After showing a painting of the Prophet Muhammad in her art history class, Professor Erika López Prater was informed that her teaching contract at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, would not be renewed. Those who condemned the professor’s actions believed that what she did was not only offensive to Muslims, but that such disrespect should not be covered under academic freedom.
These attitudes are grounded in the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). DEI activists insist that the dignity of select ethnicities, sexual orientations, and, in this case, religious groups be affirmed. Therefore, a violation of academic freedom is justified in certain circumstances, as is a denial of employment. And this is what makes the Hamline incident disturbing.
Two important lessons can be drawn from the episode: first, any language can be corrupted, including that of DEI; and second, universities have not gone far enough to defend academic freedom, especially for adjuncts.
DEI enthusiasts often manipulate terminology for political ends. Take, for instance, the rhetoric that informed the university’s position. Hamline University President Fayneese S. Miller, along with David Everett, associate vice president of inclusive excellence, wrote the following in support of the complaint against Professor López Prater:
[R]espect, decency, and appreciation of religious and other differences should supersede when we know that what we teach will cause harm [….] Many disciplines have embedded within them difficult and controversial theories and material, but as with virtually all subjects, they can be discussed without causing harm [emphasis mine].
What Miller and Everett really mean is “causing offense,” and in a classroom setting, it results in the antithesis of harm. Getting upset over course content leads to a more enlightened perspective. It forces students to move outside of their comfort zones and to examine academic material in a more nuanced manner. To improve critical thinking, students need to embrace uncomfortable ideas, not avoid them.
Yet, some advocates of DEI adopt a paternalistic stance: students require protection from pedagogical choices that make them feel unsafe. From the viewpoint of DEI, the fault lies not with the student’s inability to manage her emotions, but with the professor for heightening them.
Those who subscribe to the language of DEI have a difficult time balancing the hurt feelings of a Muslim student with the damage done to Professor López Prater’s career and reputation. They have become so entrenched in their positions that the mere possibility of any wrongdoing evades them.
To be fair, Hamline University is right about one line that cannot be crossed. Academic freedom does not include “personal vilification,” meaning that a professor should never demean a student’s race, ethnicity, or religion. But in this specific case, Professor López Prater was disseminating knowledge, not making students targets of abuse.
Strategic advantages arise from equating offensive expressions with harm. In a liberal academic institution, being offended is unlikely to attract much attention; being harmed, however, garners far more sympathy. Associating unsettling expressions with violence or injury also facilitates ideological mission creep. Since academic freedom frustrates attempts at censorship, rhetorical maneuvers are required to weaken its grip. Substituting “offensive” with “harmful” serves only one purpose: to control others whose thoughts one finds personally disturbing.
The events at Hamline University also demonstrate why academic freedom requires additional guarantees. It becomes increasingly compromised whenever defenders of DEI, backed by administrators, ask that students’ right to dignity be respected and that academic freedom not be used to silence the concerns of marginalized peoples. These demands are too subjective and will only lead to further abuses against instructors.
Much to the chagrin of DEI supporters, controversial and hurtful statements fall under the purview of academic freedom. Professors must be able to use any word, idea, or expression when engaging in critical inquiry. Without these safeguards, DEI jargon can operate as a moving target, applied anywhere its proponents see fit, and rationalized in any fashion to suit their agenda.
The language of DEI—like all language—is contested and contextual. It loses credibility whenever its adherents argue in bad faith. Characterizing Professor López Prater’s lesson as “harmful” is a prime example. Her punishment—via moral condemnation and the non-renewal of her contract—illustrates how, at times, rigid interpretations of DEI lead to unjust outcomes.