manifested here as the forced adherence by everyone to a particular group’s religious belief (the student’s demands). When this distinction is understood, there is no necessary opposition between academic freedom and diversity. Censorship is the enemy of both.