The president of a liberal arts college in Minnesota announced she is retiring next year following calls from faculty leaders for her resignation over her handling of an incident where an art history instructor showed depictions of the Prophet Muhammad during an "Islamic art" class.
Hamline University President Dr. Fayneese Miller announced she will retire on June 30, 2024, according to a Monday statement from the university. Miller has made headlines in recent months over criticism for the way she handled the situation regarding the art history lesson.
In October, Erika López Prater, a former adjunct art history professor at the university, was fired after a student complained that she showed images of the founder of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, in her art history course.
Miller went viral on Twitter in December for her letter to the campus apologizing for the incident.
"It is not our intent to place blame," Miller said. "[R]ather, 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projected on a screen and left for many minutes—respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom."
The incident sparked a debate about the balance of academic freedom and respect for religion. The university called the professor's actions "undeniably islamophobic" and Miller conceded in her message to students that even though academic subjects may contain controversial subject material, kindness for others is more important than academics.
"Academic freedom is very important, but it does not have to come at the expense of care and decency toward others," she said.
"Our response to the classroom event does not disregard or minimize the importance of academic freedom," Miller added. "It does state that respect, decency, and appreciation of religious and other differences should supersede when we know that what we teach will cause harm."
The professor who showed the images said she knew that visual depictions of the prophet violated many Muslims' faith, so she warned the class ahead of time in the course syllabus, letting them know that the class would involve images of religious figures like Muhammad and Buddha. Students were told they could contact her with any concerns regarding course material and leave the room if they didn't want to see the images.
She later sued when the private liberal arts school declined to renew her contract, claiming the university subjected her to religious discrimination and defamation, which she said damaged her professional and personal reputation.
At a January meeting, 71 of 92 Hamline University faculty members voted in favor of Miller's resignation, stating they didn't believe she was up for the job due to her handling of the situation.
Jim Scheibel, president of the Hamline University Faculty Council, told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis in January that "It became clear that the harm that's been done and the repair that has to be done, that new leadership is needed to move that forward."
"As we no longer have faith in President Miller's ability to lead the university forward, we call upon her to immediately tender her resignation to the Hamline University Board of Trustees," the Faculty Council statement read.
Miller said in a joint statement with the chair of the school's trustees that "Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep."
"In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom," the statement said. "Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term 'Islamophobic' was therefore flawed."
The university said in its statement that they will begin the process of conducting a national search for a successor.
"Over the past 8 years, Dr. Miller has been an exceptional, dynamic, and inclusive leader for Hamline with a strong commitment to academic program development, diversity, and fundraising," the university said in its statement.
Miller, the statement said, "created a reputation for Hamline as an institution that welcomes students from diverse backgrounds, including students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and one of the higher percentages of first generation students of any university in the region."
Miller described it as an "honor and privilege to lead Hamline University" which "values social justice, equity, inclusion, and civic engagement through its service-learning opportunities for students and curriculum offerings."
"It has been a pleasure working together with board members, students, faculty, staff, and the community in enhancing Hamline University's strong commitment to maintaining high academic standards, creating a sense of belonging for all on campus, and developing students who understand and appreciate their role as members of a civil society," she said.