Hamline University President Announces Retirement After Controversy

Hamline University’s president, who has come under fire for his treatment of an assistant professor who displayed images of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class, announced Monday that he will retire in June 2024.

Minnesota School President Phineas S. Miller initially defended the university’s decision not to rehire a lecturer who showed students images of the Prophet Muhammad, prompting a debate about academic freedom and Islamophobia.

Many Muslims say that viewing images of Muhammad is forbidden due to idolatry, but Muslims have differing views on such representations.

On Monday, an email from the administration to the campus announced Dr. Miller’s resignation, but made no mention of the controversy.

In the message, Ellen Waters, chair of the university’s board of trustees, called Dr. Miller an “innovative and transformative” leader and said she has skillfully led the university through a transition focused on the needs of students. “Hamline is forever grateful for Dr. Miller’s tireless and dedicated service,” he said. The university will conduct a national search for a successor.

The administration’s actions were sharply and widely criticized after lecturer Erika Lopez Prater was told her contract would not be renewed last winter, and Dr. Lopez Prater filed a petition. case.

The university eventually backed down, but several faculty members said the reputational damage had already been done.

The university’s full-time faculty members voted overwhelmingly in January to support a statement that said they “no longer have confidence in President Miller’s ability to lead the university forward.” With 71 faculty members voting in favor, 12 voting against and nine abstaining — the report said the administration’s handling of the Muhammad controversy had caused “great harm” to the university. The university has 116 full-time faculty members.

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“We affirm both academic freedom and our responsibility to foster an inclusive learning community,” the statement said. “Importantly, these values ​​do not contradict or override each other.”

His retirement brings to an end a rocky presidency that has seen Dr. Miller at the center of student protests and declining enrollment — a phenomenon affecting many small private liberal arts colleges — but also successes in increasing and building the university’s student body. More support for these students.

In the Muhammad controversy, he was criticized for bending to the wishes of student activists. But the university’s first black president, Dr. Miller saw himself targeted by students for opposing activists’ calls.

In 2019, four white student athletes were seen on video singing a popular song that included a racial epithet. The students have demanded that the students in the video be punished. Dr. Miller declined, saying the matter was a teachable moment. He said his response would have been different if the students had said the word to another student.

Students also protested his last fall after he suggested to a meeting of student leaders that students donate money to the university while they were students there. The comments, students said, did not address their financial struggles.

Dr. Miller is a social psychologist who specializes in the psychosocial development of adolescents. He was the first Institute Chair of Ethnic Studies at Brown University, where he was a faculty member for 20 years. He also served as dean at the University of Vermont.

But his presidency may ultimately be defined by how he handles the controversy over Muhammad images.

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After a Muslim student in the class complained to administrators about the lecture, Dr. Lopez Prater was told his services would not be needed in the spring. According to internal emails, executives tried to prevent what they believed could become a national controversy.

A senior administrator emailed the community that the instructor’s actions were undeniably Islamophobic. Dr. Miller and David Everett, vice president for inclusive excellence, signed a statement saying sensitivity for Muslim students in the classroom “should have increased” academic freedom. Administrators invited a speaker to the town hall who compared showing the pictures to teaching that Hitler was good.

But if executives were partially motivated by avoiding the national spotlight, they miscalculated.

Dr. Lopez Prater also received public support. He reached out to Christian Gruber, an Islamic art historian at the University of Michigan, who wrote an article in New Lines magazine and started an online petition asking the university’s board of trustees to investigate the matter.

Supporters of academic freedom and free-speech groups slammed Hamline, a private liberal arts college of about 1,800 undergraduates, for what they described as an egregious attack on academic freedom. Islamic-art historians Dr. The images shown by López Prater were regularly shown in art classrooms, often without instructor-provided exclusionary instructions. Muslims and their representative groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Dr. Lopez said Prater’s actions were not Islamophobic.

Ultimately, the University – Dr. Miller and the committee chairperson of the university, Ms. In a statement signed by Waters – Dr. Lopez retracted some of its most controversial statements, including that Prater’s actions were Islamophobic.

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“Like all companies, sometimes we make mistakes,” the statement said. “Language was used that did not reflect our feelings about academic freedom to hear from and support our Muslim students. Based on everything we have learned, we have determined that our use of the term ‘Islamophobia’ is incorrect.

The statement added, “It is never our intention to suggest that academic freedom is of less concern or value than that of our students – caring does not ‘increase’ academic freedom, the two go hand in hand.”

The university statement came on the same day that Dr. Lopez Prater sued the university’s board for defamation and religious discrimination. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, alleges Hamline’s actions caused Dr. Lopez claims Prater suffered loss of income from his associate position and damaged his professional reputation and employment opportunities.

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