Dispute over art, academic freedom is a painful ‘learning experience’

Dispute over art, academic freedom is a painful ‘learning experience’
Dispute over art, academic freedom is a painful ‘learning experience’

Hamline University President Fayneese Miller doesn’t mince words when describing the past few weeks at the center of an intense debate over Islamic art and academic freedom.

Invoking lines from the poem ‘Invictus’, she says: “Here in Hamline we may be a little bloody, but we are not inclined.”

The episode was painful. And, she said, it’s been “a learning experience” — one that she hopes other colleges and universities across the country will learn from as well.

The university’s decision not to renew the contract of an art professor who showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in class has drawn international attention to the private school in St. Paul. He also renewed an emotional debate over Miller’s leadership.

In a letter to the board earlier this month, dozens of faculty members lamented what they described as “continuing failures” and “systemic dysfunctions” in recent years.

“In the absence of effective, functional and strategic leadership, we are gravely concerned about the future of Hamline University,” they wrote.

Others involved in the response have suggested that Miller – the university’s first black president – ​​is being unfairly targeted for her race and for the changes she has made to help the campus overcome financial challenges and declining salaries. registrations.

“His whole tenure thus far has been about making tough decisions,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “… This fight that existed before this incident is inflamed, partially, this fight.”

Speaking in her office on Monday morning, Miller said: “Knowing that people don’t understand who we are as an institution, who I am as president and how I lead has been sad. I will be honest with you.”

Career studying race, ethnicity

Miller became the second female president of Hamline University in 2015, after spending decades working in academia. She said her approach to leadership has been informed by multiple life experiences.

Miller grew up in Danville, Virginia, at a time when segregation was still widespread. Dominant narratives at the time said black people were less intelligent and had lower self-esteem than white people, and Miller – the child of two civil rights activists – was determined to break those stereotypes.

So she studied social psychology. Miller spent about 20 years at Brown University, where she helped found an ethnic studies program and served as director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

Among his students was Suzanne Rivera, who is now president of nearby Macalester College.

“She is a mentor and role model to many university leaders, and especially to university presidents like myself who belong to groups historically excluded from higher education,” Rivera said in a statement. “I know she is a person of great intelligence with a deep concern for others and unquestionable integrity.”

Miller was working at the University of Vermont as dean of the college of education and human services when Hamline approached her to become its president. She succeeded Linda Hanson, who had served as the university’s first female president.

Several years before Miller became president, the university was operating in the red, according to public tax returns.

More recent filings from 2016 to 2019 showed that each year the university brought in more money than it spent — although the amount ranged from around $740,000 to almost $11 million. During this period, the number of students has increased from about 4,500 to 3,400 and the number of employees has increased from 2,324 to 2,009. The university has not yet released the documents for 2020 and 2021.

Miller said the university merged some programs that had overlapping students or programs — and those decisions were made by program faculty members. But some faculty members have expressed concerns — ones they have repeated in recent weeks.

Furor revives the leadership debate

In October, Miller received an email from Aram Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Student Association, who was concerned about an instructor’s decision to show centuries-old artwork depicting the Prophet Muhammad in the classroom.

Wedatalla said in a previous interview that Miller “met with me the same day and apologized in person.” After that, she said, administrators regularly approached the association to make sure members felt safe and offer them resources.

Meanwhile, supporters of assistant art teacher Erika López Prater have accused the university of denying her due process before deciding not to renew her contract for the spring semester.

National organizations promoting academic freedom and free speech denounced the university’s decision, saying they feared it would have a chilling effect on scholars who teach controversial subjects. One, the American Association of University Teachers, has pledged to investigate. Some of these groups noted that there is diversity in Islam and said that López Prater did more than most instructors to prepare his students for the artwork. While some Muslims believe images of the Prophet Muhammad are strictly prohibited, others have images of him in their homes.

Among those weighing in was Hanson. In a letter submitted to the Star Tribune, she called on the university to reinstate López Prater “and use this incident as an opportunity for discussion, student learning, and support for academic freedom in Hamline classrooms.” Messages left for Hanson were not returned.

Meanwhile, more than three dozen faculty members wrote to administrators raising concerns about university administrators, but stopped naming Miller specifically.

They accused university administrators of being slow to act on past concerns of discrimination and of overcompensating now. They said instructors need more support and resources “to ensure we are able to implement and achieve our teaching and learning goals.” They said the communication and implementation of university policies has been inconsistent and ineffective.

“This recent crisis more visibly reveals underlying issues that need to be addressed,” the group wrote.

Board chair Ellen Watters declined an interview request. After the letter, she wrote a joint statement with Miller that acknowledged “sometimes we get it wrong.”

Miller declined to comment on the incident citing ongoing litigation. López Prater sued Hamline for defamation, religious discrimination, and breach of contract, among other charges.

But Miller is clear that she doesn’t think this incident will jeopardize the future of the university. She acknowledges that people are hurting now and many are uncomfortable.

“But it’s normal for us to feel the pain, because the pain will eventually go away,” Miller said. “There is always a way forward.”

. dispute over art freedom academic is a learning experience painful

. Dispute art academic freedom painful learning experience

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