The Academic Freedom Alliance released a statement regarding the decision of Hamline University to fire an instructor for showing a class in global art history a picture of a medieval Persian painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad. This is an appalling violation of academic freedom.
The painting in question is widely regarded as an important work of art in the Persian and Islamic traditions, and it is regularly exhibited and taught in classrooms across the globe. A video of the class session reportedly indicates that the professor took care to give a “content warning” and provide necessary context before the image was shown to the class. The class itself was apparently virtual, and the instructor gave students an opportunity to turn off their own video feed to avoid viewing the image.
Some students in the class complained that they felt disrespected by the showing of an image of Muhammad which some devout Muslims regard as unacceptable. The associate vice president for inclusive excellence denounced the instructor’s actions as “inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic” and “unacceptable” in a Hamline classroom. The president then announced to the campus community that academic freedom “should not and cannot be used to excuse away behavior that harms others.” The putatively harmful behavior in this context was showing to students in a college class a famous work of Islamic art. Nonetheless, the president concluded that “respect, decency, and appreciation of religious and other differences should supersede” academic freedom.
This is an egregious affront to academic freedom, as both PEN America and FIRE have likewise recognized. The incident first came to public view as a result of an online article by University of Michigan art professor Christiane Gruber.
Hamline University has made a contractual commitment to its faculty to respect and protect their academic freedom. The Hamline University Faculty Handbook as approved by the Board of Trustees in 2021 is clear. Hamline adopted without reservation the 1940 statement on academic freedom endorsed by the American Association of University Professors and the American Association of Colleges. Section 3.1.2 of the Handbook guarantees that “all faculty members are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” The guarantee extends to every individual at Hamline who is working in an instructional capacity regardless of whether they enjoy the protections of tenure. There is simply no question that introducing students to an important piece of Islamic art in a global art history class is covered by this principle of academic freedom. Hamline’s own stated commitment to academic freedom is unqualified. There is no exception for students who feel offended or disrespected by materials they encounter in the course of their college education.
In your message to campus, you noted that “Hamline University is composed of people with diverse views, expectations, and interactions.” Indeed it is, but the implication that you apparently have drawn from this fact is untenable. Art frequently offends. It was not long ago that Catholics were deeply offended by the exhibition of Andres Serrano’s “Immersion (Piss Christ)” and Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which portrayed the Virgin Mary with pornographic images and elephant dung. Prosecutors once attempted to shut down a museum exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs, and censors long suppressed the distribution of classic works of twentieth century literature like D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Only months ago, the celebrated novelist Salman Rushdie was nearly killed in a violent assault stemming from a religious extremist’s condemnation of his depiction of Muhammad. Conservative Christian students at the University of North Carolina attempted to prohibit the assignment of passages of the Quran as disrespectful of their religious beliefs, and conservative Christian students at Duke University demanded that Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun House not be assigned because “Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic.” If every student at Hamline University has the ability not only to veto offensive classroom content but to terminate professors for introducing such material into their classroom, then a vast swath of literature and art will be off-limits to the students and faculty there.