In November, an adjunct art history instructor at Hamline University, a private liberal arts college in Minnesota, was fired. The month before, during an online lecture on Islamic art in the instructor’s survey of art history, she displayed depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, which are strictly forbidden for many practicing Muslims.
While Hamline decided that the classroom exercise constituted a fireable Islamophobic offense, the images—dedicated paintings of Muhammad produced by Muslim artists in the 14th and 16th centuries, respectively—were brought into an educational context with careful attention to the sensibilities of the content.
Taken together, the termination represents an administrative intrusion on the instructor’s academic freedom—ostensibly in the name of promoting the best educational environment for students—and exemplifies the uncertainty endemic to a higher education system ever dependent on casual casual labor.
The day after the lecture, an observant Muslim student who took issue with the images reached out to Hamline’s administration to share her grievances. The professor apologized to the student by email the next day. Nevertheless, the matter escalated, and on November 7, Hamline’s Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence (AVPIE), Dr. David Everett, circulated an email to the Hamline community calling the lecture “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”
In an essay published in New Lines Magazine on December 22, Christiane Gruber, a historian of Islamic art at the University of Michigan who has extensively researched figurative representations of the Prophet, disputed the APVIE’s description. Describing the images at issue as common material among “Islamic art history classes at universities around the world,” Gruber argued that Hamline was the products of a rich historical “corpus of Islamic depictions of Muhammad, along with their teaching, wrongly labeled.” as Islamophobic.
Hamline professor and chairman of the Department of Religion, Dr. Mark Berkson, defended the instructor’s academic freedom on similar grounds to Gruber in a Dec. 6 letter to the editor of The Oracle, Hamline’s student-run newspaper. But the letter was removed by the paper’s staff soon after, due to concerns that its presence on the website allegedly “further[ed] harm to members of our community.”
Berkson provided a copy of the letter to The Daily Beast. Such images of the Prophet, it says, “are part of the historical record, and an academic art historian teaching Islamic art must somehow acknowledge and discuss them” so that students are “deprived of an enlightening part of Islamic art history…”
If the act of displaying an image of Muhammad was Islamophobic, he wrote, “anyone who displayed these images in a classroom, a book or on their wall” – including academics as well as the Muslim artists and scholars who have historically “created” and enjoy” such images—will be Islamophobic. Such a standard, requiring an “extinction of an entire genre of Islamic art” and subject of study, would have dire implications “for a liberal arts institution.”
In another school-wide email, Hamline’s president and the AVPIE wrote that they do not believe that “the indefensible” or “offensive material” should be “removed from our classrooms and not shared with students,” until they added the caveat: “but how we teach it, and how we share images and content, matters.”
It neglects certain pertinent facts – such as the instructor taking numerous measures to accommodate the religious beliefs of her students.
Before showing the image, the professor explained the purpose of the exercise: “I’m showing you this image for a reason,” she is quoted as saying in The Oracle as said before. “And it is that there is a general thinking that Islam completely forbids any figurative depictions or any depictions of holy personages. While many Islamic cultures strongly frown upon this practice, I want to remind you that there is no one, monotheistic Islamic culture.”
The images were preceded in the lecture with a two-minute introduction and content warning – and were also mentioned in the course syllabus. In her email apologizing to the offended student, the instructor recalled giving religion students “an ‘out'” by offering time to turn off the video component of the online lecture – after which she claims she “described each subsequent slide … with language” to indicate when I no longer showed an image of the Prophet Muhammad.”
Nevertheless, on November 11, the AVPIE said The Oracle that Hamline’s administration “decided it was best” that the instructor “was no longer a part of the Hamline community.”
Berkson told The Daily Beast that, throughout the affair (from the time the AVPIE referred to the lecture as “undeniably … Islamophobic” to The Oracle interview confirming that the professor was let go), there was “no communication whatsoever” with the instructor.
Hamline University did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Free-speech advocacy organizations FIRE and PEN America issued statements, respectively, referring to the firing as “unacceptable at a university committed to academic freedom” and possibly “one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory.” “
Both organizations called for the instructor to be reinstated, and on Dec. 24, Gruber posted a petition online asking Hamline’s Board of Trustees to “conduct an independent, outside investigation into this series of events…” Still, the damage already done, as such an event inevitably creates a chilling effect on the academic freedom of all instructors covering topics which may offend students’ religious beliefs.
In this case, it may be tempting to point fingers at Hamline students. Certainly there were missteps on their part (of which the student newspaper’s censorship of the only alternative perspective to that of the administration, at the time, is perhaps the most egregious example).
However, as Berkson clarified to The Daily Beast, “I don’t think that the blame should be placed on the students or the faculty member. I just think the administration should have handled it better.” For one, the incident “didn’t happen in a vacuum,” as the offended Muslim students experienced real Islamophobia in their lives.
Additionally, Berkson emphasized that students from religious backgrounds who have not studied religion academically may be unaware of “all the theology, the art, the law” within their own tradition. Before it spiraled out of control, therefore, the controversy could have provided an opportunity to educate—if, for example, it had led to a productive dialogue with “learned voices” present, facilitated by Hamline.
Instead, the administration took an unfortunate and escalating direction. So, rather than overfocusing on the students’ behavior, perhaps scrutiny should be directed primarily at Hamline’s administration, as well as broader trends in higher education that created the conditions for such an incident.
After all, this fiasco has unfolded within an industry that has seen the evaporation of tenured jobs and a major shift toward convenience—all while tuition costs balloon, in no small part to accommodate schools’ ever-expanding administrative bureaucracy.
The fired art teacher belonged to what has become a precarious majority in academia: adjunct instructors, hired on contingent contracts that can be terminated at the whim of their employers. Against this growing group, increasingly top-down administrative apparatuses have arisen, too often consisting of officials far removed from the classroom, who nevertheless enjoy great (unilateral, in this case) authority over them.
The instructor’s adjunct status gave Hamline’s administration the ability to infringe on her freedom to teach, unilaterally denying her due process amid an unceremonious dismissal—a testament to the fact that academic freedom and academics’ job security are inextricably linked. Adjuncts’ dispensability hinders their freedom to raise controversial subjects in their classrooms.
The Hamline affair will inevitably prick up the ears of all manner of reactionaries, including where Islamophobe. Contrary to what you may hear from these alarmists, what happened at Hamline does not represent sharia law coming to American universities.
This kind of story — in which administrators, illiterate in the relevant scholarship, can smear and terminate an adjunct, betraying their institution’s professed commitment to academic freedom — is simply one to be expected from our deeply casual academia.