When Dr. Fayneese Miller unexpectedly announced her retirement as president of Hamline University in April, it was widely assumed that her departure was related to the “Muslim controversy” surrounding the university’s failure to renew an adjunct professor’s contract amid charges of religious discrimination and defamation. Despite speculation that she was being forced out, Dr. Miller issued the following statement at the time of the announcement:
“It has been an honor and privilege to lead Hamline University, an institution that values social justice, equity, inclusion, and civic engagement through its service-learning opportunities for students and curriculum offerings,” she said.
“It has been a pleasure working together with board members, students, faculty, staff, and the community in enhancing Hamline University’s strong commitment to maintaining high academic standards, creating a sense of belonging for all on campus, and developing students who understand and appreciate their role as members of a civil society.”
At the time Dr. Miller officially took office as the 20th president of Hamline University eight years ago, she gave MSR an exclusive interview after becoming the first African American and second woman to be named president of the university. MSR recently spoke with Dr. Miller (DFM)—who plans to stay on until 2024, during the search for her replacement—about her historic appointment, what she accomplished, the controversy surrounding her departure, and her plans for retirement.
MSR: In the Hamline community, some professors protested the firing of an adjunct professor who showed students an artist rendering of the Prophet Muhammad. Did you make the decision to fire that professor?
DFM: No, presidents don’t get involved in curriculum. What I mean is, no president decides who teaches the classes. That is decided by the faculty. In fact, we [the administration] don’t know who the adjunct professors are for the most part.
MSR: At what point did you hear the controversy and your name associated with it?
DFM: I got an email from a faculty member at the University of Michigan, telling me this had happened and that we should reinstate the adjunct.
MSR: Apart from the Muslim controversy, what are the reasons you decided to step down as president of Hamline? And why did you choose to leave next June?
DFM: The Muslim controversy had nothing to do with my decision to retire. I decided to retire because most of my goals as president of Hamline have been achieved or will be by June of 2024.
I chose 2024 because the comprehensive campaign, which I initiated upon my arrival, will come to an end—with us exceeding our campaign goal. Also, I needed to tie up some loose ends and did not believe I could do so by leaving earlier.
As to the Muslim community, I respect and appreciate their faith in Hamline and me. Our Muslim students at Hamline are an intricate part of who we are. They help make us better.
MSR: What do you think has been your most important contribution to the culture of Hamline?
DFM: That’s a good question. I have tried to do my best by making Hamline a welcoming and inclusive community for all. And, I think I have done that.
I have worked hard to improve the financial health of the institution by balancing the budget year after year, putting a campaign in place, and increasing donor gifts. More importantly, I worked to make Hamline a part of the community in which we are located, St. Paul, and Minnesota writ large.
MSR: You were the first Black woman to lead a university in Minnesota. What were some of the challenges you have faced as the “first”?
DFM: One major challenge has been to get people to see me as the president of Hamline and not just the Black woman who is president. Stereotypes always abound when we become the first.
One stereotype was the belief that I had no financial acumen. I managed a significant budget prior to becoming president of Hamline. I taught statistics as part of many of my undergraduate courses and was the lead statistician for many of my mentor, Professor Edmund Gordon’s consulting projects. I know numbers and am comfortable with them. I have no problem understanding and managing budgets.
MSR: Do you think being Hamline’s first Black woman president has changed the university? If so, how?
DFM: I believe I have changed Hamline. The Hamline student body is more diverse in every possible way than when I arrived. I believe I also embodied what a caring president looks like. My students and staff trust me to do the right thing for the community.
MSR: What do you wish you had known before accepting the presidency of Hamline University?
DFM: I wish I had known more about the culture of Hamline. I am a quick study, so I learned. But each university is different, and my job was to enhance the academic reputation of Hamline along with so much more.
Unfortunately, some viewed my focus on quality as trying to make Hamline into a research 1 [top tier research] institution. That was far from the truth. My goal was always to make Hamline better.
MSR: What do you want to focus on at Hamline over the next year until your retirement?
DFM: My focus in my last year at Hamline is to continue to provide for and encourage academic excellence, complete the comprehensive campaign, and to ensure that all is well, for all, as I make my exit.
MSR: Are there things you wish you could have accomplished during your presidency at Hamline?
DFM: Yes, there is much I wish I had accomplished. And there is much that was accomplished. I do wish we had been able to bring more diversity to the faculty. I also wish I had been able to raise the funds necessary to create a health and wellness center at Hamline. One wish I had was to name the Center for Justice and Law after someone I admire and respect. I still hope this might happen.
We are nearing the end of our comprehensive campaign. I wish our goal had been higher and I wish we had the kind of endowment that would allow students in need to receive larger financial-aid packages. Our current campaign will provide for more scholarships, but it is still not enough.
MSR: What is your current campaign goal?
DFM: It is $110 million, but we will exceed that amount by this December.
MSR: Is there any unfinished business, any regrets, about your time as president of Hamline?
DFM: I have no regrets about my time at Hamline or my presidency. I am fortunate to have a very strong leadership team. My vice president and general counsel and associate vice president and director of athletics have been with me since day one. Other members of my leadership team are equally extraordinary. Together we have accomplished much.
MSR: What do you think you’ll miss most about Hamline University when you retire?
DFM: I will miss my students and the many friends I have made.
MSR: What are your plans after you retire from Hamline?
DFM: My plan is to first sit by the fireplace and read, with my feet up and a glass of wine. In all my years in higher education, I have rarely allowed myself to fully relax. It is time I did so.
I also plan to focus on my physical and mental health. I need to get to know me again, as I have spent many years focusing on the needs of others. I look forward to spending time with my husband, after eight years living apart, and with my son. My son lives in LA, and I hope to travel to see him as often as I can. I also have a young woman for whom I am a legal guardian. We need to get back to understanding each other.
When my “house” is back in order, I plan to write a book. After everything settles down, who knows, I might get back on the job treadmill. For now, my volunteer work will suffice.
I’ve enjoyed my time in Minnesota. The community has been fabulous, and they truly have in that sense.