If you detest what DeSantis is doing to academic freedom in Florida, look no further than Hamline

Academic freedom in the new Winnemac

January 11, 2023 6:00 am

Hamline University. Courtesy photo.

Liberals are aghast at Gov. Ron DeSantis’s attacks on academic freedom in Florida’s public education system. He is placing sworn enemies of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) — the current term for the idealistic project of making America’s institutions not only progressive but actively antiracist — in positions of power over his state’s public colleges and universities. DeSantis has sought to muzzle teachers who say positive things about queer people, and he has leveraged the notion of harm avoidance to “protect” white students from the emotional damage of learning about the history of white supremacy. In these efforts, educators are the targets, and specifically their freedom to teach, based on their knowledge and skills, without fear.

As I say, liberals are outraged.

We ought to recognize that we can’t effectively — and with integrity — protect academic freedom in Florida if we don’t protect it in Minnesota.

Hamline University is a private institution and will never be subject to the whims of whoever has won the most recent governor’s election. However, it might be a good idea for Minnesotans to get used to defending academic freedom even in a progressive environment, and even at a private university, if they wish to be able to defend it in our public institutions down the road. You never know what a future election might bring, after all.

There is a broader logic at work here that unites public and private educational institutions. Leaders at Hamline earned their institution some notoriety when they fired an adjunct instructor and denounced her as an Islamophobe, seemingly because they thought a student activist’s interpretation of Islam ought to prevail over academic learning that includes a famous 14th-century Persian painting of the prophet Muhammad in the canon of great Islamic art. 

The news coverage of this sad incident suggests that Hamline’s leadership — contending with charges from Muslim students that they are learning in an unwelcoming university environment — seized on this student’s complaint as a fine opportunity to display their DEI commitments. They demonized a teacher who had, it appears, behaved with sensitivity and bravery in seeking to share her well-earned learning with all her students.

Truth be told, anyone who is part of a racial, ethnic, or religious minority in Minnesota might easily believe the Muslim students at Hamline who report experiencing cultural hostility, whether active or in the form of passive aggression (this is Minnesota, after all). Yet pitting efforts to embrace diversity against intellectual freedom, as Hamline’s leaders have done, is the worst possible way for academic leaders to seek to build an inclusive and just world.

I have served as an interim dean in my own university’s College of Liberal Arts. (I am writing only for myself here.) I know that student complaints of mistreatment are sometimes valid. Sometimes they are not. One should always have compassion for students. However, if you field student complaints, you musn’t lose your head. You can’t act in haste, without performing due diligence, and without maintaining your critical faculties. The incident at Hamline smells of leadership failure on all these counts.

What is going on here? Hamline’s feckless administrators are not outliers in American academia, although their actions were extreme. Academic freedom, free speech and freedom of thought may appear to some as obstacles to remaking a culture in the way they prefer. Such a vision of a new culture may be wholesome — as is the spirit of DEI, in my own view. 

Nonetheless, the parallel between the conservative regime in Florida and the progressive one here in Minnesota is clear enough. In Florida, conservatives see academics and their pesky commitments to intellectual freedom as impediments. In Minnesota, some progressives see these annoying impediments similarly. What many people might not realize is that some academic leaders — in a progressive state — take this view themselves.

The intersection of progressive zeal with provincialism produced Hamline’s folly. Sinclair Lewis, Minnesota’s Nobel laureate in literature, insisted that his fictional state of Winnemac, the setting for Babbitt and Elmer Gantry, Lewis’s classics of the 1920s, was not necessarily Minnesota — it was just vaguely Midwestern. Regardless, if the conservatism of 1920s Winnemac has yielded to today’s Minnesota liberalism, the sense of a broader horizon may still be lacking. 

In a country that is even more diverse, in some ways, than progressives at times realize, academic freedom is of a piece. It won’t be defended, at least not successfully, in selective fashion.

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Doug Rossinow
Doug Rossinow

Doug Rossinow is professor of history at Metro State University in St. Paul, and the author of many works, including "The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s," published in 2015.