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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: Hamline's leadership triples down against academic freedom
When Mark Berkson, a professor of religion at Hamline University, attended Hamline’s “Academic Freedom and Cultural Perspectives” forum on September 12, he was not expecting Fayneese Miller, the university’s president, to offer an uncompromising defense of her administration’s actions last year. After all, the American Association of University Professors’ investigation into the university had
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When Mark Berkson, a professor of religion at Hamline University, attended Hamline’s “Academic Freedom and Cultural Perspectives” forum on September 12, he was not expecting Fayneese Miller, the university’s president, to offer an uncompromising defense of her administration’s actions last year. After all, the American Association of University Professors’ investigation into the university had determined that Hamline’s failure to renew the art historian Erika López Prater’s contract after a student complained about seeing a 14th-century image of the Prophet Muhammad in a “World Art” class was a clear violation of academic freedom. The AAUP also formally faulted Hamline for its “failure to defend the free-speech and academic-freedom rights of Professor Berkson,” who, they said, became “a target of official disapproval” for his attempts to defend López Prater’s pedagogy. And even before the AAUP report, Hamline’s faculty voted no confidence in Miller, who said she would retire as president in 2024.
But in her opening remarks, Miller did not express contrition or indicate that she had any second thoughts about her administration’s handling of the López Prater incident. On the contrary, as Berkson describes in a recent essay in our pages, Miller offered “a full-throated defense of the administration’s actions against López Prater.”
Later in September, a second event on issues of free speech took place at Hamline, this one co-sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Georgetown University and livestreamed by Hamline. Although the conference was not devoted to academic freedom per se, one panel, on “Immigrants, Refugees, Religious and Ethnic Minorities, and the First Amendment,” turned to that topic when Amna Khalid, a panelist and associate professor of history at Carleton College who has written in our pages about the Hamline incident, raised it forcefully: “In Minnesota, I would argue that the threat [to free speech] is not coming from legislators. Rather, perhaps inadvertently, from within college campuses. That’s something that does bear mentioning. There was an incident here at Hamline which made national and international news.” When another panelist, the St. Paul City Council member Jane L. Prince, defended Hamline’s actions (“the fallout may have been difficult, but the intention of protecting a student who was hurt is something we also want to think about”), Khalid amplified her critique: “When we talk about harm and minorities, I think it’s absolutely essential that we give them the same respect that is due to majorities, which is that we contain multitudes. We have many voices, we do not speak with a single voice, and when an institution decides to take a position where it labels something ‘Islamophobic,’ then it silences other students or Muslim members in the community who think differently.”
When Khalid had finished talking, President Miller, who was in the audience, took up the subject. “The story of what happened at Hamline University is not known to the public. You only got one version of the story. There is another version to this story that we were unable to tell. I will say this: The federal court just ruled in Hamline’s favor in regard to this incident.” Miller was referring to Erika López Prater’s suit against Hamline for defamation, retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and religious discrimination. It’s not quite accurate to say the court ruled in Hamline’s favor; in fact, it allowed López Prater’s suit to proceed, but only on the grounds of religious discrimination.
Miller went on to insist that the common understanding of the Hamline controversy was entirely mistaken, though she wouldn’t say how. “The community outside Hamline, and the community inside Hamline, has no idea what actually happened.” And she denied specifically that the university had ever characterized the incident as Islamophobic; that charge had merely been made by “a member of the community.”
Despite the moderator’s efforts to move the conversation away from the Hamline incident (perfectly reasonable, since the panel was not primarily about Hamline or academic freedom), Hamline faculty members, provoked by Miller’s denial of administrative wrongdoing, wouldn’t let it die. During the Q. and A., Mark Berkson spoke first:
“In response to President Miller’s statement, I want to first of all say that we do have knowledge about what happened extensively. The AAUP came in and did an investigation.” (The resulting report, Berkson pointed out, “concludes that the administration of Hamline University violated the academic freedom of Professor Erika López Prater.”) And he went on to dispute the idea that David Everett, who originated the “Islamophobia” charge, was merely a “member of the community.” He was, in fact, Hamline’s associate vice president for inclusive excellence. “If the administration had wanted to immediately retract it and distance themselves from it they could have done so,” Berkson said, “but they did not.”
The moderator, wiltingly: “I do just want to ask if anyone has any other questions related to anything else.” To her relief, someone did. But it wasn’t very long before the elephant wandered back into the room. Binnur Ozkececi-Taner, a professor of political science at Hamline, took the mike. “I am a Muslim myself,” she said, and expressed her “appreciation for President Miller for what she did for that particular student.” What sounded at first like a defense of Miller turned out to be the diplomatic prelude to a critique:
The school of thought that I belong to was very different from the school of thought that the majority of our [Muslim] students here at Hamline belong to. And to me, that diversity or diverse perspective needed to be included in the decision-making process. Again, I’m not really putting the blame on anyone. I think that everyone had the best of intentions for our students ... but the way that the discussion happened or the debate happened or did not happen had a chilling effect on me personally, as an academic who teaches courses related to the Middle East, courses related to women’s rights in Islam. That may not have been the intention of our administration, which I really appreciate ... but it happened. Now as I’m thinking about the classes that I’m going to be teaching next semester, I have to ask myself: Do I really want to talk about this?
Miller responded without responding: Instead of addressing the complexities of intra-Islamic disagreement, she alluded again to the substance, still unrevealed, of her conversation with the complaining student. “People don’t know what happened in my office. People don’t know what was said to the student — at all.” (I asked Miller’s office whether she could elaborate on what passed between her and the student, but she declined, citing the student’s privacy.) Whatever was said, Miller’s chief motive, she said, was one of kindness and ministration, of “trying to make sure that a student leaves your office feeling as though you care about them, feeling as though they belong.” But then she acknowledged another motive: revenue. “At the end of the day, the students are our recruiters, who go back into their community and talk about their experience as students. So it is a complex situation.”
However complex it might be from the point of view of recruitment, the Hamline incident was, from the point of view of academic freedom, pretty straightforward, as the AAUP’s incident report makes clear. Nor, despite its filtration through the contemporary lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion, is there anything novel about challenges to academic freedom in the name of religious orthodoxy. In 1940, for instance, as Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post recount in For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (2009), a liberal Christian professor named Philip Mankin was dismissed by the State Teachers College of Murfreesboro, Tenn., for admitting that, as he said, he “personally did not believe in a ‘burning hell.’” In 1934, a professor named Ralph E. Turner, of the University of Pittsburgh, was dismissed because his students considered his attitude toward religion to be “flippant and sneering.” One student called Turner a “menace.” “Today,” Finkin and Post write, this student “would have charged Turner with creating a ‘hostile environment.’” Such a charge, they write, “confuses respect for persons with respect for ideas,” and is therefore “fundamentally inconsistent with freedom of teaching.”
In 2006, the Columbia University religious-studies scholar Mark C. Taylor, at the time teaching at Williams College, wrote in The New York Times about what he saw as the growing problem of “religiously correct” students refusing, on the grounds of religious sensitivity, to do the reading. Or worse: “Distinguished scholars at several major universities in the United States have been condemned, even subjected to death threats. ... In the most egregious cases, defenders of the faith insist that only true believers are qualified to teach their religious tradition.” This sort of identitarian reduction is relatively common now. Kate Blanchard, a professor emerita of religious studies at Alma College, exemplified it when, in Religious Dispatches, she criticized López Prater this way: “It’s really not for non-Muslims to say what Muslim students should or shouldn’t consider disrespectful.” This troubling logic might be extended indefinitely: Does the same stricture apply to Muslim scholars studying other religions? Why should a liberal Christian like Mankin, for instance, have been permitted to entertain ideas that were noxious to his more orthodox students? And what about Jews? Are they to be permitted to have ideas about Christianity and its cultures? Some people have thought not; there is a name for them.
Attitudes like Blanchard’s are rare among faculty members but, it seems, increasingly common among students. This does not bode well for academic freedom. The notion that particular human communities have proprietary relationships to particular areas of study is incompatible with the secular ideals of the academy. More practically, it would render an enormous quantity of scholarship and teaching impossible. To the extent that that idea becomes normative, no number of AAUP incident reports will be able to preserve the study of human cultures and societies from chauvinism, parochialism — and orthodoxy.
- “I’m not so sure we really know how we know what we know.” For Critical Inquiry‘s blog, Lorraine Daston asks why there’s no epistemology of the humanities.
- “The cave, which contained a dense concentration of swiftlet nests, is a sacred site for the Punan, who consider it the source of all things.” In The New York Times, Brendan Borrell’s extraordinary account of Borneo’s Punan Batu, who, as the anthropologist Stephen Lansing and the geneticist Pradiptajati Kusuma have recently helped confirm, “appear to have been isolated for more than 20 generations.”
- “In both economic and political respects, universities have suffered the effects of what Brown calls ‘nihilistic boundary breakdown’, whereby different spheres of society invade one another for no good reason.” In the London Review of Books, William Davies takes Wendy Brown’s recent book Nihilistic Times as an occasion to think about the threats to higher education in Britain and the U.S. And check out Brown’s recent essay in our pages on “ethical pedagogy for a nihilistic age.”
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