Looking at Hamline in the mirror

If you’ve followed the controversy at Hamline University (located in St. Paul, Minnesota) in recent months with BYU in the back of your mind, you might have felt a degree of familiarity.

Let me point out at the outset that I like Hamline. Once when I was desperately looking for my next job, they invited me to campus for an interview and I came away favorably impressed. The search committee, less so. In my defense, I was still recovering from the kind of flu that leaves basic biological and cognitive subsystems discombobulated, and I couldn’t sleep the night before the interview. More importantly, the other candidate was a much better fit for the position than I was.

If you haven’t been following the controversy – first brought to national attention by Newlines Magazine  – the basic facts are that an adjunct professor of art history told the students in her online Islamic art history course last fall that she was about to show 14th and 16th-century Persian depictions of Muhammad, but she would understand if any student chose not to view them; she then showed the images. A student, also president of Hamline’s Muslim Students Association, viewed the images but later complained that showing them in class amounted to Islamophobia, a charge that was repeated in the student newspaper. Rather than calming the situation, the adults in charge fanned the flames. The adjunct instructor was non-rehired for the spring semester. An associate vice president called the showing of Islamic depictions of Muhammad in an Islamic art course “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” The university president sent out an e-mail stating that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom,” and later released another statement questioning the good faith of her critics. PEN, CAIR, and other organizations weighed in, the Hamline faculty have called on the president to resign, and a lawsuit has been filed.

For people with connections to BYU, it’s an instructive case for several reasons.

  • Hiring and firing decisions that cause controversy really aren’t unique to BYU. Your indignant conviction that something-or-other would never happen at any other school is probably wrong.
  • You may not like the message, but BYU has capable communicators. For truly bad university communications, you have to look elsewhere.
  • Adjuncts come and go. Such is our lot in life. Not rehiring one of us can have low stakes and zero consequences – unless you announce that the reason for the non-rehiring was how we teach our disciplines in our classrooms. In that case, prepare to talk to the national media.

But beyond those surface-level reactions, what has surprised me most is how easy it is to sympathize with people on all sides of the controversy. By training, disposition and guild solidarity, I should take the adjunct professor’s position – and to be clear, I do; she only did exactly what she should have done as a teacher – but I think I understand where the students and administrators are coming from.

It’s impossible to spend much time in academia without wandering into a real or virtual conversation in which respectable academics suggest, directly or indirectly, knowingly or in ignorance, that Mormons are not part of the club: our absence is either assumed, or would be welcomed. It’s far from a majority view, but it’s an acceptable view. You can say, out loud, that you wouldn’t want to have a Mormon advisee or colleague, and few would think twice about it. Now imagine how much more difficult it must be to be young, female, Black, Muslim, and a member of an immigrant community. No matter how many people of good intention there are, the signals that seem to say You don’t belong here will be much more common. Even if ultimately a professor of Islamic art has to be able to show and discuss Islamic depictions of Muhammad in class, it’s understandable how a Muslim student might see it as one more sign that Muslims aren’t welcome.

That’s why it’s critical to have responsible leaders who can say: We respect you and welcome you in our community, but responsible academic inquiry has to be able to engage in teaching and research according to academic standards. The administrators at Hamline failed in that task.

Yet I can sympathize with them as well. What struck me about my visit to Hamline was its deep and persistent commitment to social justice. It wasn’t just decorative. My first meeting on campus was with a job search ombudsman to whom I could report any concerns I had without negatively affecting my chance of being hired, something I never saw at any other on-campus interview. From what I could see in one day, Hamline lives according to its values.

Academic freedom isn’t the only good or the greatest good, and it’s healthier for the American university system to include a broad range of institutions representing a variety of values and commitments. That also means that an institution might find its various commitments clashing in uncomfortable ways. Institutional leaders may have to strike a difficult balance, and they won’t always get it right (and in this case they got it badly wrong). But the ongoing struggle and imperfect outcomes are an unavoidable cost of creating spaces in higher education where as many people as possible can find a home.

4 comments for “Looking at Hamline in the mirror

  1. You kind of beat me to this Jonathan. For some time I had an idea for a post that was something along the lines of “the left doesn’t exactly have a lot of moral authority on the issue of freedom of speech or diversity of thought at universities right now,” but it never got much further than the title.

  2. You can tell just how low-status adjunct faculty are when a university would rather fire them than stand up to activist undergrads. But to be fair, activist undergrads have always been kind of scary (well, not at BYU). I remember those days: seeing everything in black and white, being absolutely certain I was right, and judging harshly anyone who disagreed. Of course I was a missionary for most of that period, for better or worse.

    FWIW, I think I first read about this situation at Slate, and the thrust of the article was “This was wrong and we lefties need to speak out against it.” I don’t identify as a lefty (not that I’ve voted for a Republican in this century), but I’ll speak out against it. Do the students involved think it will always be them deciding what speech by other people is unacceptable? Once they leave the university, they’re going to find they’re not always the ones in power. (And they really shouldn’t have the power they do now anyway.)

    I’ve got “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Lukianhoff and Haidt on my future reading list because the three “great untruths” they identify as the root of the problem seem like plausible explanations to me: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people.” (That and because “The Righteous Mind” is a great book.) Another problem is universities thinking of undergrads as customers rather than students.

    Unfortunately, the desire to suppress the speech of those we disagree with is not limited to the left or to universities (see Florida). And I’m much more worried when it’s the force of law and government being used to do it, not just social pressure. The religious right now seems convinced that young people (at least) will be convinced by the ideas of the left if they are exposed to the ideas of the left, and thus are fighting to prevent that exposure. (I can see why they think that.) Contrast that to the Church’s approach, which has been to become more open about history or doctrine that can create faith crises. But we not only believe our doctrine, we believe the Holy Ghost will testify of it, and that makes a difference.

  3. I’m kinda lost as to the point of this post. Is it that “sometimes other colleges suck too, so therefore we should cut BYU some slack”? I mean, maybe, but to quote Seneca, it is not goodness to be better than the worst. Is it that sometimes adjuncts get treated as disposable garbage? No dispute there, but I’m of the mind that teacher exploitation is an evil that should be actively condemned, not passively resigned to. Is it that the left is sometimes hypocritical? Sure, absolutely, but again, how does that excuse the hypocrisies of the right–or of anyone else for that matter? I’m not quite clear what the take-away here is supposed to be.

  4. @ JB: Don’t mean to speak for Jonathan, but I suspect some of the point is that BYU never presumed to be a place where people can teach whatever they want vis-a-vis the Church. Secular universities supposedly hold themselves to a different standards where no area of inquiry is closed off. This post points out that the secular alternative to a religiously framed education have their own sacred cows that you have to tip toe around, but the difference is that we explicitly recognize that we have sacred cows and ideological/theological boundary maintenance; they’re not supposed to have that.

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