Hamline Faculty call on university president to resign amid dispute over art, academic freedom

Hamline University Faculty on Tuesday overwhelmingly called for college President Fayneese Miller to resign, saying they “no longer have faith” in her ability to lead the institution after administrators “mishandled” a controversy over Islamic art and academic freedom.

“It became clear that the harm that’s been done and the repair that has to be done, that new leadership is needed to move that forward,” Jim Scheibel, president of the Hamline University Faculty Council, said in an interview Tuesday.

Miller had not responded to requests for comment by Tuesday evening. In an interview Monday, Miller said the incident has been painful and uncomfortable and described it as “a learning experience.”

The call for Miller’s resignation comes at a tense time for the St. Paul private university, which drew international attention after it decided not to renew the contract for an art instructor who showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in class.

During an online art class in October, Adjunct instructor Erika López Prater showed students two centuries-old artworks that depicted the prophet receiving a Revelation from the Angel Gabriel that would later form the basis for the Qur’an.

One student in her class, Aram Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Student Association, contacted administrators and told them she was offended and the instructor’s “trigger warning” was proof she shouldn’t have shown the images. Some Muslims believe images of the Prophet Muhammad are strictly prohibited while others have artwork of him in their homes.

Fellow instructors and groups promoting academic freedom largely rallied around López Prater, saying she had done more than most professors to prepare students for the images and to provide them with opportunities to avoid seeing them.

Local and national Muslim groups offered differing opinions. Some said the school had to act to protect a student whose faith had been offended, while others said the university’s decision to describe the incident as Islamophobic ignored diversity within Islam.

Faculty members Troubled by Miller’s handling of the incident met multiple times to decide how they wanted to respond, Scheibel said.

Scheibel said 71 of 92 Faculty members who participated in a council meeting Tuesday approved the statement that called for Miller to resign immediately. Twelve voted against it, and another nine abstained. Scheibel said the university has about 130 faculty members in total.

The Faculty members’ statement said they affirm both academic freedom and their responsibility to provide an inclusive learning environment and “these values ​​neither contradict nor supersede each other.”

It said they reject “unfounded accusations of Islamophobia” and threats that have recently been targeting students and other community members. It calls for “due process for all Hamline community members.”

López Prater has sued Hamline for defamation, religious discrimination and breach of contract, among other things. After she filed the lawsuit, Miller and Board of Trustees Chair Ellen Watters issued a joint statement that said: “Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep.”

“In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom,” the pair wrote. “Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term ‘Islamophobic’ was therefore flawed. We strongly support academic freedom for all members of the Hamline community. We also believe that academic freedom and support for students can and should co-exist.”

Miller took the job as Hamline’s president in 2015 after serving as the Dean of the college of education and social services at the University of Vermont. Before that, she spent decades working at Brown University, where she served as director for the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

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