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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president sent out an e-mail stating that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom,” and later released another statement questioning the good faith of her critics.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.

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.

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