Follow Us

University dumps art history professor after voluntary lesson about Muslim depictions of Muhammad

Student newspaper publishes, then deletes, essay by religion department chair explaining periods in which both Sunni and Shia accepted "visual representation" of the prophet. University consulted with Muslim Student Association before nonrenewal.

Published: December 30, 2022 11:35am

Updated: January 3, 2023 10:01am

A private university in Minnesota known for its social justice roots is facing an outcry from academic and artistic freedom activists after it declined to renew the contract of a professor who showed an art history class centuries-old depictions of Muhammad to illustrate that Muslims have historically varying views on the prophet's depiction.

Hamline University, whose home page links to a land acknowledgment to the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes, did not renew the unnamed adjunct's contract after its top diversity official called the art lesson "undeniably … Islamophobic" despite letting students in the virtual class opt out of viewing the depictions.

Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence David Everett and President Fayneese Miller also confirmed they viewed the incident as a matter of academic freedom in a campus message, saying the professor nonetheless should have given precedence to "respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom."

The bulk of the relevant communications have been published by UCLA First Amendment law professor Eugene Volokh on his blog, filling in the gaps left by administrators and student newspaper The Oracle, which both initially refused to describe the Oct. 6 incident beyond "Islamophobic." 

Hamline could face trouble with its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, which requires accredited institutions to be "committed to academic freedom and freedom of expression in the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning."  Minnesota's oldest university could also fare poorly in any resulting litigation by tying a non-renewal decision so closely to one pedagogical choice. 

The state Supreme Court in neighboring Wisconsin ordered another private university to reinstate a professor in 2018, declaring Marquette's view of its contractually binding academic freedom promises a "subjective, post-hoc analysis of what the institution might find unacceptable after watching how events unfolded."

First Amendment litigation itself is unavailable given Hamline's private status. Last year an Arizona community college district paid a history professor $155,000 to preempt a lawsuit for censoring his world politics class module on "Islamic terrorism," which also referred to Muhammad, and pressuring him to apologize.

The Hamline controversy first drew national attention Dec. 22 with a blistering essay in the foreign affairs magazine New Lines. University of Michigan Islamic art history professor Christiane Gruber took issue with administrators for denying the faculty member "a public platform or forum to explain the classroom lecture and activity," and The Oracle for squelching debate on the controversy. 

Gruber also posted a petition to the Board of Trustees, signed by about 1,500 as of Friday afternoon, demanding an "independent, outside investigation" into the dismissal process. The board must also "carefully assess the current state of faculty rights at the university."

South Asian hIstory professor Amna Khalid at Minnesota's Carleton College said Hamline had "privileged a most extreme and conservative Muslim point of view" and "flattened the rich history and diversity of Islamic thought" in an essay for her newsletter. "Most of all, I am offended as a Muslim."

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression told the university Dec. 27 it had violated its academic freedom promises, which state that Hamline "embraces the examination of all ideas, some of which will potentially be unpopular and unsettling, as an integral and robust component of intellectual inquiry."

Director of Campus Rights Advocacy Alex Morey told Just the News that FIRE didn't mention the accreditation issue in its letter because it was "writing urgently to Hamline in this case, requiring a streamlined argument," and wanted to see its response first.

FIRE has a 15-year history of contention with Hamline, accusing the university in 2007 of suspending a student for advocating for concealed carry on campus, a basis it denied. Hamline allegedly didn't tell the student the nature of "concerns" brought forward by other students or identify his accusers, FIRE said then.

"If these reports are accurate, Hamline University has committed one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory," PEN America said in a press release.

The unnamed professor went above and beyond by "placing the images in historical context" and "thoughtfully exploring the history and diversity of Islamic art and thought," senior manager of free expression and education Jeremy Young wrote. Hamline committed "academic malpractice" that chills speech especially among faculty without tenure.

Both groups demanded Hamline "immediately" reinstate the faculty member.

The Oracle first referred to an unspecified "Islamophobic incident" in a Nov. 18 staff editorial but waited until Dec. 6 to flesh out the details, including the nature of the images: a "14th century depiction of the Prophet receiving his first revelation from the archangel Gabriel" by a Persian Muslim scholar, and a 16th century depiction with a veiled Muhammad that illustrated an earlier "Ottomon [sic] Turkish epic work."

The newspaper also then first disclosed its Nov. 11 interview with Everett, the diversity chief. "In lieu of this incident, it was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community," Everett said.

The Nov. 7 email to the community, posted in full by Volokh, had only described the classroom incident as "[c]ertain actions" that were "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic."

Everett's original message also disclosed that administrators had met with Muslim Student Association leadership before devising a plan that includes routing all "bias and hate" incidents, regardless of their origin, through his office. The administrators will continue meeting with MSA members "to discuss their experiences in the classroom and on campus."

The unnamed adjunct personally apologized to the MSA president who filed the complaint but also offered a robust defense in the Dec. 6 Oracle report. "My perspective and actions have been lamentably mischaracterized, my opportunities for due process have been thwarted, and Dr. Everett’s all-employee email accusation that ‘undeniably… Islamophobic’ actions undertaken in my class on Oc. 6 have been misapplied."

Also Dec. 6, The Oracle published an essay-length letter to the editor from Hamline religion department chair Mark Berkson, who said the 14th century painting was "included in a manuscript commissioned by a Sunni Muslim king in Iran."

The newspaper took it down within a few days, though the letter is archived and also reproduced by Volokh. The Dec. 6 news report, which briefly interviewed Berkson, still includes a parenthetical line with no link: "A commentary from Berkson about this topic can be read here."

"Over the past few centuries, Shia Muslims, notably in Iran, have been far more accepting of visual representation in general than many Sunnis," Berkson wrote in the letter. "But from the 13th-16th centuries, Islamic images were also made in Sunni contexts."

The painting "forms part of a cycle of illustrations narrating and commemorating Muhammad's prophecy that is considered by art historians to be 'a global artistic masterpiece,'" he said. Labeling such a display in an art history classroom as Islamophobic is "not only inaccurate but also takes our attention off of real examples of bigotry and hate."  

The Oracle told Volokh that one of its "core tenets" is "minimizing harm," and that publishing Berkson's letter explaining the painting's context had amounted to participation "in conversations where a person must defend their lived experience and trauma as topics of discussion or debate."

Hamline didn't respond to Just the News queries seeking comment.

Just the News Spotlight

Support Just the News