Academic freedom trumps harm, but forgiveness beats vengefulness

It is excessive to demand the resignation of a US college leader who badly misjudged a student complaint about offence, says Jonathan Zimmerman

February 3, 2023
Hamline University president Fayneese Miller
Source: Getty
Hamline University president Fayneese Miller

Hamline University president Fayneese Miller made a huge error in denouncing an adjunct professor for showing images of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class. Then she doubled down on her mistake, releasing a letter that simultaneously defended the college for dismissing the professor and denied that it was doing so (“the decision not to offer her another class was made at the unit level”).

But that doesn't mean she should be dismissed, too. Now that Miller has acknowledged her poor decisions, we should give her another chance.

Miller’s actions epitomised the rigid dictates of cancel culture, which requires that offenders be punished swiftly and absolutely. Firing her would reinforce that same ugly trend.

Witness a statement released by Hamline professors calling on Miller to resign. “We are distressed that members of the administration have mishandled the issue and great harm has been done to the reputation of Minnesota’s oldest university,” read the statement, which was signed by 71 of the 92 full-time faculty who attended a meeting about the controversy.

Note the emphasis here upon “harm”, which has become the mark of Cain in our age of cancellation. Anyone who claims harm has suffered it, by definition. And once you blame it on someone else, they’re cooked.

An op-ed in The New York Times suggesting a military response to Black Lives Matter protests? Harm. A column by a history professor that warns against interpreting the past through modern lenses of race and gender? Harm. A book that denounces medical interventions for transgender teenagers? Harm. 

And the only remedy is to obliterate the person causing the harm, lest they repeat their misdeeds. You could hear that retributive spirit in the initial email of Hamline vice-president for inclusive excellence David Everett, who denounced the display of images of the Prophet as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic”. True, Everett admitted, “the intent behind those actions may not have been to cause harm”. But, according to the gospel of cancel culture, intent doesn’t matter. All that counts is the harm itself.

In a follow-up email, Everett and Miller repeated that “it is never our intention to deliberately harm others”. But it happens, anyway, and only our victims can take an accurate measure of it. “This harm is real,” they wrote, “and, when we harm, we should listen rather than debate the merits of or extent of that harm.”

Never mind the harm done to the art history professor, Erika López Prater, who has sued Hamline for religious discrimination and defamation. The university backed off shortly after that. In a joint statement by Miller and the chair of the board of trustees, Hamline admitted that its use of the term “Islamophobic” was “flawed”. It also walked back Miller’s earlier statement that the concerns of offended Muslim students should have “superseded” López Prater’s academic freedom.

But that’s not enough for most Hamline professors, who now want Miller gone. In an interview with a local newspaper, the president of the school’s faculty council cited – you guessed it – “the harm that’s been done”. He also noted the need for “repair”, adding that “new leadership is needed to move that forward”.

Maybe he’s right. But I’d encourage the Hamline faculty to show more solicitude towards Fayneese Miller than she gave to Erika López Prater. They might even forgive her.

Remember forgiveness? It’s another value we seem to have forgotten in our censorious, take-no-prisoners age. It’s a lot easier – and, let’s face it, a lot more fun – to revile our transgressors than to pardon them.

“Cancel culture is pretty much the direct opposite of forgiveness, and I’m afraid we’re becoming so used to the former, we’re forgetting the latter,” columnist Mitch Albom recently observed. “To err is human, but to forgive is dumb, weak, and beneath us.”

But that attitude is weak in its own right. It ignores our ability to grow, and to learn, and to change. It merges sanctimony and sadism: I’m better than you, so I’m going to hate you.

What if Hamline used this moment to demonstrate another way? It might start by declaring – in no uncertain terms – that Miller and other officials messed up, in a very big way. It’s not enough to release a few politely worded statements. Hamline needs to provide a full account of the episode, including all the missteps that occurred.

But, in the same breath, it could also announce that it is retaining Miller. She is not the sum total of her worst decisions, any more than the rest of us are.

That would also strike a more effective blow for free expression than simply sacking her. Miller’s initial attack on López Prater reflected the oft-repeated fallacy that we can’t respect diversity and academic freedom at the same time. Who better to refute that myth than someone who formerly embraced it?

A chastened Miller will be a much more powerful spokesperson for academic freedom than any of the usual suspects, yours truly included. I’ve spent the past decade warning that our efforts to protect students from harmful speech will eventually make honest academic dialogue impossible. I think the Hamline incident shows that I was right, but I’m not at all interested in lording that over Miller. I’d much rather forgive her and let her make the case based on her lived experience. More people will listen to her than to me.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Whose America: Culture Wars in the Public Schools, which was recently published in a revised 20th-anniversary edition by the University of Chicago Press.


Print headline: Academic freedom trumps harm, but forgiveness beats malice

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Reader's comments (5)

This does not make sense. From illogic to false equivalents to whataboutism. This is unacceptable in 2023
And Zimmerman misunderstands--purposefully?--the Hamline College adjunct professor
It is high time that the vindictive response of cancel culture was tossed aside, the attitude that the best response to harm having been done - even worse when 'harm' is equated to 'offence having been taken' - is to do harm back, often harm far in excess of whatever discomfort has been caused to the originally offended party. We all make stupid decisions, we've all said things we regretted and which, without intent, have caused others to take offence. The disproportionate responses of cancel culture don't help us improve our decision-making or help us develop better ways of saying things. Would you get rid of a puppy because he wee'd on the floor once? No, you'd settle down to train him to do his business in a more appropriate place.
So, the forgiveness doesn't apply to Dr. Prater's actions (if it needs any forgiveness, which it didn't) but the forgiveness should go to Dr. Miller? On what basis? Because she is the president and the other person was just an adjunct? They are not taking Dr. Prater back as an adjunct, to show Dr. Miller's forgiveness. You say "A chastened Miller will be a much more powerful spokesperson for academic freedom" - how do you know, to have so much certainty? It took an uproar from experts, Muslin leaders, other academics, and even the chair of Hamlin's Board for Dr. Miller to back down. Hamlin's administrators publicized this news which hurt the reputation of the adjunct professor. And you think Dr. Miller deserves forgiveness? Very interesting. "I’d much rather forgive her" - but she didn't do anything to you to forgive her. On the other hand, the faculty members in Hamlin suffer from the loss of the school's reputation, and their opinion matters.
Forgiveness is given by those were wronged, not by bystanders. It is sought by those who wronged another from that person only when they understand what they did wrong. For if they seek it showing no remorse, it is not genuine. As an alum of Hamline University, I too have been directly wronged by President Miller's action and her tripling down on her position against academic freedom, my university, its values and what for over 150 years it has stood for and what its professors are continuing to try and stand for. This position she has taken has not only harmed greatly the reputation of my university, it shows just how unqualified she is to have ever been hired by Hamline or any other institution of higher learning in the first place. Her position is counter to those that value and honor diversity, student rights and responsibilities, and the academic freedom we hold dear in America that lets us be exposed to all issues from all sides despite our personal opinions or beliefs on a particular subject. For that is what education is about. Grace and forgiveness were not and still have not been shown by her to the professor she wronged. President Miller has not admitted fault nor asked for forgiveness. Saying instead there was a "misstep". And while mercy should be shown to all, there are times when mercy means cutting ties. In this instance what is best for the preservation of Hamline's reputation must be done at this time. That mercy [as you say "to cancel" President Miller (we say, to fire or demand her resignation)], is shown in this instance out of respect to those who built Hamline into what it became prior to this President being hired. It has nothing to do with giving her a second chance....a second chance was given when the Board of Trustees did nothing in October of 2022, a third, fourth, fifth sixth, and seventh chance were given when they did nothing in November, December, early January, and after the two statements President Miller made in January 2023 where she doubled and then tripled down her stance/position. No, the time for another chance being given has passed, hence the faculty requesting that she resign.