In December, Hamline University spurred outrage after the college fired an art history professor for showing a 14th-century painting of the prophet Muhammad in an Islamic art class. While the school was roundly criticized for its swift silencing of faculty academic freedom, the college is private, and thus largely protected from legal consequences.
However, one free speech group has found a way to penalize Hamline: filing a complaint with the school’s accreditor, which explicitly requires that colleges receiving accreditation protect academic freedom.
On October 6, an art history professor at Hamline University, a liberal arts college in Saint Paul, Minnesota, showed students a 14th-century painting that depicts the prophet Muhammad receiving his first Quranic revelation. The professor, who has not been named, reportedly contextualized the image for several minutes beforehand, telling students “I am showing you this image for a reason. And that is that there is this common thinking that Islam completely forbids, outright, any figurative depictions or any depictions of holy personages. While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you there is no one, monothetic Islamic culture.” According to The Oracle, Hamline’s student newspaper, the professor insisted in a later email that, “I did not try to surprise students with this image.”
However, one student in class that day—the president of Hamline’s Muslim Student Association—took offense, complaining first to the professor, and then to school administrators. According to The Oracle, the school took swift action against the professor. On November 7, undergraduate students received an email condemning the unnamed incident as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” Four days later, David Everett, Hamline’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence told The Oracle that “it was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community.” The professor was an adjunct, which is what allowed the school to fire them without due process by simply declining to renew their contract.
The incident sparked outrage from free speech advocates. The Hamline administration’s assertion that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom,” was subject to particular criticism. As Amna Khalid, a history professor at Carleton College wrote of the incident in The Chronicle of Education, “Barring a professor of art history from showing this painting, lest it harm observant Muslims in class, is just as absurd as asking a biology professor not to teach evolution because it may offend evangelical Protestants in the course.”
However, Hamline’s status as a private university seemed to afford it protection from real consequences. While organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) have long argued that it is a contractual violation for private colleges to violate free speech and academic freedom, when they also make explicit promises of such protections to prospective students and faculty, the theory is largely legally untested. However, in this case, FIRE may have found a way to hold Hamline accountable.
On January 4, FIRE announced that it had filed a formal complaint with the Higher Learning Commission, Hamline’s accreditor. The professor’s “nonrenewal violates both HLC and Hamline policies clearly committing the university to free expression and its corollary, academic freedom for all faculty,” wrote Alex Morey, FIRE’s director of campus rights advocacy, in a letter to the accreditor.
“We gave Hamline plenty of time to reverse course, but it’s clear they’re not planning to deliver on their academic freedom promises,” Morey added in a press release. “If Hamline won’t listen to free speech advocates or faculty across the country, they’ll have to listen to their accreditor.”