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Hamline president issues strong statement against academic freedom

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Before we get to Fayneese Miller’s remarkable defense of the college’s firing of Erika López Prater, we should be clear about what exactly López Prater lost her job over:

Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor at Hamline University, said she knew many Muslims have deeply held religious beliefs that prohibit depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. So last semester for a global art history class, she took many precautions before showing a 14th-century painting of Islam’s founder.

In the syllabus, she warned that images of holy figures, including the Prophet Muhammad and the Buddha, would be shown in the course. She asked students to contact her with any concerns, and she said no one did.

In class, she prepped students, telling them that in a few minutes, the painting would be displayed, in case anyone wanted to leave.

Then Dr. López Prater showed the image — and lost her teaching gig.

This is not, in other words, a marginal case in which an instructor used potentially offensive material to troll students for the sake of trolling (something I take a dim view of even in cases where it is protected by academic freedom.) López Prater provided a model of how to accommodate minority religious beliefs and present material some students might find disturbing or offensive. She provided context. Students were warned extensively in advance. They were allowed to opt out. To uphold the student’s complaint in the case and fire the instructor is to effectively give a rolling heckler’s veto to individual students, even when they themselves are not required to view material they consider offensive.

This firing was not defensible, and reading the president’s defense of the decision makes this all too clear:

A few points here:

  • The distinction that the letter tries to make in this context between firing and non-renewal is specious on its face — if you lose a job that comes with an implicit promise of re-appointment given basic competence, barring a funding or enrollment issue, you’ve been fired. And it’s even more disingenuous given the remaining content of the letter, which makes it plain that López Prater was fired for content-bases reasons and that the president thinks that she had it coming.
  • “How can we act contrary to academic freedom when we are a liberal arts college with a progressive history,” the argument of the last graf on page 1, is…not convincing.
  • When we finally get past the throat-clearing on page 2, we receive nothing but an immaterial blizzard of abstractions and banalities. I agree 100% that “academic freedom” does not mean “instructors can say literally anything in the classroom without any consequences,” and I agree 100% that students have real interests and that instructors have an obligation to act professionally. None of this constitutes a defense of firing López Prater, who acted very professionally and was admirably careful about presenting potentially offensive material that was clearly relevant to what she was teaching.
  • A university president making $500,000 a year invoking the work “privilege” to defend the firing of a contingent faculty member while insulting her professionalism and competence justified by nothing but a bunch of dorm-room-stoner “Things Are Complicated” rhetorical questions is dumbfounding even for people familiar with disingenuous admin speak.
  • The firing of López Prater remains outrageous, and the president’s defense is a shameful act of intelligence-insulting.

…via comments, this piece by Jill Filipovic is very good.

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