Hamline president caught up in Muslim art controversy to retire

An exterior look at Hamline university buildings
Hamline University President Fayneese Miller faced calls to resign earlier this year over her handling of a controversy involving an image of the Prophet Muhammad shown in an art history class. The school said Monday Miller will retire next year.
Ben Hovland | MPR News file

Updated: April 4, 9:55 a.m. | Posted: April 3, 11 a.m.

Fayneese Miller, the Hamline University president who faced widespread criticism over her handling of a controversy involving an image of the Prophet Muhammad shown in an art history class, will retire at the end of June 2024, the school said Monday.

Miller had defended the St. Paul school’s decision last fall to not renew the contract of Erika López Prater. A student in López Prater's class appealed to administrators after an image of a 14th century painting of the Prophet Muhammad was shown in class.

Many Muslims say viewing an image of Muhammad is deeply offensive. Faculty members and others, however, pushed back against the decision, noting that the instructor had provided a warning to the class prior to showing the image. Hamline faculty in January called on Miller to resign.

All Things Considered: Hamline president to retire
A woman poses for a portrait.
Fayneese Miller will step down next year as Hamline University president, the school said Monday.
Courtesy of Hamline University

As the story made headlines, the national Council on American-Islamic Relations said it saw “no evidence” that the instructor had bigoted intent or engaged in Islamophobic conduct in the classroom — undermining the positions of Miller and the Minnesota CAIR branch on the matter.

Hamline later acknowledged that its use of the term Islamophobic to describe the instructor’s actions was “flawed.”

López Prater sued Hamline, alleging religious discrimination and defamation after she became the center of controversy. Miller said Monday she could not comment on matters related to the lawsuit but that she is anxious to tell her story.

Faculty members say Miller damaged the school's reputation.

"There's just a lot of work that needs to be done,” said Jim Scheibel, the Hamline faculty president. “We're ready to work on the repair and the damage that's been done to this university."

In a Monday afternoon press conference, Miller criticized media coverage that cast the incident as a conflict over what professors may teach and students’ rights.

“It's a false narrative, Hamline University believes in academic freedom. We believe in free speech. We believe in all of those things, and never has Hamline University violated anyone's academic freedom. That is not who we are," the president said.

“I cannot state enough is that what was reported in the media was not the incident. I cannot say that enough. No one was let go for showing an image.”

A social psychologist by training, Miller was dean of the College of Education at the University of Vermont in 2015 when she was selected to be Hamline's 20th president.

Macalester College president Suzanne Rivera called Miller her mentor, who contributed significantly, not only to Hamline, but to Minnesota and higher education as a whole. Rivera also said presidency tenure beyond five or six years “is remarkable."

Rivera says an already demanding job is made much more complex by being the first person of color in the role.

"Many of us have looked to Dr. Miller as a role model as we have taken on these challenging jobs as first woman or first person of color, and she has been really generous as someone who's offered advice and, and an example so I'm really grateful to her."

In the end, Miller said what happened at Hamline was a teachable moment. She said that institutions of higher education must change to meet the needs of students who are more diverse than years ago.

"I don't think we as institutions are fully equipped or ready for the students [who] are coming to us."

After retirement, Miller says she will take a break, but she doesn't think she will fully leave the field.

In a statement, the university says it will now begin the process of conducting a national search for her successor.

The national CAIR chapter deputy executive director Edward Ahmed Mitchell said they were “pleased” that Miller will serve another year.

“Although Hamline University erred in how it first publicly commented on last year's painting controversy — as President Miller has since acknowledged — we have no doubt that she acted in good faith based on what she knew at the time and in a noble desire to protect her students. We thank her for her service, and we wish her well,” Ahmed Michell said in a statement.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.