Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Who's Defending Hamline?

By now, you've probably heard of the flare-up at Hamline University in Minnesota, where an adjunct professor of art history was dismissed following student complaints after she showed a historic painting that depicted the prophet Muhammad. Every account I've seen suggests that the professor presented the painting (which was created in Persia by a Muslim artist in the 14th century) in a respectful and sensitive fashion, including notifying students that it would be depicted in her syllabus and again before the start of the relevant class (and told students they were free to opt out of attending that session). Nonetheless, the college not only declined to renew her contract, they expressly accused her of "Islamophobia" and indicated that "academic freedom" should not have protected her ability to "harm" her student.

The decision to terminate the professor has been met with a firestorm of criticism (e.g.: FIRE, PEN America, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Academic Freedom Alliance). I personally found this post by Jill Filipovic to be especially thoughtful. So far, though, the college has been emphatic in defending its decision.

On that note, however, one thing I've yet to see is any prominent figure defending Hamline. The closest I've seen is a local CAIR official who (at a university-sponsored forum) said that the lesson had "absolutely no benefit" and compared alternative Muslim perspectives on portraying Muhammad as akin to the existence of people who think "Hitler was good." I've also heard hearsay that some academic professional organizations have privately declined to speak out because many officers and/or members feel uncomfortable. But as far as public discourse goes, I've seen essentially nothing but wall-to-wall condemnation.

Indeed, the universality of the "Hamline got it wrong" position in some ways renders it impressive the degree to which the Hamline administration is sticking to its guns here. It is one thing to abandon principles of academic freedom under intense external pressure demanding censorship; it's another thing to abandon principles of academic in the face of intense external pressure to abide by them. It does make me wonder if there are any unknown cross-currents of pressure that the college is responding to. It's not out of character for a university to make terrible, craven decisions, of course -- but it's a little out of character for a university to make terrible, brave decisions, which makes me think that there must be some point of leverage on the administration that they are succumbing to. Again, the prospect that these cross-currents exist doesn't at all excuse the college's actions here. If, for example, the decision to terminate the professor was widely popular amongst Hamline students (or groups that Hamline hopes to recruit students from), it would still be the case that the college had an obligation to stand up for the right principles. But at least that would be a normal, explicable failing.

But maybe I'm overthinking it. Maybe the Hamline administrators are that ideologically committed to being thoughtlessly censorial. Or maybe there's a line of Hamline defenders I haven't seen. But as far as I can tell, virtually everyone (left right and center) is onboard with the view that Hamline fouled up. The last people to agree, it turns out, are the Hamline administrators.

1 comment:

Stentor said...

It makes me wonder whether they had some other, unrelated reason for wanting to get rid of that professor, and the Islamophobia accusation just provided a convenient excuse. But now if they back down on the Islamophobia justification, they would have to reinstate the professor, which they don't want to do for other reasons.