Contextualizing the multiplicities at Hamline University, Part 1

An “academic freedom” event held earlier this month at Hamline University gives an insight into the current state of higher education. It’s just as bad as you thought.

The private Hamline University of St. Paul bills itself as the state’s oldest university, founded originally in Red Wing in 1854.

On September 12, Hamline University held a full-day event, billed as a “special forum” on “Academic Freedom & Cultural Perspectives.” This event was convened in response to a 2022 incident in which an adjunct art professor showed a picture of a painting in class that a student objected to. The professor was let go and is suing in Federal court. The University’s president is retiring next year.

The incident and its aftermath made national news. [Note: the Sept. 12 event I describe below should not be confused with a three-day event held on a similar theme, also hosted by Hamline from Sept. 18-20.]

Here athe Sept. 12 event’s agenda,

[As everyone involved is highly credentialed, I eschew the use of any honorific titles.]

The event, in its entirety, can be viewed here. (Click on the “On Demand” tab, and then scroll down to September 12.) The video runs for nearly four hours, but much of the running time consists of down time between sessions. The program only gets going at the 32-minute mark of the video. The program is opened by the school’s Vice President for Inclusive Excellence.

His introduction is immediately followed (34:30) by the obligatory “land acknowledgment.” A student born in the 21st century confidently declares that the University rests on stolen land.

After colonialism has been dutifully denounced, and without returning a single acre, the outgoing university president introduces the event’s keynote speaker, while taking gratuitous swipes at Florida and Texas (44:20).

Keynoter Michael Eric Dyson, is a Vanderbilt University-based academic and activist. His 36-minute address (followed by Q&A) begins at the 51:20 mark.

Free speech must “make room for nuance” was the theme of the day. “Free” speech is an illusion, you see.

The year 1619 is first mentioned at the 59:30 mark. It should be noted, because Dyson does not, that the first university in America wasn’t founded until 1636.

Without any trigger warning, the n-word first appears at the 1:02:01 mark and is repeated at least 8 more times throughout his talk. He can say the word, and in doing so undercuts the entire premise of the day’s event.

Jefferson is denounced at 1:04:10. Babe Ruth is denounced at 1:08:45. “N-word, b*tch, motherf****r are shouted at 1:09:50 to illustrate the concept of shock value. The inevitable anti-Trump screed is put off until 1:19:15.

During the Q&A session, Dyson asserts (1:41:30), without evidence, that “white people” and “white parents” are illiterate, in response to a question from the audience about the “parents rights problem.” At 1:43:57, Dyson declares that the “parents rights” movement is about “white supremacy.”

By the time Dyson is finished, controversies over Islamic art and academic freedom appear to belong to a different event.

Once you wade through the bluster, the rap lyrics, the academic jargon, and the ahistorical historical references, the free speech/academic freedom supported by Dyson is a particularly useless one.

He finally gets around to explaining his frequent invocation of the n-word at the 1:15:43 mark in describing an epiphany achieved at a Drake concert in Milwaukee. Dyson can say the n-word all he wants, but if a “white person” says it, he appears to advocate (1:16:47) for someone else “to exert lethal intensity upon” that person.

So, free speech/academic freedom as long as no one objects. And he makes clear that only members of certain approved groups retain the right to object, with “lethal intensity” or otherwise. Free speech for me, but not for thee.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the event (sign up required), and needless to say, saw things much differently than your correspondent.

Reported under the headline, “Hamline President goes on the offensive,” the Chronicle describes Dyson’s speech as follows,

Then there was the keynote, which featured soaring, powerful rhetoric from Michael Eric Dyson, who combines deep historical and cultural knowledge with the oratorical skills of a preacher (he is a minister). Dyson set the current debates about academic freedom in the historical context of exclusion and white male dominance in the academy, reminding us that claims about “academic freedom” rang hollow when so many women, people of color, and members of religious minorities were excluded from colleges.

Part 2 will cover the forum’s panel discussion, held later that morning and featuring author and academic Robin DiAngelo, whose book White Fragility, features a Dyson-penned forward.

Stay tuned!