February 9, 2023
What happens when academic and religious freedom conflict?
A classic painting of the Prophet Muhammad ignited a controversy at Hamline University in Minnesota. A panel of experts weighs in on the lessons learned.
In This Episode...
What are constructive ways for leaders in higher education to navigate the inevitable conflicts that emerge in a religiously diverse democracy? Eboo leads a conversation with Maria Dixon Hall, Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Professor of Organizational Communication at Southern Methodist University; Laurie Patton, President of Middlebury College; and Omid Safi, Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University.
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What happens when academic and religious freedom conflict?
Eboo Patel: Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem. My name is Eboo Patel and I am the Founder and President of Interfaith America, the nation’s largest organization engaging religious diversity. The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in human history and the most religiously devout nation in the Western Hemisphere. Virtually every college campus, indeed, any social institution, can expect to face conflict around religious diversity. How do our institutions turn such conflicts into opportunities? Interfaith America organizes public education programs like this one that seek productive ways of living and leading in a religiously diverse democracy.
We also run a number of leadership programs that prepare faculty, staff, students, and administrators to strengthen interfaith cooperation and navigate religious diversity. You can see some of these programs on this slide. A college campus is a very special type of institution in our society. Many were started by particular faith communities, and now serve people of all faiths and philosophical identities. Campuses prepare the next generation of leaders to meet the challenges of a diverse world, and they recognize that diversity is not just the differences you like.
The faculty who teach at our colleges are charged with passing down the knowledge of our past and exploring new frontiers. They have traditionally been given wide latitude and many protections because knowledge can be both empowering and disturbing. Colleges are civic spaces, where people of diverse identities and divergent ideologies interact. When it comes to religious diversity, the expression of one identity can sometimes feel like a violation of another. Conflicts are to be expected, and resolutions will never fully please all parties.
The goal of today is to consider alternative outcomes for the issue that emerged at Hamline University regarding showing an image of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class. Our purpose here will not be to castigate our colleagues, everyone on campus is dealing with sensitive issues, and these are stressful times. What we will do here is our best to learn what we can from this particular case, to consider the broader issues that it raises, and to chart better ways forward. It is what the academy is about.
I’m going to spend some time upfront summarizing the case as quickly as possible. I’m going to rely on the public record here, principally the two articles that appeared in the New York Times. We will put the links in the chat with the recognition, there will likely be relevant details that were not broadly reported that I will obviously not be able to speak about. Let’s begin.
An adjunct professor of art history, Erika López Prater, taught a class and Global Art History at Hamline University in the fall of 2022. As part of the class, she showed a 14th-century image of the Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him. The image is of the angel Gabriel instructing the prophet in the early verses of the Quran. It is from a text called the Compendium of Chronicles, which has been referred to by art historians as a masterpiece of Persian manuscript painting.
Its place in the history of Islamic art has been compared to the place of Michelangelo’s David in Western art because the image has already been broadly shown in high-quality media, we will place a link to it in the chat. You can view it at your discretion. Dr. López Prater recognize that some Muslims believe that any depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are forbidden, including those done by Muslim artists from Muslim leaders, as this painting was. Dr. López Prater reportedly gave students multiple warnings that the image was going to be shown and offered an opt-out to those who might find it offensive at the time. Again, according to the public record, nobody opted out.
After the class, a Muslim student indicated to Dr. López Prater that she was very uncomfortable, indeed offended by the image. The student proceeded to discuss the incident with the Vice President for Inclusive Excellence at Hamline who sent out an email to all university employees saying that the act of showing this image was, “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic”. The administration of Hamline University then held an open forum about Islamophobia.
A number of Muslim students spoke and they narrated in powerful emotional terms, that it was sometimes a struggle to fit in at Hamline and that they felt that their overall identities were sometimes not respected, and that the showing of the image of the Prophet Muhammad felt like an offense upon other offenses. The administration had reached out to an outside expert to present at the Open Forum, Jaylani Hussein, who leads the Council on American Islamic Relations Minnesota Chapter. Mr. Hussein compared showing the 14th-century piece of Islamic art to pedophilia, and to teaching that Hitler was good at this public forum.
When a religion professor and chair at Hamline, Mark Bergsten stood up and pointed out that the world’s 1.6 plus billion Muslims are not of a single mind about depictions of the Prophet, a senior academic administrator reportedly told him that such issues should not be raised at the forum. When that professor wrote an article explaining the place of that piece of art for the student newspaper at Hamline, the article was removed from the website. Dr. Erica López Prater was told that she would not be teaching at Hamline in the winter-spring term of 2023 as she reportedly had expected to do.
The university president wrote a public letter that stated that respect for Muslim students should have superseded academic freedom. Since the controversy hit the Sunday New York Times some weeks back, several things have happened, reported in a subsequent New York Times article. Multiple Muslim organizations including the National Chapter, National Office of the Council on American Islamic Relations have said that Dr. López Prater’s actions were not Islamophobic and that teaching about the diverse strands of the Muslim tradition, including its art should be welcome on American college campuses.
The administration and board of Hamline University have said that they should not have characterized Dr. López Prater’s teaching as Islamophobic and that academic freedom and respecting diverse identities can coexist. Everyone makes mistakes and missteps, they pointed out, and that is certainly true and grace ought to be given. Dr. López Prater is suing Hamline for violations of religious freedom, “because she did not conform her conduct to the specific beliefs of a Muslim sect, and because she did not conform her conduct to the religion-based preferences of Hamline that images of Muhammad not be shown to any Hamline student.”
My panelists, friends, and colleagues will show themselves right now. Having finished the summary of this case, we will be guided by some of the wisest figures in the nation on some of the challenges that this case presents. My friend Omid Safi is a professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University and was prominently featured in The New York Times article. My friend Maria Dixon Hall is Chief Diversity Officer at Southern Methodist University and also a professor there.
Finally, my friend Laurie Patton is president of Middlebury University, past president of the American Academy of Religion, author of a book that is highly relevant to our case called Who Owns Religion, which we will put in the chat. Also, the co-lead with me for the teaching interfaith faculty seminar that she and I facilitate every summer in partnership with the Council of Independent Colleges funded by the Lilly Endowment.
Here’s how I’m going to approach this panel. After asking one general question to the whole panel about what’s at stake in this case, I’m going to engage each panelist individually about how they would have approached the issue from their particular position in space on campus. Professor, as in the case of Omid, Chief Diversity Officer as in the case of Maria, and University President, as in the case of Laurie. Because all of these three terrific people are friends, I’m going to take the liberty of calling them by their first names, and I am excited to begin. We will begin with you, Omid. Tell us, what are the one or two things that you think are most at stake in this situation?
Omid Safi: Thank you so much, friends, for creating the space for us to have this conversation. These images and the debate around them is very deeply personal for many of us. I’m teaching a seminar on the life [inaudible 00:11:51] semester at Duke University. We’re actually having discussions of many of these images in my classes. For me, the one takeaway point that I would want to start with is a recognition that when you’re dealing with a 1400-year-old tradition that geographically had spread from Indonesia to Morocco, and then today, of course, in Europe and North America as well, a variety of approaches to issues like how does one come to express devotion in a religious context, vis-à-vis our senses, vis-à-vis images.
We know this from the Christian context. We know this from other religious traditions, where there have been important debates about the usage of icons. Why should we be surprised that different committed Muslims have also had a variety of perspectives? For me, the point that I try to share with my students, regardless of their faith backgrounds, is that devout, committed, observant Muslims, at times have used these kinds of devotional images to accentuate their love for the Prophet and their love for God. At times, because of that very same love and devotion, have astute using of images, lest they be led astray. I want to document that spectrum of interpretations and practices, instead of telling the students what they should think about these images.
Eboo: Thank you, friend, Maria, what’s at stake in this case?
Maria Dixon Hall: Well, first of all, thank you for this fantastic opportunity to be with some good friends and colleagues. I think even from my perspective, I think this is an opportunity for us to think about the role of the chief diversity officer in the life of institutions of higher education. While we’ve had this role in some form, since men and women and people of color have integrated institutions in mass, I think we are in a new period of time, in which that role is under more spotlight nationally, and certainly by a certain political figure. I think that’s number one. What does it mean in the life of the university to have a chief diversity officer?
I think the second question is, how do we manage conflict discursively on a university campus when we have debates about diversity and values? This is a case in which my staff, my team, and I have talked about. What are some of the discursive rules? What are the communication rules we want to have when we get to this point? I think those are the two that I come from in my unique perspective.
Eboo: Thank you, Maria. Laurie.
Laurie Patton: Hey, everybody. It’s wonderful to see you all and it’s also wonderful to have everyone online engaging with this. I wanted to just pause before I answer the question to say, heart, mind, and soul go to the folks at Hamline who are in this conversation. You are doing the hard work of the Academy right now and we hold you very much in our minds and hearts as you are doing this work. I wanted to just name that for people at Hamline at all sides of the issue right now because it’s really important work.
Also, it’s under the white-hot glare of the media and that can also be really hard as Eboo said. Eboo, I really love that. My new way of asking that question is to quote my VP for Equity and Inclusion back to Maria’s point, which is what’s alive for you in this? Can you be at home in that struggle? I think that’s a great way to frame the question that you asked us. For me, I’d say two things. I think that every intellectual community and institution of higher education needs to create practices of reflection to have difficult conversations.
It has become what we’re working on and at home in the struggle at Middlebury called conflict transformation as a liberal art. That is something that is incredibly important for all institutions of higher education and that’s going to look different at every place. Its locale, its history, its status, its way of thinking about the public square, which I’ll talk about a little bit later.
The reason why we need to create practices of reflection to have difficult conversations is because, in my view, it’s a way of making democracy concrete. I will share more about that but if our fundamental focus is to prepare and energize democratic citizens in the United States, then we need to make democracy concrete. It can’t be an abstraction, and that includes conflict transformation, a conflict management, and all the different modes of having difficult dialogue, which is really hard and takes a lot of time and practice, and intellectual courage.
The second thing I would say that is important is at stake here is, as intellectual communities, can we develop for people of all walks of life and all ranks at college or university a way of developing an honest and generous view of history, any history. If that is both honest and generous, and we develop that as both a skill and a disposition, then it helps us practice knowing our own history, our own American history, in a way that allows us to make democracy concrete because we’re going to be telling our own history to each other, as we partake in the public square. Those are the two things that I think are the most at stake for us as we learn to be at home in this struggle.
Eboo: Thank you. I just want to point out that the unbelievable discipline that was exercised here just finding one or two things. I know when I highlighted the questions to you all these past couple of days, I’m sure that you widdled 100 things at stake down to one or two so thank you for that. One of the themes that I wanted to just draw up from what each of you said, was the central role of a campus in a democracy, Alistair McIntyre, the great philosopher at Notre Dame points out that part of what a campus does is its initiate students into conflict into the conflicts of a democracy.
In the inevitable conflicts of a diverse democracy, it teaches students how to conduct them, and in fact, it teaches the society how to conduct discussions around its conflicts. That’s one of the special roles we get to play, those of us involved in higher ed. I’m going to take the liberty of answering this question briefly myself about what I think is at stake. One of the things I think is at stake in this is what should we expect of a college education?
One of the things I think about is, for somebody who spends a lot of time on campuses, is it would feel to me as if I had done my job if a student went out into the world 10, 20, 30 years and had a wide and various career, both professionally and in terms of citizenship, and a personal life and came back and said, “You prepared me for the diversity of the world.”
I think one of the things that I would reflect upon is if somebody came back and 20, 30, 40 years and said, “You know what? There were things I saw in the world, which you should have prepared me for and you didn’t.”
The students involved in Hamline, somebody might be the ambassador to Indonesia one day, or the ambassador to Turkey or the ambassador to Pakistan or Iraq, or Inshallah to Iran when relations change, and may well see an image of the Prophet Muhammad in the home of a diplomat or an art museum. Or as Omid will say, “You don’t even have to go to Indonesia to see that you can see that in New York City.”
what does it look like to be prepared to encounter something that you might have been uncomfortable with? It feels to me that that is part of what a college education is. I’m going to proceed in the way that Laurie actually taught me how to teach cases. Laurie and I present cases and invite the faculty who take the Teaching Interfaith seminar that we teach every summer in Chicago to present challenging cases and we work through them in their particulars. We’re going to go through the three different spaces that this case was most alive in.
The first was in a classroom with a faculty member. The second is in the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer and the third was with the university president. I’m going to ask Maria and Laurie to go dark on us and I’m going to go tete-a-tete with Omid here and work through the particularities of showing this image in a classroom. Omid, you’ve already indicated that you would have shown this painting and you’ve told us why because traditions are diverse. I’m curious, I just want to dig into that a little bit. How does it sit with you if somebody describes an action as Islamophobic that you view as reverential as a Muslim and that you as a professor understand as being at the center of a tradition? At least in some places and at some points in time. How does it feel when somebody describes that as Islamophobic?
Omid: Oftentimes, Eboo, we talk about the need for interfaith dialogue and education intercultural dialogue and education. That’s certainly important, and I think we need much more of that. Oftentimes though, there’s also the need for intrafaith and intracultural, particularly when we deal with a religious community that’s a billion and a half people, maybe more. Each one of us speaks from a certain vantage point. None of us speak for something called Islam. In this particular case, the students and some of the advocacy groups, they said, “Never in my life have I seen an image of the prophet Mohamed.”
They’re speaking from their own experience. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity and the veracity of what they say. What I would ask them to do is to ask the question. Is it possible that there are some other Muslims in India, in Pakistan, in Iran, in Turkey who not only have seen such images but have produced such images out of a sense of reverence, out of a sense of devotion?
Then I would tell them, “In Istanbul at the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, which is as good of an Islamic art museum as there is in the world, when they had images and relics of the prophet Mohamed showing, there was a line around the block for people to get in.” That in both the Sunni and the Shia context, it’s not unheard of to produce these images. I think one of the catastrophes intellectually speaking of this situation is that the speakers from the advocacy groups didn’t seem to have any way of conceptualizing these images as anything other than the horrific Islamophobic images that Jyllands-Posten in Denmark had produced.
Whereas these are images by Muslims, for Muslims historically produced for devotional purposes. In that sense, I’m trying to invite our Muslim participants alongside everybody else to take a look at the breadth and the diversity of practices in this tradition.
Eboo: Omid, there’s been much made of whether Dr. López Prater gave a trigger warning before showing these images. It’s been reported that it was in the syllabus and that she warned the students right beforehand. One of the things you said in the New York Times piece that appeared in the Sunday Times a few weeks ago was you as an Islamic studies professor at Duke, as the person who is head of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, you do not give a warning. You don’t give a warning. I’m curious, do you think that that’s a relevant fact in this case, whether a warning was given or not?
Omid: Here’s what I do tell my students on the first day of class. There are Muslim participants who may come from Arab backgrounds, Sub-Saharan backgrounds, Indonesian backgrounds who’ve never been exposed to these images. There’s also a spiritual and intellectual amnesia where things used to be a part of a tradition and today are forgotten by many people. What I tell my students is that at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there are 13 images of the Prophet Mohamed. There’s also images at the Sackler, Smithsonian, at the British Library, at the Paris, and Istanbul, in Iran and all the way around the world.
There are hundreds and hundreds of these images present. I tell them that we’re going to be taking seriously the full spectrum of Muslim engagement with a prophet, including song, music, poetry, and images. That’s the extent of advanced notification that I do give my students.
Eboo: I want to ask about authority here. Do you think that being a Muslim gives you a special authority to show these paintings? If you were an art historian or a professor of Islamic studies that was not Muslim, what authority would you have to show them?
Omid: When your name is Omid and you have this gorgeous brown skin and you’ve got this wonderful little salt and pepper beard-
Eboo: Keep going, keep going.
Omid: Oh, yes. Luminous, I think that was used in the intro. I don’t get to escape my Muslimness, nor would I want to. At no point do I stop being a Muslim, nor do I stop being a scholar, nor do I stop being a bubba or a son or a friend or a neighbor. These are all layers of my identity. The minute that I walk in, I’m read as that. I’m racialized as that. I have to come to terms with how I process it. The interesting aspect is that it’s not so much whether there is Muslim versus non-Muslim. Sometimes you can be read as the wrong kind of Muslim.
People oftentimes want to know, “Well, is it because you come from a Shia background? Is it because you’re one of those Sufis who’s all about the love of God? Is it because your politics are so progressive that you’re probably for all kinds of same-sex rights and what have you?” All I can tell people is, “This is who I am, but we’re here actually to study a tradition.” If I can just have 10 more seconds to finish this, that same painting that Dr. Erika López Prater showed in the image, that book is a significant role model for us.
It’s the first book in history of Islamic civilization where Rashida Dean Habib wrote a book by saying, “I’m going to tell the whole history of China, of Central Asia, of Iran, of Arab lands, and of Europe. In every case, I’m going to use local indigenous sources.” What an extraordinary model for the 14th century. We can tell the history of China not based on what we think of them, but what they say about themselves. That’s the reason that I talk about that book in our first week of class.
If we want to know what the images of the prophet have meant to Turks and Iranians and South Asians who come from a Sunni and Shia background, we have to listen to what they themselves have had to say about it before we go any further.
Eboo: I find that so beautiful. Omid, thank you. I think it raises some of the questions Maria raised up front, which is, is diversity work the many ways that people have understood things over the course of time and places or is diversity work one way of understanding something that we superimpose on other people? Thank you.
Eboo: Last question, from the reporting on the case, a professor at Hamline Mark Berkson spoke up a number of times to try to provide academic context for the showing of the academic context that you’re providing now. Virtually nobody listening I would imagine, except for perhaps Professor Berkson who I hope is listening would know about the way that the Compendium of Chronicles had been put together. Professor tries to provide academic context at the public forum, and for the student newspaper at Hamline. Again according to the reporting, he was told to be quiet by another academic administrator. His article in the piece of art was removed from the student newspaper.
Omid, this is going to sound obvious, but what’s the role of a professor with scholarly knowledge on a college campus with respect to say, discussing a medieval text?
Omid: I cannot be oblivious to the amount of authority that we have in a classroom. For me, fundamentally, we are citizens and we cannot be citizens without being an informed citizen. In this particular case, what I hope is that regardless of where we come down on the issue of images of the prophet that we realize that justice and injustice doesn’t break down so neatly into a binary. On one hand, we’re dealing with Black, Muslim, African, and mostly female students who are triply and quadruple marginalized. On the other hand, we have an adjunct faculty member who sits at the very crossroads of the dysfunction of the current neoliberal university.
We don’t have just the model of oppressor versus oppressed. There’s lines of inquiry and justice and injustice that we have to interrogate within every single one of us. We have to ask the question, why would those Somali and Sudanese Black Muslim immigrant women have felt so marginalized? Well, take a look at how Ilhan Omar is treated from Minnesota. That gives you a really good indication. The controversy doesn’t begin in a classroom, and the lives of our students do not begin in a classroom.
If we claim to care for our students, in fact, to love, protect, cherish, and challenge our students, then we have to be willing to engage that totality of what makes them and us human.
Eboo: Beautifully said. Thank you. I will ask you to take your luminous presence for a moment into the shroud. I’m going to welcome my friend Maria Dixon Hall into the light, and we’re going to discuss precisely what Maria, you indicated earlier, which is what is the role of the chief diversity officer? Been walking around the offices of Interfaith America asking this question for some months now, and I love that you cut straight to the chase on this. Let me ask this, how common is it as the chief diversity officer and also senior advisor to the Pre– you play multiple roles at Southern Methodist University?
How common is it for a student to come to your office with a complaint or a concern about something that a professor did that offended that student’s identity? A particular text that was assigned in a class, a particular comment made in class, whether, for example, a holiday is called Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year, for example? How common is it?
Maria: In all honesty, Eboo, it probably only happens once or twice a semester. That’s in many ways for the unique way that we’ve set it up here at SMU. I’m not going to say that we don’t have questions, but one of the things we do have is we have diversity officers in every single academic unit. People who are there near the professors, near the students who can act as onsite translators, facilitators, and answer those questions. When it gets to me like I said, once or twice a year, it’s pretty much a student has decided they are unhappy with the responses they’ve had to that point. Like I said, it’s usually once or twice a year.
Eboo: Implicit in that is you’re trying not to– there’s kind of an approach at SMU, and then part of this is, I know this about how you approach things, is we’re not going to escalate. Most things can be dealt with in the course of a conversation at the “local level”. Let’s talk about this specific case. A Muslim student comes to you and is distraught and offended by a depiction of the prophet Muhammad shown in an art history class. Tell us what’s going through your mind. Tell us how you engage with the student. Tell us what your next steps are vis-à-vis the professor in question and other university administrators including the president.
Maria: Well, the first thing, and I’m going to be very transparent here. The first thing is, okay, here we go. I start in my mind going, “What are the most salient issues for this student? What is it this student wants accomplished? What does resolution look like for this student?” Sometimes the student simply wants to be heard, wants to be heard at the highest level. If that’s the case, my job is to listen. Is it they want understanding, how do we handle these things in higher education?
How do we handle these as a professor? I think that’s one of the great roles in being both a chief diversity officer and a professor is that sometimes students want to come, particularly students who come from underrepresented backgrounds want to hear from me, “Hey, was this a normal experience? Is this what I should have experienced in the classroom?”
There are those times when I begin to recognize that a student is in what I like to call the gotcha mode. The “I want to raise this up. This is an issue of justice. This is an issue of equity for me, and I wanna make sure that you as the chief diversity officer are aware of it, and not only aware of it. Most times, if we’re at case number three, I want you to be my advocate on this particular issue.” If it’s number, whatever it is, the first thing I start with is I remind the student of the institutional values we have around diversity. As you know, at SMU, we call it cultural intelligence.
Our goal is for people to become culturally intelligent about people, traditions, and cultures they know nothing about. We don’t ask them to like them. We don’t ask them to adhere to them, but we treat it like a foreign language. In order to survive in this world, you have to speak multiple cultural languages. The first thing I tell a student is we have a principle of institutional grace, and that means that we assume people will make mistakes, but what do we do at a university? Our job is not to cast people out for making mistakes, but to bring them in, to engage them in conversation.
That’s the first thing that we do. The second thing is requisite diversity. We’re going to have people who think differently about this. Your professor may have thought differently about this than you do, than maybe your imam does, but understand the wide conversation that’s happening around you. Finally, we believe in big table inclusion, which means there are going to be people on this campus who are going to disagree with you. There are going to be other Muslims who are going to disagree with you. How then do you proceed into this world knowing that?
My hope is always that by the time we get to those values, we’ve brought the temperature down. If I’ve perceived we haven’t, then what I have to do is recognize that we may be moving to the next level, which means our students have access to Twitter and Instagram. They don’t use Twitter as much. They use Instagram and some other things. The first thing that I do after the student may leave my office is I begin to gather the stakeholders and say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on.”
My first call is usually to my diversity officer in that academic office or that academic unit. I also want to give the professor a heads up and the chair. What that diversity officer on the local level can do is act as a council to that professor and to that dean. That allows me to handle one end of the hierarchy one way. Then I start marshaling the university. I reach out to my chaplain who may reach out to our campus imam and say, “Hey, here’s what we’ve got. Tell me more about this particular issue.” I’m also letting our folks in marketing and external affairs know, “Hey, keep an eye on social media for me. Make sure that this has not exploded.”
Then often, usually, probably the fourth person in line is actually the president. Is to say, “We are working on this. I’ll let you know if it looks like it’s bubbling up. We’ve got the team that you’ve assembled working on it right now.” We usually check in through the day. I also give room for the student to come back to me and say, “I’ve thought of something different, or I want to engage in something different.”
Eboo: Opportunity to change somebody’s mind. Maria, there’s so much wisdom there. I just want to do a quick summary here. Part of what I’m hearing is student comes to you with a concern, your instinct is there is a legitimate subjective experience happening here that requires listening and understanding. The instinct is not a grave injustice took place. That’s the instinct.
Maria: Exactly right.
Eboo: This is a legitimate subjective experience, and there’s a set of details that emerge that make it a grave injustice. I imagine the frame shifts quite quickly. The instinct is legitimate of experience, not grave injustice. I also want to highlight one hears an awful lot of diversity offices declaring themselves as believing in, for example, power, privilege, and oppression, your diversity office operates on a different paradigm. Cultural intelligence. I simply want to underscore that. There’s a paradigm out there called cultural intelligence in which knowing about different types of Muslim art probably qualifies. Probably qualifies.
Maria: Most definitely.
Eboo: At a table of inclusion, we’re talking about eight billion people in the world and SMU is seeking to be a microcosm of that, you can probably expect that the expression of one person at some point down the line is going to feel like an ouch to another person. Cultural intelligence is knowing about the various expressions in the world and being able to navigate those.
Eboo: I think it’s useful to know that there are different paradigms for how we can do diversity work. Omid brought up, there are multiple identities in the mix. Most of the students involved here are not just Muslim, they’re Muslims of Somali and Sudanese heritage, they’re Black women. You’re a Black woman, you deal with people who are African-American for generations and also more recent African immigrants. Again, I know this because I’ve visited SMU, you and I are friends. We exchanged stories. How are those multiple complex identities in the mix?
The students, yours, other African-Americans, and recently immigrated Africans who are American, how do you think about that mix of identities? Of course, we’re talking about students and faculty also. Those are also identities in the mix.
Maria: Well, and I think this is the thing that as I’ve been a chief diversity officer, the first identity that I sometimes come to now is generational. Even if someone has been an African-American all of their life, the experience of being an African-American in America is different by generation. Gen X is going to see this different than baby boomers. Gen Z and millennials definitely see it different. I had to recognize that even as I’m working with students and my younger sorority sisters. I start generationally.
I recognize that we may have a barrier generationally. The second thing is I recognize my position and that’s not as a chief diversity officer. I have a bias for the faculty perspective, I just do, and I want to be a teacher. Sometimes that gets in the way of simply listening to the student experience. When we start getting down to that skin color thing, that expectation of me to see oppression, to see injustice the same way, what I often have to do is say, “We can’t see it the same way, we have not walked in the same shoes.”
Yes, I know what it’s like to be a Black woman in America but I do not know what it’s like to be an African woman coming to America, and having the additional issues of immigration, the issues of maybe language, tradition, and religion, that make our lives different. I’m having to negotiate all of that, in addition to religion. Religion is probably, of all of those identities, the one I least am going to be charged on.
The one that I’m going to get the litmus test on is how am I expressing myself as a Black woman and if I don’t jump into this the way that I’m expected to, then I have to explain, why is it I don’t see it like you. I think that gets hard for a number of chief diversity officers who happen as Omid said, his cocoa skin, well, this wonderful, rich dark chocolate that I inhabit, there’s some expectations that people have that come with it. What I try to remind people of is that this particular voluptuous chocolate woman has come to America in a particular way and that has shaped my experience. I’m always balancing those.
Eboo: It’s so interesting the expectations that others have of us and how that shapes what we do, but also the offices we hold. Thank you for that. I want to underscore just the wisdom and also the many hats you hold. You are an associate professor, you teach classes, and as a person, you have a faculty role in a tenured way. That’s in that and doubling with your chief diversity officer role and again you are also a particular type of advisor to the President. You also help students run their own diversity company on cultural intelligence. There’s many things that you’ve got here. Thank you so much, Maria. I’m going to ask Laurie to come on stage. I appreciate you very, very much.
Maria: Thank you.
Eboo: Hi, Laurie.
Eboo: I’ll let you grade me on how well I’m teaching this case or unfolding this case later. You wrote the book on this, literally, it is in the chat. You wrote a book called Who Owns Religion. Your publisher is on the phone right now saying, “Let’s put out a new edition with this case.” Take a couple of minutes and tell us how the themes of Who Owns Religion are demonstrated by this case.
Laurie: Absolutely. It’s called Who Owns Religion and the subtitle is Scholars and Republics in the Late 20th Century. It starts by basically arguing that the study of religion is always going to be controversial, that that is a bedrock for who we are. It’s not just a sort of, “Oh, yes, let’s describe it.” That we need to prepare for those controversies because belief and practice are always going to conflict with historical inquiry.
I devoted about two to three chapters in this specific question and engagement. For the purposes of time, I’m being very schematic here. What that preparation looks like and should look like, here I’m speaking as a scholar of religion. I know you want to talk about the role of president later but that preparation looks like reflection on the nature of the public square. That what’s frequently missing in our preparing graduate students, as well as others and our undergrads, is the fact that we are controversial. An approach to controversy and reflection about controversy and our commitment to public discourse, reading those philosophies, reading the sociology of controversy, all those kinds of things should be part of the study of religion more broadly at the individual and the community and the department level, micro mezzo, and macro levels.
I then look at how that predicament came about. I look at the 1990s as a place where the utopian understanding of the early internet plus understandings of multicultural power and engagement emerged and came into conflict and engagement with each other. Then in the second part of the book, I look at six case studies a Sikh, Muslim Native American, Catholic, Christian, Jewish and Hindu cases and look at the dynamics of each of those and they’re really different. The universities and colleges are different, the seminaries are different, and so on.
Then I spent the last chapter focused on thinking through the role of the scholar when these controversies erupt. Questions of representation, being incredibly real and the institution as well as the department as well as the larger units and all of the administrative units, I think, as well as professors need to be prepared for that. They should be doing these reflections on case studies as well. They need to have a very articulated view of what their view of social media is, and how it’s used and not used. That’s a part and parcel of how we can manage the kinds of things that are inevitably going to happen.
The final part of the book, if it’s helpful to people and the goal is to be helpful is when we need to prepare for these, what I call erupted public spaces. This is definitely our friends and colleagues at Hamline are definitely in that really tough moment right now. When those tensions erupt, those rules of debate that we might be used to or might be trained on disappear. We need to be deeply prepared for other ways of maintaining relationship. The final part is a set of questions that I hope would be helpful for every person engaged in one of these things to ask themselves before the eruptive public space comes upon them about their own view of the public square, their department’s view of the public square, their institution’s view of the public square, to freedom of expression and to inclusive practices. It’s a way of trying to bring a humanity and a discipline to these controversies so that preparation can provide a grounding when they inevitably do occur.
Eboo: I remember first reading eruptive public space. You gave me a manuscript early before it was published, I thought to myself, like, “This is one of those phrases that emerged from the academy that like paradigm shift, or like imagined community are so helpful for organizing how we think things, eruptive public space.” Thank you for that. Laurie, this has been framed, inevitably, of course, as academic freedom versus sensitivity to student identities. Do you think that’s the right framing? What happens when the two come into conflict as they inevitably will?
Laurie: I think it’s such an important question and there’s been a lot of really great writing on this. I know FYC has bibliographies on that, and I can work with folks in FYC to continue to look at all sides of this issue. Pan America, I think, has done a really great job of helping frame these issues in important ways. I think we’ve had a lot of heat and light shed on the topic in the last 10 years certainly but I do think that we still tend to because it’s a natural way to think, approach it in terms of binaries and extremes.
It’s free speech absolutism versus our overly sensitive students or really foregrounding questions for justice is the central thing. Justice has to be the main motivator, versus folks who are in positions of power and privilege who are using free speech as a cover. There’s all these different ways of framing it. I would say it has become a binary that is less helpful, even though it’s absolutely essential but the reality, first of all, for most of the academy, including Hamline is that it’s always somewhere in the middle. That most of higher ed is engaging with these tough issues every day and managing including in Hamline, in a way that is quite successful and doing just fine and trying to keep moving in these really tough arenas.
I also do think that it’s time to reframe the issue. The way I’d like to think about it that has been helpful for us in terms of rights and responsibilities. I do think that the right to freedom of expression, and freedom of academic inquiry must be protected. That is absolutely fundamental and must be also engaged and reflected on.
I think in academic communities, we do some of that, but we don’t do enough of that. It should be part of everything that we think about and do because it’s also a part of the history of our democracy. It’s, again, back to framing it as making democracy concrete for our citizens of the future. I also think that right must be protected not just for purposes of individual expression and creativity, which it tends to be cast as, but also because of the very inclusivity and justice work that we are trying to make.
I would say the second thing, which is about responsibilities, given that that’s our right, our responsibilities are to educate and reflect on the nature of the public square and come to our own understanding of who we are in that public square. We’re going to land differently each of us in different ways. What that responsibility looks like for maintaining a robust and inclusive public square when it can so easily be polarized, is something that communities, I think should also be responsible to do.
That for us at Middlebury includes preparing people for difficult dialogues and the way that is ubiquitous. It was a really interesting moment for us as we consider our own really difficult moments as an institution to say, “Okay, what does it look like for us to create conflict transformation as a liberal art?”
There are a number of amazing techne, I call, not technique, but techne and the Greek sense of art and craft and skill all at once. I love that term. The techne for building difficult dialogue. There are so many. There’s plain conflict mediation, there’s restorative practices, there’s restorative justice, there’s deliberative dialogue. There’s a beautiful constructive dialogue institute.
Jake Fay is creating metrics that he thinks could be measurable for each student to have this as a skill. We can argue about whether those are the right metrics or not, but all of those areas are areas that should be available for students so that they know that there are resources to engage, maintain the relationship with the person or people that they are arguing with and disagree with, and yet have the robust conversation at the same time. That has been our number one goal is in the reframing of this question to make it ubiquitous across high school.
We have a high school teacher training in English at our Bread Loaf School of English at the graduate level, and particularly at the undergraduate level. The other thing I would make sure that we are aware of, and I know you probably want some follow-up here, is that there is no magic bullet here. It’s a skillset. It takes intellectual and emotional fortitude to do this. I think two things that are incredibly helpful when people are in the eruptive public square, number one, the power of the pause. I think administrators particularly feel, I feel it all the time to respond quickly and effectively.
“How come you took so long? What does your silence say?” and so forth. You want to be on the side of the angels and you don’t know where the angels are. I think part of what we need to do is always take a moment to pause and reflect in the middle of that. That’s a lot of different ways you could do that institutionally. Second, the power of scaffolding conversations. I have a piece about this in inside higher ed just a couple of months ago. What I mean by that is I’ll give an example of a wonderful political scientist who was teaching the Israel-Palestine conflict right at the moment when there was an eruption of tensions.
I think, even 20 years ago, we would all say, “Okay, what’s your view on it?” We all come together and think that we have the skill to manage that. She knew that even for her, that was going to be tough. She unraveled the many dimensions of the issue and began with a simple one, which was, “Where do you come from?” Then it was only the next day that she said, “Have you had any experience in Israel?” Then the next day, “Have you had an experience in Palestine?”
It seems very simple but it’s an incredibly effective way to build competence and trust in, as you say, because our classrooms are the original civic space, and that’s why we think of them as mini democracies. Ways to deepen that skill begins with a classroom. Those are two things that I wanted to be helpful here, offer as places of real effective engagement in addition to the broader ubiquity of conflict transformation skills across campus.
Eboo: Well, my colleague Becca, just put in the chat that this is what our seminar feels like, right? It’s you take a case and you unfold it, and then we try to nurture and cultivate techne, what a great term for the engagement with the inevitable conflict of a diverse democracy. Honestly, if they’re emerging at a college campus, it’s part of what college does, is it initiates you into that conflict in the way of dealing with it.
Omid, Maria, can I welcome the two of you back? I think that there are 556 people who I think are applauding in their living rooms or offices or wherever they might be. I knew we would run out of time and we have. I knew we would not get to the Q&A and we did not. We will collect these questions. This webinar is recorded. We will be sending out at least some version of this along with the links. I want to thank all of you so much. Thank all of you so much.
To illuminate and not to further a controversy, to shed light and not heat, I think that that’s sacred. I think that you all have done that. I want to leave people with some wisdom from the great Harvard political philosopher Daniel Allen, who says that “Ebus Unum does not mean out of many, we are all the same. It means out of many, we come to a new wholeness.” That is what engaging diversity on our campuses can be.
That’s what I think the compass and guiding star of a cultural intelligence approach might allow for. That is what developing techne can help us with. That is what recognizing the many beauties of a tradition as Omid reminded us helps elevate us towards. Thank you all for joining us. Very happy Interfaith America was able to host this. [Arabic language] May God give you goodness. Goodbye.
Intro/outro music provided by Mysterylab Music and composed by Mott Jordan.
Credit music provided by Die Hard Productions.
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