Can Academic Freedom be Reconciled with Respect for Diversity?

Can Academic Freedom be Reconciled with Respect for Diversity?

by Michael F. Mascolo, Ph.D.

Is it possible to create common ground with advocates of fundamentalist thinking?  Hamline University recently fired adjunct professor Erika Lopez Prateran for displaying an image of the prophet Muhammad in her Global Art History class.  According to the New York Times, an email co-signed by Fayneese S. Miller, the President of Hamline University, indicated that signed an email “respect for the Muslim students ‘should have superseded academic freedom.’” The Dean of Students at the University referred to the act of showing the image as “inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic”. Scholars regard the image in question as an important piece of Islamic art.

The professor had prefaced her introduction of the image by a series of announcements, indicating that the image would be shown, and that the students had the opportunity to leave class rather than view it.  The professor also provided an explicit justification for including the image in the course.  

As Director of Creating Common Ground Inc, I am committed to the cause of seeking to bridge divides on contentious social and political issues.  This raises an obvious question: Is it possible to bridge divides in the debate between free speech versus respect for diversity?  As a college professor, I am committed to the value of academic freedom and free speech.  Without free speech, there can be no academy.  Unless professors and students have the freedom to speak the truth as they believe it, there can be no genuine exchange of ideas. Without academic freedom, the very process of constructive thinking is stymied.

Respect for diversity, of course, is explicit in the twin values of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Freedom of speech seeks to define the range of acceptable speech broadly.  It seeks to limit speech only in extreme circumstances.  This is the way that academic freedom is congenial to respect for diversity.  In this sense, there is no contradiction between freedom of speech and respect for diversity.

But what happens when we are called upon to extend the value of respect for diversity to include voices that prohibit certain forms of expression and speech?  Part of the process of respecting diversity is respect for the identities and values of individuals and groups.  Is it permissible for academics (or anyone else) to engage in speech that particular social groups deem to be demeaning to their identities, religions, or core values?  That is, is it possible to reconcile academic freedom with the goal of respecting the prerogatives of different identity groups?

It is indeed possible to reconcile academic freedom with respect for identity groups, only if academic freedom and respect for diversity are not grounded in fundamentalist beliefs.

How is such a reconciliation possible?  Ask Erika Lopez Prateran — the professor who was fired in this case. In showing the image in question, Dr. Prateran did not require her students to view it. She did not force the image upon them. She included an explanation of why she felt the image was important.  Her views are easily corroborated with many scholars, including many Muslim scholars. She provided adequate warning that the images would be shown. In short, she not only acted in concert with her right to academic freedom, but also with sensitivity and respect to her students and to those who believe that the image of Muhammad is sacred.

What she did not do was to “give in” to fundamentalist demands that call for universal enforcement of contested beliefs.  Fundamentalism consists of the strict adherence to rules or beliefs – especially those that are grounded in religion or scripture.  The belief that images of Muhammad are impermissible is not a ubiquitous one – even among Muslims.[i]

It is contested. It is not permissible to seek universal enforcement of a contested rule – no matter how much that rule is definitive of the core beliefs of a given social group. However, we can – and should – seek to be sensitive to the sensibilities of different social groups when we can. This is what it means to be respectful. Nonetheless, it is one thing to attempt to be sensitive to the needs and desires of a social group. It is another thing to define the concept of respect in terms of a requirement to honor and obey fundamentalist assertions about contested beliefs.

Academic freedom and freedom of speech are core values, but it they are not fundamentalist ones.  We recognize limitations on these values. It is not acceptable for an academic to teach patently false claims about his own or any other discipline in the classroom.  An academic is not free to require students say that 2+2 = 5.  Outside of the academy, freedom of speech has obvious limitations.  One is not free, for example, to incite lawless action.  

Bridging divides between opposing systems of belief is possible.  It requires us to think outside of the limits that we might ordinarily place on our categories.  For example, we might ordinarily think, “It is not possible for it to be simultaneously dark and light”.  However, the examples of dusk and dawn immediately expose this statement as false. It is possible to bridge divides between competing systems of belief – but only of those systems of belief are not defined as fundamentally closed.  Although academic freedom is a core value that should be broadly upheld, it is not a fundamentalist value.  The statement that it is always impermissible for all people to display an image that is offensive to some groups is a fundamentalist assertion.  By definition, it is not open to alternative ways of being in the world.

Beware of all fundamentalisms, including this one.

[i] Jaafari, S. (2015, January). You can’t draw Muhammad – unless you’re one of the many muslim artists who did. The World,, M. K., (2019, January). Is it ever okay to depict Muhammad? The Paris Review,; McManus, J. (2015, January). Have pictures of Muhammad always been forbidden? BBC News,; Rosenberg, A. (2015, January). What we lose when we can’t depict Muhammad. The Washington Post.

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