Blasphemy Is Not a DEI IssueRoundup
tags: academic freedom, blasphemy, Hamline University
Joan W. Scott is an emerita professor at the Institute for Advanced Study.
Hamline University has been in the news lately for its decision not to renew the contract of an adjunct professor who showed her class a 14th-century image by a Muslim artist that depicts the prophet Muhammad, a depiction some Muslims object to as a violation of their religion. The situation raises a number of important issues about academic freedom and a university’s commitment to diversity. The university’s president made it clear that, to her, the two were in conflict and that diversity took priority: “Respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom. ... Academic freedom is very important, but it does not have to come at the expense of care and decency toward others.”
This has given rise to discussions on the right and the left about the supposed tensions between academic freedom and diversity and the purported dangers posed by concessions to identitarian politics. Those discussions miss the point. This case is not an example of any tension between diversity and academic freedom, but of the confusion between fair treatment of minority students (respect and care for their well-being) and capitulation to religious censorship. The one does not require the other.
In the Hamline case, this confusion led the president of the university, Fayneese Miller, to hear the student complainant’s side of the story and then to act precipitously without having all the facts at hand. She might have asked why, despite warnings by Erika López Prater, the lecturer, that images of Muhammad would be presented, no student chose to take up the invitation to opt out of the session. Why, having been given the option not to view the offending images, did the student choose instead to demand that no one in the class be allowed (or required) to see them?
There was clearly a politics in operation on the student’s side that needed further investigation. That politics does not serve the liberal diversity principles the university administrators invoked, but it rather reflects unacceptable religious censorship. In the name of liberal ideals of equality, respect, and social justice, the Hamline University administration denounced the actions of the professor and thereby seemed to endorse a local Muslim cleric’s charge of “blasphemy.” But blasphemy is not a valid criticism of university teaching. It is a purely theological concept.
The president might also have asked whether any religious orthodoxy — Christian, Jewish, or Muslim — ought to prevail in a secular classroom. If an evangelical Christian student claimed that a biology professor’s teachings on evolution made him feel disrespected and unsafe because of his creationist beliefs, would President Miller have fired the professor for causing “harm”? Or is it that the president confused the minority status of Muslims in the U.S. and on her campus with the need to let their religious beliefs be imposed on an entire class and on the professor’s right to teach as she saw fit?
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