Amna Khalid hears frequently from fellow professors who are shying away from teaching controversial material as political polarization rises and attacks on teachers' independence become more common.

"It's a rational decision for professors to be dropping it," said the Carleton College professor and founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance. "I don't like it, but I totally understand it."

College instructors are returning to the classroom at a precarious time for their profession. The intensity of the conflict varies across the country, from attacks on the tenure system to new laws mandating what subjects professors can — and can't — teach, often involving race and gender. While those more restrictive measures haven't been enacted in Minnesota, some instructors here say they're also feeling a different sort of pressure: not to offend students who come from increasingly diverse backgrounds.

It's been nearly a year since the emotionally charged debate over academic freedom — an instructor's ability to teach the tenets of their field of study without retribution — focused temporarily on Hamline University. The private school in St. Paul decided not to renew an art history instructor's contract after she showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in class. And for some Minnesota professors, that memory is still fresh.

"There is a nervousness in faculty," Khalid said. "And I think that nervousness is heightened."

Hamline University professors began the fall semester with little additional guidance on how they should address sensitive topics — or how the administration will respond if they offend someone.

It's "hard to say" whether professors have the support they need heading into a new school year, said Bruce Bolon, president of the university's faculty council. "We're really in a transition period right now."

In a class last fall, adjunct instructor Erika López Prater showed two centuries-old artworks that depicted the Prophet Muhammad receiving a revelation that would later form the basis of the Qur'an. Some Muslims argue that images of the prophet are strictly prohibited to avoid idolization, while others have images of him in their homes.

López Prater has said she provided a disclaimer in the syllabus for the world art course and spent "at least a couple minutes" preparing students for the images. One of her students, Aram Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Student Association, has said she heard the instructor give a "trigger warning," wondered what it was for "and then I looked and it was the prophet." Wedatalla contacted university administrators.

Academic freedom advocates were quick to defend López Prater, saying she had done more than most professors to give her students the option to avoid seeing images that might offend their faith. Muslim organizations were divided, with some arguing the images should never have been shown and others arguing the university had overreacted.

Looking back, Khalid describes this as "the perfect case study to show how DEI Inc. is on steroids." She worries that some universities are "treading on eggshells" to avoid offending students' beliefs — and in the process falling short on their mandate to teach them to think critically.

"As far as I'm concerned, academic freedom has to prevail," she said.

'How to adapt'

Others caution against pitting diversity, equity and inclusion programs against academic freedom.

Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, notes that when many universities were established, most students were white men, predominantly from wealthy families. Now, nearly 30% of Minnesota public high school graduates describe themselves as people of color, according to state data.

"Faculty need to recognize that the classes we're teaching now maybe look different from the classes people were teaching 50 years ago," said Mulvey, who retired after teaching mathematics for 37 years at Fairfield University in Connecticut. "And people have different backgrounds, different perspectives, different experiences, and we have to be mindful of that."

Religious diversity is also present on some campuses. More than 10% of Hamline University students describe themselves as Muslim, according to President Fayneese Miller.

"Higher ed now is being challenged in many different ways, and the value of higher education is being challenged and questioned by some," Miller said. "If we don't want that to continue, we've got to take a step back and look at how do we adapt, not how do those who come to us adapt."

The university is searching for an interim leader to take over when Miller leaves for sabbatical next semester and then retires. The university is waiting too to see whether a judge will toss a lawsuit brought by López Prater — or allow it to proceed.

Miller insists that the faculty handbook provides instructors with the guidance they need for teaching controversial subjects.

"The faculty have the right to decide what gets taught, and how it gets taught," she said.

On the defense

Hamline will host a forum Tuesday on academic freedom and cultural perspectives, fulfilling a promise it made in the wake of the controversy. Miller said she hopes the event will add additional nuance to a debate happening in higher education circles.

National advocates are quick to draw a distinction between the pressures Minnesota professors are facing and the restrictions imposed on their colleagues in other states.

Elected officials in Florida restricted discussions on race, gender and inequality in public universities and banned them from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Politicians in Texas have considered similar measures, as well as efforts to end tenure. The American Association of University Professors also lists Ohio, Tennessee and North Carolina as states with restrictive legislation to watch.

"Minnesota is not on the frontline of attacking academic freedom," Mulvey said. "Florida is on the frontlines. Texas is on the frontlines. Other states where they're trying to attack tenure are on the front lines."

Still, Khalid hopes her colleagues here are paying attention: "Academic freedom is a right that has to be constantly defended."