Hamline President retires after art prof ousted for showing portrait of Muhammad

Fayneese Miller announced her retirement from office on Monday after Hamline University had been embroiled in academic freedom controversy for several months.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) ‘hopes to see a more free speech and academic freedom-friendly president take Fayneese Miller's place at Hamline.’

Hamline University announced on Monday the impromptu retirement of President Fayneese Miller after the University has been embroiled in a conflict surrounding academic freedom and religious sensitivity.

Campus Reform covered the Fall 2022 incident in which the contract of an art history professor, Erika López Prater, was not renewed after she showed a Medieval portrait of the Prophet Muhammad in her class.

López Prater launched a lawsuit against Hamline in January, claiming that the St. Paul Minnesota university’s handling of the situation constituted defamation and reputational damage for alleged Islamophobia.

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Miller’s retirement announcement, however, makes no mention of the incident that catapulted Hamline into the center of the national debate on academic freedom and intellectual inquiry.

Instead, the press release stresses Miller’s “strong commitment to academic program development, diversity, and fundraising.”

Miller herself is quoted in the press release as saying, “It has been an honor and privilege to lead Hamline University, an institution that values social justice, equity, inclusion, and civic engagement through its service-learning opportunities for students and curriculum offerings.”

Shortly after López Prater filed suit against the University, Hamline’s full-time faculty voted 71-21 calling for Miller’s immediate resignation, according to the Pioneer Press.

“We are distressed that members of the administration have mishandled this issue and great harm has been done to the reputation of Minnesota’s oldest university,” the faculty’s January statement reads.

Here’s the statement from faculty. 92 of about 130 full-time faculty attended today’s meeting; 86 percent of those present voted in support of this statement. pic.twitter.com/alRoB8sbgy

— Becky Zosia Dernbach (@bzosiad) January 24, 2023 ft:0in;”>

The faculty also attested that they “stand for intellectual debate and sharing of resources and knowledge without fear of censorship or retaliation.”

The statement also stressed that the faculty “defend the right to academic freedom” and “condemn unfounded accusations of Islamophobia.”

415 professors and faculty members from various different disciplines and institutions also signed a letter in January in support of López Prater’s lawsuit against the University.

In response to Miller’s continued defense of her administration’s handling of the issue, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) sent a letter to the accreditation board that oversees Hamline, saying that the University’s “conception of academic freedom is inconsistent with all widely established standards” as well as those of the accreditation board.

When asked for comment by Campus Reform on this week’s developments, FIRE Programs Officer Sabrina Conza said that “FIRE hopes to see a more free speech and academic freedom-friendly president take Fayneese Miller’s place at Hamline.”

“By non-renewing a professor for her pedagogically relevant display of medieval artwork depicting the Prophet Muhammad,” Conza continued, “President Miller violated faculty academic freedom and chilled speech on campus. She handled calls for censorship in the worst possible way and continuously doubled down — only reversing course when facing public pressure and a lawsuit. Academic freedom is core to the academic mission of any institution of higher learning….”

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Hamline Board of Trustees Chairwoman Ellen Watters is quoted in the press release as saying “Through [Miller’s] strategic vision and ability to navigate complex issues, she ably has led the University through a time of growth and change, and she has done so by centering the needs and well-being of Hamline students in her work.”

Conza also told Campus Reform that “FIRE is happy to work with President Miller’s successor to ensure administrators properly respond to calls for censorship and promote a thriving climate of free speech and inquiry on campus.”

A spokesperson for Hamline University declined Campus Reform’s request for further comment.

Follow Gabrielle M. Etzel on Twitter.