Academic freedom or Muslim students’ rights? Neither

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To the Editor:

The framing of your Jan. 3 article on Hamline University as “academic freedom vs. rights of of Muslim students” demeans the rationality and intellect of devout Muslims and diminishes the university practices needed to accommodate Muslim students with respect.

I was once a conservative religious Christian student bewildered by course content that challenged my faith. A crisis of faith will never feel “safe.” However, I struggled with challenging course material in a context that otherwise surrounded me with positive affirming of my belonging: most of my professors shared my race and my Christian religious background. There were multiple campus resource persons I felt comfortable approaching for spiritual advice. My professors, who were all full-time and tenured, were also available to build relationships of trust with their students. The architecture and academic rituals of my college showed respect toward my faith tradition. Portraits of White Christians lined the hallways of my college.

That is what support and inclusion looked like for me.

The surroundings that supplied me with an existential cushion through my crisis of faith convey something very different to Muslims, and particularly non-White Muslims, at predominantly white Christian-affiliated universities. 

Imagine, for a minute, how the contexts of our colleges and universities would need to change to provide Muslim students with a robust and positive affirmation of belonging.

The issues at the center of this story bypass these critical surrounding factors to focus on the de-contextualized classroom, where the question is the potential presence of offensive content. “Safety” is achieved through whack-a-mole efforts to remove content perceived to be offensive, aka content that provokes discomfort, often through a case-by-case complaint process. This process in most institutions places the onus on marginalized students for reporting experiences of bias.

It also puts instructors on the hook for managing students’ potential discomfort. We can lament the absence of this mythical thing called “academic freedom”; but we should first talk about how many adjunct faculty don’t have offices for meeting students in person. Adjunct contracts don’t cover the rapport and trust building required for teaching difficult subjects.

We can’t choose between  “academic freedom” and “the rights of Muslim students” because neither option is actually available here. 

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–Heather White 
Visiting assistant professor, Gender & Queer Studies Program
University of Puget Sound

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