The “Islamophobia” brigade suffered a high-profile casualty last week when Fayneese Miller announced her retirement in mid-2024 as president of Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. The April 3 announcement came just over two months after Hamline’s faculty council called on Miller to resign for her failure to protect academic freedom at the school after a Muslim student complained about images of Mohammad being shown over Zoom to an art history class in late 2022.
Under Miller’s leadership, the school issued a statement accusing the professor, Erika López Prater, of engaging in “Islamophobic” conduct for showing the Muslim-drawn images and allegedly withdrew an offer for her to teach the next semester. The “Islamophobia” accusation leveled at López Prater prompted Hamline’s Faculty Council to call on Miller to resign as president in a January 23 vote.
“We completely disagree with that statement. We continued to be concerned with that statement,” Jim Scheibel, president of the Hamline’s Faculty Council told FWI.
Abdulrahman Bindamnan, a Yemeni Muslim and a Ph.D. student and ICGC Fellow at the University of Minnesota, said the controversy at Hamline “inspired a much-needed debate about the intersections between academic freedom and religious rights.”
After López Prater filed a lawsuit, Hamline’s trustees issued a statement admitting the school had made a “misstep” and affirmed the school’s commitment to academic freedom.
The issue of academic freedom was a central topic of discussion at the April 3 press conference where Miller announced her impending retirement and accused unnamed media outlets of promoting a “false narrative” of the controversy.
“Hamline University believes in academic freedom,” Miller said. “We believe in free speech. We believe in all those things and never has Hamline University violated anyone’s academic freedom. That is not who we are. We have never violated anyone’s free speech.”
Miller did not provide any detail to support her narrative, citing the ongoing litigation, adding that her lawyer was in the room for the press conference. “I will tell you that I’m chomping at the bit to tell the story, chomping at the bit to tell the story. But I know I’ll get in trouble if I do,” she said.
News of Miller’s retirement prompted outrage on the part of the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) which had come to her defense when the controversy broke in late 2022. “This is a forced resignation,” said Jaylani Hussein, CAIR-MN’s executive director.
Miller disputed this characterization, declaring she is “never forced to do anything I don’t want to do” and that the primary factor behind her decision to “retire” is a desire to spend more time with her husband, who lives in Vermont and her son, who lives in Los Angeles.
“It’s time for my family to be together,” she said.
Miller downplayed the importance of the faculty vote in her decision to “retire,” suggesting that the support for her ouster was exaggerated in the press accounts.
“We had about 50, 60 people who either voted no, ‘abstain’ or did not attend the meeting,” Miller said. “So yes, but there’s a significant number of faculty who are on the other side. But also know that in the academia, if everyone in in the institution loves you as president, you have not done your job.”
Three or four of those who voted against the resolution calling for Miller’s resignation did so because they believed it did not address the actions of other administrators involved in the controversy, Scheibel told FWI.
Overall, there was “overwhelming” support for the resolution’s passage he said, adding that the faculty had previously called for a 360-degree review of Miller’s tenure at the school.
Hamline’s faculty was particularly troubled by the decision of Hamline Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence, David Everett, to call the display of the images of Muhammad in the art history class “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”
“We believe more should be done,” Scheibel said in reference to Everett’s statement.
Hamline faculty members were concerned by the role played by officials from the Minnesota chapter of CAIR in stoking the controversy, Scheibel added. According to the lawsuit filed on behalf of López Prater, CAIR’s local executive director Jaylani Hussein suggested that as a result of the controversy the school could be the scene of violence similar to what was endured by staffers at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in 2015 who were murdered by jihadists angry over the publication of insulting pictures of Muhammad. He allegedly made these comments at a meeting at the school on December 8, 2022.
“We were quite troubled by those comments,” Scheibel said. Hussein did not respond to a request for comment.
Muslim students at the school approached Scheibel and spoke quietly of their opposition to CAIR-MN’s involvement in the controversy.
“There were students who believe the protocol was followed,” Scheibel said, referring to the notice in the syllabus warning students that the images of Muhammad would be shown in class. “There was a warning and a recognition of their concerns.” These students did not believe it was blasphemous to show the drawings in an art history class and were offended by the “Islamophobia” charge leveled against López Prater.
“We believe strongly that you can have care for students and academic freedom at the same time,” Scheibel concluded.
FWI reached out to Miller for comment but received no response.
Dexter Van Zile is managing editor of Focus on Western Islamism.