The Death of Academic Freedom at Hamline University

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 1/8

The university is supposed to be a haven for truth-seekers. It should offer students the opportunity to deepen their knowledge and test their ideas alongside thoughtful peers and experienced scholars. Over the past several decades, however, a rival theory of higher education has arisen in the American academy: the university exists not to pursue truth but instead to enact a radical form of social justice. In the name of diversity, university administrators now silence all but the most progressive voices, dismissing any disagreement with their ideological agenda as hate speech.

Conservative faculty have faced the brunt of the persecution from the ideologues who now run America’s universities. But the threat to intellectual freedom cuts across party lines. Instructors don’t have to express a right-wing opinion to risk losing their jobs—apparently, simply teaching the subject matter assigned to them is enough on its own.

Dr. Erika López Prater learned this the hard way. Until last month, Dr. López Prater was an adjunct professor at Hamline University, where she taught an online course on global art history. López Prater warned students on the course syllabus that images of religious figures, including the Prophet Muhammad, would be shown in class, and she instructed any students whose religious views prohibited them from viewing such images to contact her. Even though no students did so, when it came time for the discussion of a 14th-century painting of Muhammad, López Prater gave students another warning several minutes before displaying the image.

In other words, López Prater did everything she could to accommodate the small minority of students to whom the image could be offensive—but it still wasn’t enough. A student in the class complained to the Hamline administration, and other Muslim students who were not in the course quickly signed on to the complaint. Just a few weeks later, Hamline University ended its contract with Dr. López Prater.

The saga doesn’t end there. Shortly after ending the contract, the university’s vice president for “inclusive excellence” sent an email to all university employees calling López Prater’s actions “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” The university proceeded to arrange an open forum on Islamophobia in which a speaker declared that showing the image had “absolutely no benefit” to students and should only occur in settings such as a public library. When a religion professor pointed out that the Islamic community itself was divided on the issue, he was quickly told by university administrators that it was “not the time” to raise concerns.

Hamline made it clear that only one view of the controversy was acceptable—and thanks to López Prater’s example, it didn’t have to spell out the consequences of resisting. Advocates of academic freedom on both the Left and the Right have decried the university for its treatment of López Prater, but university administrators have only doubled down on their position. University President Fayneese S. Miller stated that “it was important that our Muslim students … feel safe, supported and respected” and that this respect “should have superseded academic freedom.”

And so marks the not-so-quiet death of academic freedom at yet another American institution of higher education. Dr. López Prater did everything she could to foster a respectful discussion on an important piece of art—and yet it still only took a single student complaint for her to lose her job. In a world where “inclusive excellence” is valued above academic excellence, we should expect nothing else.

With that, allow me to end this week’s CounterCurrent on a more personal note. This will, sadly, be my last time writing to you in these pages, as I will be moving on from my position at the National Association of Scholars at the end of the week. I have accepted a position as the director of engagement and development for the Davenant Institute, where I will continue to work on alternatives to traditional higher education for those seeking something deeper. Though I am excited for this new opportunity, I am truly sad to be leaving NAS—it has been an honor to write to you all each week and to work alongside such wonderful colleagues.

Keep fighting the good fight, CounterCurrent readers. And never fear—CounterCurrent will be in the trusty hands of NAS Director of Communications Chance Layton until further notice.

Until we meet again.

P. S. NAS Senior Research Associate Neetu Arnold was on the Chris Spangle Show last week to discuss the student debt crisis. Click here to watch the video recording.

Also, be sure to read John Sailer’s article at The Free Press on how American universities’ obsession with diversity, equity, and inclusion threatens to supplant the pursuit of truth in higher education.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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