The president of Hamline University, who received harsh criticism for how she handled an adjunct professor who used images of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history lesson, announced her retirement from the university on Monday, citing health reasons.
President Fayneese S. Miller of the Minnesota University first supported the administration’s decision not to rehire the professor who had showed students photographs of the Prophet Muhammad despite having previously given them warnings, sparking a discussion on free speech and Islamophobia.
Although many Muslims believe that depictions of Muhammad are forbidden because they could lead to idolatry, other Muslims hold other opinions. On Monday, the administration informed the campus that Dr. Miller would be resigning, but made no mention of the controversy in the email.
Ellen Watters, head of the university’s board of trustees, wrote a message in which she praised Dr. Miller as an “innovative and transformational” leader who has expertly guided the institution through a period of transition while keeping students’ needs front and center.
She remarked, “Hamline is forever grateful for Dr. Miller’s tireless and dedicated service,” The institution will look far and wide for a suitable replacement. The administration’s decision not to renew Dr. Erika López Prater’s contract last winter was publicly and harshly criticized, and the professor subsequently filed a lawsuit.
While the university did finally reverse course, many faculty members felt the damage had already been done to the institution’s reputation. Full-time faculty members at the university voted overwhelmingly in January to back a declaration declaring that they “no longer have faith in President Miller’s ability to lead the university forward.”
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Seventy-one faculty members supported the statement, while 12 opposed it and nine didn’t take a stand; the statement said that the administration’s handling of the Muhammad controversy had “severe harm” on the university. The university employs 116 professors full-time.
“We affirm both academic freedom and our responsibility to foster an inclusive learning community,” the statement said. “Importantly, these values neither contradict nor supersede each other.”
Dr. Miller’s retirement marks the end of a contentious presidency marked by student protests and declining enrollment (a problem shared by many other small private liberal arts institutions), as well as successes like increasing the percentage of students of color at the university and creating greater support for these students.
For her seeming capitulation to student activists’ demands during the Muhammad dispute, she received harsh criticism. Dr. Miller, the university’s first Black president, was also a focus of students’ anger because she ignored the demands of activists.
In 2019, a video surfaced of four white student-athletes lip-syncing to a hot song that contained a racial slur. The pupils in the video have been demanding that she take action against her. Dr. Miller flatly declined, explaining that he saw this as an opportunity to teach.
She remarked that her reaction would have been different if the pupils had aimed the phrase at someone else.When she offered to a group of student leaders last fall that they pay money to the university while they were students, students protested. They felt the remarks showed a lack of empathy for their financial hardships.
Dr. Miller is an expert in the field of teenage psychology and social development. She taught for 20 years at Brown University, where she established the field of ethnic studies and served as its first chair. At the University of Vermont, she held the position of dean.
Yet how she handled the backlash to the Muhammad cartoons could be the defining moment of her presidency. Dr. López Prater was told her services would no longer be needed in the spring after a complaint from an observant Muslim student in the class. Emails obtained by the media show that managers tried to quell what they saw as a potential nationwide uproar.
A high-ranking official wrote in an email to the community that the professor’s behavior was clearly Islamophobic. Sensitivity to the Muslim students in the class should have “superseded” academic freedom, according to a statement signed by Dr. Miller and David Everett, the vice president for inclusive excellence. At a town hall, administrators heard from a speaker who likened exposing the photographs to promoting the idea that Hitler was a decent person.
But if officials were hoping to keep this from making national news, they were mistaken. Dr. López Prater also rallied public opinion in his favor. Christiane Gruber, an Islamic art historian at the University of Michigan, was contacted for support. Gruber defended her in an essay published in New Lines Magazine and organized a petition calling for an investigation by the board of directors.
Hamline, a private liberal arts college with over 1,800 undergraduates, came under fire from free-speech advocates and academic freedom advocates for what they saw as an egregious infringement on academic freedom. Islamic art experts have testified that Dr. López Prater’s examples are commonly given in art classes, often without any means for students to opt out.
Dr. López Prater’s actions were not Islamophobic, according to Muslims and Muslim advocacy groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Ultimately, the institution issued a statement rescinding its most contentious claims, including that Dr. López Prater’s conduct was Islamophobic. The statement was signed by both Dr. Miller and the university’s board chair, Ms. Watters.
“Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep,” the statement said. “In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom. Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term ‘Islamophobic’ was therefore flawed.”
The statement added, “It was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students — care does not ‘supersede’ academic freedom, the two coexist.” Dr. López Prater filed a lawsuit against the university’s board for slander and religious discrimination on the same day the university issued its statement.
The case, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, claims that Dr. López Prater’s professional reputation and employment opportunities have suffered as a result of Hamline’s conduct and that she has lost revenue from her adjunct position as a result.