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Hamline University’s free speech controversy shows the collapse of the professoriate

Professors entranced by administrative power are turning into their own worst enemy.
Hamline University campus, in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Dec. 30, 2022.
Hamline University campus, in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Dec. 30, 2022. Jenn Ackerman / NYT via Redux file

The recent controversy surrounding a Hamline University art history professor who showed her class a medieval image of the Prophet Muhammad has many on the right bemoaning the “woke mobrun amok. I, by contrast, view this episode as evidence of the collapse of the American professoriate from within its own ranks, so to speak. We, the professors, have met the enemy. In many instances, as I’ll explain below, the enemy is us.  

Let’s start with the dismal specifics of the case. Dr. Erika López Prater received her doctorate in 2019. Last fall, she taught a “World Art” class at Hamline. Her syllabus listed images of sacred subjects, such as the Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad. One of the two visual texts of the prophet she selected was “A Compendium of Chronicles,” attributed to Rashid-al-Din (1247-1318). 

The academic rationale for including this work seems sound. One expert observed that this image of the prophet is a “masterpiece of Persian manuscript painting ... an authentic and irreplaceable work of art.” López Prater has shared her own reasoning for showing the piece to her class:  “I do not want to present the art of Islam as something that is monolithic.”

If there’s a pedagogical “best practice” that López Prater missed, I don’t know what it is.

In some quarters of the Muslim world, iconic representations of the prophet are prohibited. As the Jyllands Posten and Charlie Hebdo tragedies indicate, the display of such images risks offending sensitivities and even sparking violence. Aware of this, conscientious scholars proceed with discretion. 

The precautions López Prater took to spare her students discomfort are chronicled in a fine article by Amna Khalid, a historian at Carleton College. The syllabus encouraged students to reach out if they had concerns. The analysis she assigned about the images was optional. Before they were presented on screen, she let students log out of the online session. I teach courses on blasphemous art, triggering literature and controversial comedy — if there’s a pedagogical “best practice” that López Prater missed, I do not  know what it is. 

Class went off seemingly without a hitch, but later one student complained. The professor shared the complaint with her chair and they co-wrote an apology. The video of the lesson somehow got “out there,” outside of the private confines of a classroom (a breach of academic convention I worried about when the Covid lockdown exiled us to Zoom). Soon, outside actors like the Council on American-Islamic Relations entered the fray, expressing concerns about Islamophobia.   

The Hamline administration, led by President Fayneese Miller, Dean of Liberal Arts Marcela Khostihova and Vice President of Inclusive Excellence David Everett, swung into action. They weighed the possibility that a hate crime had been committed. When all was said and done, López Prater was not asked to teach at Hamline in the next semester. But her “adjunct” status (see below) could permit the university to plausibly claim that this had nothing to do with the controversy.  

Spinning this episode as an example of “‘Libs gone wild” is misguided; as often happens with academic dust-ups, it doesn’t track along a neat left/right axis. The student who complained is president of the campus Muslim Students Association. In support of this student, Miller wrote: “It is not our intent to place blame; rather, it is our intent to note that in the classroom incident — where an image forbidden for Muslims to look upon was projected on a screen and left for many minutes — respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.” 

Dubious logic aside, is this position a left-wing or right-wing stance? As Khalid pointed out, Muslims have different perspectives on the appropriateness of visual representations of the Prophet Muhammad. Hamline, Khalid continued, “privileged a most extreme and conservative Muslim point of view.” Did university administrators cave to the “woke mob,” or traditionalist religious mores? Couldn’t our Christian Right get behind more respect for Religious Authority in the classroom by that same logic?

The Hamline fiasco should not be analyzed in terms of cultural politics, but distressed job markets: the American professoriate is experiencing a prolonged and likely irreversible collapse. There are plenty of teaching jobs in colleges and universities. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of the available jobs are terrible. They offer risible pay, sparse benefits, long hours, and very little security. Further, these positions do not support scholars to conduct research or share their expertise freely in class. 

The remaining good jobs are the ones with “tenure.” Professors on this track get an opportunity to “climb the tenure ladder” during what is (usually) a six to seven-year probationary period. If they pass this grueling test, they are virtually guaranteed lifetime employment. Because of Congress’s largesse back in 1994, there is no mandatory retirement age for these scholars! And since you can’t fire a tenured professor without substantial cause, this job comes with robust academic freedom protections. 

The catch is that those tenure-line jobs are becoming more and more scarce. The institution of tenure — which was once the granite guarantor of academic freedom of speech — is cracking all along its base. Tenure “lines,” which involve huge, million-dollar investments across the arc of a scholar’s career, are being shut down. They are being replaced by the aforementioned cheaper, terrible jobs. I have predicted that by 2050 tenure will only be granted at a handful of elite institutions. 

Professor López Prater belongs to an immense and growing underclass of underemployed and professionally vulnerable “contingent” professors. Adjuncts like her are hired (and fired) on a semester-by-semester basis. This is why they are less likely to express themselves openly in class. This "casualized" labor force is striking and getting supremely, and understandably, pissed off. Showdowns between administrations and contingent faculty will be with us for decades to come.

Which brings us to the subject of professors’ inhumanity to professors. López Prater’s fate was sealed by tenured professors who had made the move “up” to the administrative suites. This included President Miller and Dean Kostihova (who likened the showing of the image to the use of a racial slur). On campuses across the country, tenured administrators are routinely making decisions, like the one to shove this scholar off on an ice floe, that were unthinkable as recently as a decade ago.

Ten, 20 years ago, we didn’t sack professors, especially those at the very start of their careers, for teaching their subject matter appropriately. We didn’t have so many administrators, tenured and otherwise, becoming our scowling masters. We didn’t let them infiltrate, degrade and eventually pulverize our systems of faculty governance which protected, let’s say, art historians who routinely ran afoul of religious conservatives; we didn’t think these administrators, tenured and otherwise, would succeed in shoving the tenure system off on its own ice floe. 

This is faculty fratricide, one of the most underscrutinized, and enticingly operatic, storylines in today’s academy. In cahoots with trustees, consultants, “inclusive excellence” professionals, and other nonscholars, these tenured leaders are cannibalizing their own profession. That dean, provost, president or chancellor who is “sunsetting” tenure, hiring cheap labor, holding down costs, arousing the Captains of Industry on the Board, and thus decimating academic free speech was (and is) one of us. Having benefited from tenure’s perks and protections, they fail to extend that courtesy to future generations. 

The Hamline debacle casts light on our “tenured administrators” — the most unheroic cohort in the history of American higher education. Perhaps one of them will suffer a pang of conscience and make amends. López Prater and her generation of scholars should be offered an opportunity to pursue their research and teach at a reasonable wage, with full academic freedom.