Hamline University President Fayneese Miller announced Monday that she would retire in June 2024. Credit: Hamline University

Fayneese Miller stood at the lectern in Hamline University’s Klas Center, ready for the press conference to begin.

“I wish I had a lot of good jokes, but I don’t,” she said. “I’ve never known how to tell jokes.”

The reporters gathered already knew why they were there. Hours earlier, Hamline had announced that Miller, its president, would retire in June 2024. The announcement came months after a national controversy over the college’s decision to let go of an adjunct professor, Erika López Prater, who displayed an image of the Prophet Muhammad in an art-history class. The firestorm raised questions about academic freedom and the role of religion in the classroom.

Miller granted few media interviews at the height of the controversy in January. Now, it was her turn to speak.

“This is a bittersweet moment for me because Hamline University is an extraordinary institution,” she said. “When I leave Hamline University, I leave my heart.”

She directed some of her remarks directly to the 10 reporters gathered in the window-lined room overlooking Hamline’s historic Old Main building.

“I hope as you report on my retirement that you will also acknowledge that you’ve been reporting on a false narrative,” she said. “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.”

But student voices matter, too, she said: “Those who come to us to learn, to be educated, to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that Hamline University provides, need to be respected.”

In 2015, Miller became the first Black president in the 169-year history of the St. Paul-based private liberal arts university. She previously worked as founding chairman of ethnic studies at Brown University and as dean of the College of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont.

Miller had faced national scrutiny and calls for her resignation since January, when Hamline made national headlines by announcing the school would not renew López Prater’s teaching contract. López Prater showed a pair of centuries-old paintings of the Prophet Muhammad in an online art-history class last October, including one that showed the prophet’s face. Both paintings are widely considered by art historians to be masterpieces of medieval Islamic art. She included a warning in her syllabus that the images would be shown, and offered students the option of leaving class while the images were being displayed.

But many Muslims believe visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad to be sacrilegious. One Muslim student in the class, Aram Wedatalla, who is also the head of the university’s Muslim Student Association, took offense at the artwork and reported it to the university’s administration. The university subsequently decided not to re-up López Prater’s contract, which would have seen her teach a course in the spring. 

In Monday’s press conference, Miller declined to say what was incorrect about previous media reporting on the incident, citing the ongoing lawsuit. Her attorney was present in the room, she added.

“I’m chomping at the bit to tell the story,” Miller said. “But I know I’ll get in trouble if I do.”

She added one detail: “No one was let go for showing an image.”

Miller said “a variety of things” went into her decision to retire, but the primary reason was her family. In the eight years she has led Hamline University, Miller explained, she has lived apart from her family. Her husband still resides in Vermont. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they did not see each other for a year and a half. 

“Imagine being in this environment without a family,” she said.

She described a personally grueling tenure, in which she rarely took days off—including when she had surgery last year.

“Because my husband hasn’t been here and my son hasn’t been here, my life is Hamline University,” Miller said. “But I don’t regret it for a minute.”

Still, she said, “It’s time for my family to be together.”

Miller said that in her eight years at Hamline, she fulfilled the goals she had established at the start of her presidency. Those accomplishments include raising $105 million for Hamline, the majority of which will go to student scholarships; improving faculty salaries; and developing university-wide committees to give students, staff, and faculty more say in decision-making. She noted that Hamline’s student body is more diverse than when she arrived, and that the university has received national recognition for creating economic mobility for students.

“Everyone who takes these jobs knows you have a shelf life, and that you have goals that you want to achieve,” Miller said. “And when you reach those goals, it’s time to step aside and let someone else come in.”

In 2016, the average American college president had been in their job for 6.5 years, according to the most recent data available from the American Council on Education.

Ellen Watters, chair of Hamline’s board of trustees, praised Miller in a statement.

“Dr. Miller has been an innovative and transformational leader for Hamline,” Watters said. “She ably has led the University through a time of growth and change, and she has done so by centering the needs and well-being of Hamline students in her work. Hamline is forever grateful for Dr. Miller’s tireless and dedicated service.” 

Some civil-rights advocates who supported Miller raised questions about her departure announcement.

“To force out the only and the first Black president is absolutely in line with what has been going on for far too long, which is to undermine leadership of Black leaders in our state.”

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations–Minnesota

“This is a forced resignation,” said Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations–Minnesota. “We condemn it in the strongest terms.”

Jaylani described Miller as an “incredible leader” who brought leadership in a challenging financial time for higher education.

“To force out the only and the first Black president is absolutely in line with what has been going on for far too long, which is to undermine leadership of Black leaders in our state,” he said.

Miller disputed that her retirement was forced.

“Everyone who knows me knows that I’m never forced to do anything I don’t want to do,” she said. She stressed that her primary consideration was her family, particularly her husband, who is “significantly older” than she is. “I’m worried every single day that something’s going to happen to him, and I’m not going to be there.”

President Miller disputed that her Hamline retirement was forced. “Everyone who knows me knows that I’m never forced to do anything I don’t want to do,” she said.

R.A. Neal, an associate professor of education at Hamline—and the university’s only Black female tenured faculty member—praised Miller as a caring leader who made unpopular-but-necessary decisions to stabilize the university’s finances. Neal cautioned against assuming that Miller’s departure was related to the art-history controversy.

“She’s an outstanding president who happens to be an African American woman,” Neal said. “Because of her lived experiences, she’s very aware and conscientious of different forms of equity: gender equity, pay equity, race equity. To me, she represents fairness, she represents kindness, she represents thoughtfulness toward other human beings”—including students, staff, and faculty, Neal said.

The art-history incident

Miller and other administrators stood with Muslim students in the dispute over the paintings of the Prophet Muhammad.

David Everett, the university’s vice president of inclusive excellence, sent a campus-wide email calling López Prater’s actions “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic.” Miller and Everett then sent a joint message to all campus faculty and staff that said “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”

The incident blew up nationally over the holiday break, with organizations like PEN America and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression defending López Prater’s rights to academic freedom. Organizations like Hamline’s Muslim Student Association and the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) publicly supported Wedatalla and the administration’s actions. The national Council on American-Islamic Relations disagreed with the Minnesota chapter, stating, “We see no evidence that Professor Erika López Prater acted with Islamophobic intent.”

López Prater has since sued the university for defamation, religious discrimination, and infliction of emotional distress. Her lawsuit cites the emails from Miller and Everett. After the lawsuit was filed, Miller walked back the university administration’s previous statements calling López Prater’s actions Islamophobic, in a statement also signed by Watters, the chair of Hamline’s board of trustees. A motion hearing in the case is scheduled for May.

In January, a majority of Hamline’s full-time faculty voted to ask Miller for her resignation, citing her handling of López Prater’s employment. (The vote was symbolic, as faculty do not have the power to force the president’s resignation.)

Neal, the education professor, questioned the faculty council’s vote. “I actually think that my colleagues’ recent action against her has to do with race,” she said.

“I think President Miller was ready to retire. This is a good way for her to exit.”

Jim Scheibel, president of the Hamline University Faculty Council

Jim Scheibel, president of the Hamline University Faculty Council, expressed mixed feelings after Miller’s announcement. “I think President Miller was ready to retire,” he said. “This is a good way for her to exit.” 

The faculty council looks forward to working with the trustees on selecting an interim president and being involved with the search for a new president, he said.

Still, Scheibel added, much work remains ahead of the university. “We continue to be concerned about how the crisis might have an impact on our enrollment for next year.”

Most of Hamline’s full-time faculty are white. Only 14 percent of full-time faculty are people of color, according to federal data compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education. That’s a lower percentage than many peer institutions like the University of St. Thomas, Augsburg University, and the University of Minnesota. At the same time, Hamline’s students are increasingly diverse. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 31 percent of Hamline’s undergraduate students are people of color, up from 18 percent a decade ago. Hamline’s website reports that 44 percent of the 2022 incoming class are students of color.

In her press conference, Miller nodded to this student-faculty divide.

“I always say that it’s not students who need to change to meet us. We need to change to meet our students,” she said. “And I don’t think that we know how to do that yet. Because we want to still be the same place, and we can’t be the same place anymore.”

Thirteen student leaders, many of them students of color, co-signed a letter of support for Miller published in the Hamline Oracle, the student newspaper, in January.

“Miller has shown her support for students,” the letter read. “She has sat with us, consoled us and been a champion for us in these trying times, in a way that few faculty members have. We understand that she has to juggle caring for the students and the concerns of the faculty, yet she has been the shield defending this institution entirely taking the brunt of everyone’s disdain….we do not wish for President Miller to resign, especially when our vulnerable students need her the most.”

Jaylani, of CAIR-MN, said that Muslim students may want to reconsider where Hamline is addressing their needs. “They should probably move on and find another university,” he said. “There are other universities that are much more welcoming.” 

On the first day of spring classes in January, several Muslim students told Sahan Journal that the administration had supported them throughout the controversy. One student, a senior public health major, called any potential firing of Miller a “worst-case scenario.”

But some students disagreed. The Hamline Oracle conducted an online student poll on Miller’s potential resignation. Of thirty-six students who responded, more than half thought Miller should resign. Thirty percent said they were neutral. The remaining 11 percent thought she should stay.

Scheibel praised Miller’s relationship with students. Bridging divisions between faculty and students is part of the work ahead for Hamline, he said. “There needs to be a vision, and certainly the vision for Hamline is that we have a faculty that looks more and more like the student body.”

What comes next for Miller—and Hamline

Miller, a longtime educator, urged people to see the art-history incident, and the different ways of viewing it, as a “teachable moment.”

Academic freedom “doesn’t have to butt heads” with diversity and inclusion, she said. “How do we incorporate the notions into each other so that we can really figure out how best to serve our students?”

Miller did not rule out a return to education in the future. Several executive-search firms have approached her, she added. But for now, Miller has turned them down. Miller said she plans to take a break—for at least a month—before determining her next steps.

Miller referenced Hamline’s motto: “Do all the good you can,” a quote from John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church.

“While I’ve been here at Hamline University, I’ve tried my damnedest to do all the good I can,” she said.

Miller will serve until June 2024. She said the board of trustees would put together a transition team to determine expectations for the next president before forming a search committee for her successor.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...