Hamline University President Fayneese Miller minces no words when she describes the past few weeks at the center of an intense debate over Islamic art and academic freedom.

Invoking lines from the poem "Invictus," she says: "Here at Hamline, we might be a little bloody, but we're unbowed."

The episode has been painful. And, she said, it's been "a learning experience" — one that she hopes other colleges and universities in the country will take lessons from as well.

The university's decision not to renew the contract for an art instructor who showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in class drew international attention to the private school in St. Paul. It also renewed an emotional debate over Miller's leadership.

In a letter to the Board of Trustees earlier this month, dozens of faculty members lamented what they described as "ongoing failures" and "systemic dysfunctions" in recent years.

"In the absence of effective, functional, and strategic leadership, we are gravely concerned about the future of Hamline University," they wrote.

Others involved in the response suggested that Miller — the university's first Black president — is being unfairly targeted for her race and for changes she made to help the campus survive financial challenges and enrollment declines.

"Her entire tenure so far has been making tough decisions," said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "... That fight which existed before this incident is flaming, partially, this fight."

Speaking in her office Monday morning, Miller said: "Knowing that people don't understand who we are as an institution, who I am as a president, and how I lead has been sad. I'll be honest with you."

Career studying race, ethnicity

Miller became Hamline University's second female president in 2015, after spending decades working in academia. She said her approach to leadership has been informed by multiple life experiences.

Miller grew up in Danville, Va., at a time when segregation was still prevalent. The dominant narratives at the time said Black people were less intelligent and had lower self-esteem than white people and Miller — the child of two civil rights workers — was determined to shatter those stereotypes.

So, she studied social psychology. Miller spent about 20 years at Brown University, where she helped found an ethnic studies program and served as director for the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

Among her students there was Suzanne Rivera, who now serves as the president at nearby Macalester College.

"She is a mentor and a role model to many academic leaders, and especially to college presidents like me who are from groups historically excluded from higher education," Rivera said in a statement. "I know her to be a person of great intellect with deep care for others and unquestionable integrity."

Miller was working at the University of Vermont as dean of the college of education and social services when Hamline tapped her to serve as its president. She took over for Linda Hanson, who had been the university's first female president.

In multiple years before Miller became president, the university had been operating in the red, according to public tax filings.

More recent filings from 2016 through 2019 showed that each year the university brought in more in more money than it spent — though the amount ranged from about $740,000 to nearly $11 million. During that time, the number of students dropped from about 4,500 to 3,400, and the number of employees dropped from 2,324 to 2,009. The university hasn't yet released filings for 2020 and 2021.

Miller said the university has merged some programs that had overlapping students or curricula — and those decisions have been led by the program faculty members. But some faculty members raised concerns — ones they repeated in recent weeks.

Furor reignites leadership debate

In October, Miller received an email from Aram Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Student Association, who was raising concerns about an instructor's decision to show centuries-old artworks depicting the Prophet Muhammad in class.

Wedatalla said in a previous interview that Miller "met with me that same day and apologized in person." After that, she said, administrators regularly checked in with the association to make sure members felt safe and to offer them resources.

Meanwhile, supporters of adjunct art instructor Erika López Prater accused the university of denying her due process before deciding not to renew her contract for the spring semester.

National organizations promoting academic freedom and free speech decried the university's decision, saying they feared it would have a chilling effect on academics who teach controversial material. One, the American Association of University Professors, vowed to investigate. Some of those groups noted there is diversity in Islam and said López Prater had done more than most instructors to prepare her students for the artwork. While some Muslims believe images of the Prophet Muhammad are strictly prohibited, others have images of him in their homes.

Among those weighing in was Hanson. In a letter submitted to the Star Tribune, she called on the university to reinstate López Prater "and use this incident as an opportunity for discussion, student learning and support for academic freedom in Hamline classrooms." Messages left for Hanson were not returned.

Meanwhile, more than three dozen faculty members wrote to trustees raising concerns about university administrators, though stopped shy of naming Miller specifically.

They accused university administrators of being slow to act on past concerns of discrimination and overcompensating now. They said instructors need further support and resources "to ensure we are able to implement and achieve our teaching and learning goals." They said communication and implementation of university policies has been inconsistent and ineffective.

"This recent crisis more visibly reveals underlying problems that must be addressed," the group wrote.

Board of Trustees Chair Ellen Watters declined an interview request. After the letter, she wrote a joint statement with Miller that acknowledged "sometimes we misstep."

Miller declined to comment on the incident citing pending litigation. López Prater has sued Hamline for defamation, religious discrimination and breach of contract, among other things.

But Miller is clear that she doesn't think this incident will jeopardize the university's future. She acknowledges people are in pain now and many are uncomfortable.

"But it's OK that we feel the pain, because the pain will eventually be soothed," Miller said. "There is always a path forward."