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Hamline Agonistes | Inside Higher Ed


As a longtime chief academic officer, and longtime academic blogger, the case of the adjunct at Hamline who was non-renewed for showing a painting with the prophet Muhammad in it struck several nerves.  The “tl:dr” version is that the university messed up.  Here I’ll address how that may have happened, and offer a face-saving escape route for the university to make this go away without admitting that it messed up.  


I’ll look at it as a longtime academic vp.  What if a similar incident happened on my campus?


Facts matter.  There’s some dispute as to whether the painting was shown after a trigger warning; to my mind, that makes a difference.  It also makes a difference that the painting in question is a recognized classic of long standing.  Apparently the professor also offered students who might be offended the opportunity to skip that lecture without penalty.  All of those shed light on what she was trying to do.


I spent years teaching courses in the history of political philosophy.  Those courses included primary texts written in different times, reflecting very different assumptions about what’s acceptable.  I’ve taught Edmund Burke, the patron saint of modern conservatism, and Karl Marx, who needs little introduction.  Aristotle and Rosa Luxemburg had some starkly different ideas about women, but both made it into my classes.  The point was to have students explore different ways of looking at the world over time.  Every thinker we read was “serious” in the sense of having been taken seriously by large numbers of people.  Or, if you prefer, there was something to offend nearly everyone.  


If colleges start caving to anyone who claims to be offended, where does it end?  If a student from a very conservative Christian background objects to the biology department’s teaching of evolution, should I fire the biology department?  If an avowed leftist objects to the econ department’s views on income distribution, should I fire the econ department?  


In the case of the political philosophy classes, I didn’t see my job as converting students to my own point of view.  It was about encouraging them to grapple with points of view that might have struck them initially as bizarre, so they could start to understand how different people view important questions.  Sometimes they’ll view questions in ways that will enrage you.  If you want to censor them for that, though, my question to you is what makes you so special.


In the case of the Hamline instructor, it’s clear that she wasn’t trying to make some sort of point about the superiority of one religion as against another.  She was trying to place a classic in context, so students could understand both its significance and its limitations.  That’s exactly what college professors are supposed to do.  


In trying to figure out what Hamline’s leadership was doing, I’ve come up with a few possibilities.  These are based on my fifteen years as a chief academic officer at two different colleges.


First, it may simply be trying to keep paying customers happy.  The twin cities area, where Hamline is, has a large Muslim population.  I could see the short-term calculation in trying not to upset the local Muslim community.  The professor is an adjunct, so the university can claim that she wasn’t “fired,” she was just “non-renewed.”  For all practical purposes, they’re the same thing, but the legal fiction serves a purpose.  If Hamline is facing enrollment-driven financial issues – I don’t know if it is, but it’s at least plausible – then I could see defaulting to the assumption that the customer is always right.  It’s not a good idea, but I can see how it could get there.


Second, the university may have equated showing the painting with using a racial slur in class.  If that’s true, then I can give partial credit for at least trying to look at some higher principle.  There too, though, there’s a meaningful difference between a professor directing a slur at a student – obviously a termination offense – and a professor assigning a historical source document in which the slur occurs.  History is messy, and standards for ideas and language change over time.  Racism, sexism, and all manner of bias are part of the historical record; finding them objectionable doesn’t make them go away.  Confronting the issues requires, well, confronting the issues.  What the professor did here is analogous to assigning a primary text with some ugliness in it, as opposed to directing a slur at a student.  As such, it deserves protection.


Third, it may have thought in terms of groups, rather than principles.  To my mind, this is the most disturbing rationale by far.  Academe has neither guns nor money; what it has is moral force.  Lose that, and it has nothing at all.  The language in the president’s public statement – the university is “under attack from forces outside our campus” – suggests a siege mentality in which group loyalty can easily trump principle.  (I’d also like a definition of “forces” as the word is used here.  It’s a revealing choice.)  Attacking a bad decision is not attacking an institution; if anything, it’s defending the institution against an impulsive mistake.  This would be an excellent time for the leadership to rediscover principle.


To be fair, Hamline’s position may be a blend of all three of those ideas.  Knee-jerk group solidarity combined with a bad metaphor and fear of alienating a community could add up to a bad decision, especially if it’s made quickly.  I’ve been in rooms where similar conversations have happened, and have had to go out of my way to prevent similar mistakes.


One of the hardest tasks for a leader is to address a mistake.  Some people have it in them to step up, own it, and apologize.  Some just don’t, though.  If that’s the case here, but they don’t want to go down with the ship, I’d suggest a face-saving escape: after a VERY short “investigation,” announce that new facts have surfaced that place the incident in a new light.  In light of the new evidence, reverse course.  Yes, it would lead to an awkward moment, but nowhere near as awkward as possible loss of accreditation for failure to protect academic freedom.


I’ve been on the receiving end of complaints from aggrieved students and community members about the perceived political bias of faculty members.  It happens.  You have to take the long view; if I cave to this one, what about the next one, and the next one after that?  You need principles that matter.  Without them, the battles will never end.  There will always be another complaint.


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