To the Editor:
Like many, I was dismayed by Hamline University’s decision to dismiss an art-history professor after a student’s objection to her use of an image of the Prophet Muhammad in class materials. I was also dismayed by Amna Khalid’s and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder’s characterization of academic diversity efforts as “DEI Inc.” — that’s glib at best and does a disservice to the necessary discussion around diversity, equity, and inclusion (“Yes, DEI Can Erode Academic Freedom. Let’s Not Pretend Otherwise,” The Chronicle Review, February 6). If they feel that terms like “intent-impact gap” and “microaggressions” are hackneyed buzzwords, which terms would they have us use? Because even as a cisgendered, white, hetero male, I can assure them that these are real phenomena that real people experience every day. We’re going to require words for them.
Are there problems with institutional-level reactions to discrete incidents involving inclusion? Absolutely. Is Hamline’s firing decision an overreaction? Almost certainly.
But categorically asserting that “academic freedom” (a phrase that comes perilously close to buzzword territory itself) must always take priority over ensuring that everyone can actually access and benefit from such freedom ignores the reality that large portions of the populations that institutions, both academic and otherwise, are mission-bound to serve are emerging from long histories of deliberate marginalization and abuse. That can sometimes make serving them very challenging, and make their responses to incidents like the one in question seem extreme or unreasonable. Ensuring adequate inclusion is a process that’s measured in generations, and progress may only be apparent when students no longer say things like “I don’t feel like I belong.” I have no idea when that will happen, but I know it will never happen without sustained efforts at DEI.
In this sense (and maybe ironically) institutional DEI efforts boil down to a matter of faith: Faith that the financial and political capital expended on them will bear fruit in a future many of us may not live to see. But also faith that sentiments like those of Aram Wedatalla are sincere and rooted in genuine experience that must be wrestled with head-on and not systematically deprioritized in a zero-sum contest between “academic freedom” and “DEI.”
Again, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that Hamline’s decision to fire their art-history professor was the correct response to this incident — I think it was a mistake. But I would urge the authors to widen their perspectives and see efforts like antiracism training and diversity statements not as cynical lip service or final answers being offered to a problem, but as steps in the general direction of a more just future society. The fact that they are sometimes wobbly must not prevent us from taking them.
Senior Writer & Communications Associate
College of Engineering