The painting that appears to be at the center of the controversy (from Rashid al-Din Tabib, Jami’ al-Tawarikh, in the University of Edinburgh Library / reason.com).
Hamline University is a small institution of higher education located in Saint Paul, Minnesota, affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Its Latin motto translates as “Divinity, Writing, Liberty,” though we might wonder about the “Liberty” part. In any event, I doubt that many of my readers would have heard of this obscure private university if not for its involvement in an ongoing fray over academic freedom. I for one had never heard of it.
Hamline obtained international notoriety at the end of 2022 when it declined to renew the contract of an adjunct teacher of art history because she’d displayed a fourteenth-century illustration of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The illustration concerned is said to be a masterpiece of Islamic art and was part of a work commissioned by a Sunni Muslim ruler in what is now Iran. The incident took place during a class on Islamic art in which the teacher explained an optional exercise in visual analysis. She established the purpose and context of her decision to show a slide of the illustration and gave any students who might be offended an opportunity to avoid viewing this particular slide. Subsequently, a Muslim student from the class complained to the university’s administration, which responded by deciding not to renew the teacher’s contract.
Despite the teacher’s efforts to accommodate the sensibilities of Muslim students, the administration saw fit to brand her actions as “inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic.” Hamline administrators have claimed that an imperative of respect for Muslim students trumps academic freedom and have emphasized that the latter does not operate in a social vacuum.
It seems that the teacher was not technically fired. As far as I can work out, she was simply not given a further contract after her existing one expired—although she probably had a legitimate expectation that it would be renewed. I don’t know anything about the specific system of employment law in Minnesota, but in some jurisdictions this distinction could affect her legal rights. Be that as it may, the university might have decided for academic or financial reasons not to go ahead with teaching the same course in 2023. Alternatively, it might have decided to employ someone else whom it genuinely considered more qualified. Either way, there would be no blatant violation of anyone’s academic freedom even if the decision could be criticized on other grounds.
However, Hamline has not offered anything like this as a rationale or pretext for its decision. It has been candid—indeed, it has been publicly assertive—about removing this teacher from its community of scholars in response to her pedagogical decision to show the Muhammad illustration. As I write in January 2023, Hamline’s president and administration show no sign of backing down, and I only hope that the teacher concerned finds acceptable employment elsewhere.
Meanwhile, this entire episode highlights the importance of academic freedom precisely because it does not exist in a social vacuum. In every generation, scientists and scholars are pressured to conform to the expectations of moralists, ideologues, politicians, religious dogmatists, and sometimes even each other and to avoid teaching certain ideas or researching certain topics. For example, these pressures have come from religious apologists opposed to Darwinian evolutionary theory, captains of industry opposed to critiques of economic laissez-faire, wartime political leaders attempting to stifle pacifist ideas, traditional moralists who’ve resisted changing attitudes toward sexual desires and behavior, Cold War hardliners carrying out anti-communist witch hunts, and sometimes academic colleagues attempting to impose ideological orthodoxies on each other. In each historical case, academic freedom did not exist in a vacuum, but it was needed precisely because many people in the social circumstances of their time viewed their own particular concerns as urgent and exceptional and as trumping any liberty of academic inquiry, discussion, and instruction.
It’s easy enough to understand this when we contemplate episodes from earlier eras. It’s much harder when academic freedom comes up against contemporary concerns from one direction or another, some of which we might share. We’re each tempted to view our particular concern(s) as all-important and overriding. But previous eras’ opponents of academic freedom thought in the same way about their sensitive issues. This is precisely why university administrators must be individuals with a strong loyalty to academic freedom itself, superseding any personal adherence to positions on the topical questions of the day. Hamline University is evidently not blessed with administrators who share that loyalty to the academy’s core values.
At Hamline University, the issue is partly that some Muslim students perceive showing an image of Muhammad as insensitive and “Islamophobic,” although some Muslim organizations and scholars have also commented that objecting to images of Muhammad has historically been an extreme conservative position within Islam. In many circles, there is now an imperative to avoid at all costs anything that could even remotely be construed as Islamophobia. In fact, far from being motivated by any animus toward Muslims or Islam itself, the teacher seems to have gone out of her way to be caring and accommodate the religious sensibilities of Muslim students. But even this was considered insufficient by administrators.
More broadly, this is yet another example of the tyranny of the sensitive. We are now expected to walk on eggshells in case someone takes offense, for one reason or another, at our ideas or expression or at our honest and nonviolent actions. We’re encouraged to view the people around us as psychologically fragile and susceptible to all sorts of “harms” that we might inflict on them while peacefully carrying out our professions and living our lives. As a result, we’re training each other to cultivate and model exactly this sort of fragility. This development is a threat not only to academic freedom but to freedom itself.
Hamline University is a small institution of higher education located in Saint Paul, Minnesota, affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Its Latin motto translates as “Divinity, Writing, Liberty,” though we might wonder about the “Liberty” part. In any event, I doubt that many of my readers would have heard of this obscure private university if …