Hamline University’s President Announces Retirement After Prophet Muhammad Controversy

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The president of Hamline University, who had been under sharp criticism for the treatment of an adjunct professor who showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class, announced on Monday that she would retire in June 2024.

Fayneese S. Miller, the president of the Minnesota school, had initially defended the university’s decision to not reappoint the lecturer who had shown students, after providing warnings, images of the Prophet Muhammad, igniting a debate about academic freedom and Islamophobia.

Many Muslims say they are prohibited from viewing images of Muhammad out of concerns of idolatry, but Muslims have varying views about such representations.

On Monday, an email from the administration to the campus announced that Dr. Miller would step down, but made no mention of the controversy.

In the message, Ellen Watters, the chairwoman of the university’s board of trustees, called Dr. Miller an “innovative and transformational” leader and said she had ably led the university through a time of change while centering the needs of students. “Hamline is forever grateful for Dr. Miller’s tireless and dedicated service,” she said. The university will conduct a national search for a successor.

After the lecturer, Erika López Prater, was told her contract would not be renewed last winter, the administration’s actions were strongly and widely criticized, and Dr. López Prater filed a lawsuit.

The university eventually backtracked, but many faculty members said the reputational damage was already done.

The university’s full-time faculty members overwhelmingly voted in January to support a statement that said they “no longer have faith in President Miller’s ability to lead the university forward.” The statement — which 71 faculty members voted for, 12 voted against and nine abstained from — said the administration’s handling of the Muhammad controversy did “great harm” to the university. The university has 116 full-time faculty members.

“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.”

Her retirement brings to an end a rocky presidency that saw Dr. Miller at the center of student protests and declining enrollment — a phenomenon affecting many other small private liberal arts colleges — but also successes like increasing the share of the university’s students of color and creating greater support for these students.

In the Muhammad controversy, she was criticized for bending to the will of student activists. But Dr. Miller, the university’s first Black president, also found herself targeted by students for resisting the calls of activists.

In 2019, four white student athletes were seen on video singing along to a popular song that included a racial epithet. Students demanded that she punish the students in the video. Dr. Miller refused, stating that the matter was a teachable moment. She said her response would have been different if the students had directed the word at another student.

Students also protested her last fall after she suggested to a gathering of student leaders that they donate money to the university while students there. The comments, students said, were oblivious to their financial struggles.

Dr. Miller is a social psychologist who specializes in the psychosocial development of adolescents. She was the first founding chair of ethnic studies at Brown University, where she was a faculty member for 20 years. She also served as a dean at the University of Vermont.

But her presidency may be ultimately defined by how she handled the controversy over the Muhammad images.

After an observant Muslim student in the class had complained to administrators about the lecture, Dr. López Prater was told that her services would no longer be needed in the spring. According to internal emails, administrators sought to squelch what they believed could become a national controversy.

A senior administrator sent an email to the community calling the instructor’s actions undeniably Islamophobic. Dr. Miller and the vice president for inclusive excellence, David Everett, signed a statement that said sensitivity to the Muslim students in the class should have “superseded” academic freedom. Administrators invited a speaker to a town hall who compared showing the images to teaching that Hitler was good.

But if administrators were motivated in part by avoiding national attention, they miscalculated.

Dr. López Prater also marshaled public support. She reached out to Christiane Gruber, an Islamic art historian at the University of Michigan, who wrote an essay in New Lines Magazine defending her and started an online petition demanding that the university’s board of trustees investigate the matter.

Supporters of academic freedom and free-speech groups slammed Hamline, a private liberal arts college with about 1,800 undergraduates, for what they described as an egregious attack on academic freedom. Islamic-art historians said the images that Dr. López Prater showed were regularly shown in art classrooms, often without the opt-out mechanisms that the instructor provided. Muslims and groups representing them, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Dr. López Prater’s actions were not Islamophobic.

Eventually, the university — in a statement signed by Dr. Miller and the university’s board chair, Ms. Watters — walked back its most controversial statements, including that Dr. López Prater’s actions were Islamophobic.

“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.”

The university statement also came the same day that Dr. López Prater sued the university’s board for defamation and religious discrimination. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, states that Hamline’s actions have caused Dr. López Prater the loss of income from her adjunct position and damage to her professional reputation and job prospects.

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