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An image of the painting that upset some Muslim students at Hamline U.

Wikimedia Commons

Hamline University has been engrossed in an academic freedom debate this year over the actions of an adjunct instructor at the private Minnesota institution who was teaching global art history. The instructor, Erika López Prater, was discussing Islamic art during one class and briefly exhibited a screen image of Muhammad, the founder and prophet of the Muslim faith. The instructor had warned students in advance of her plan to show the image.

A Muslim student complained, and López Prater will not be teaching the course this semester. Hamline administrators said the decision not to renew her teaching contract this semester was warranted because of the tradition of Muslims avoiding viewing images of Muhammad and the belief held by some adherents that doing so is sacrilegious. But a wide coalition of academic and civil rights groups has defended López Prater, and López Prater argued that her nonrenewal violates traditions of academic freedom—and is particularly egregious given her advance warning to students that she intended to show the image. Her defenders have also noted that Muslims are not all in agreement about displaying images of Muhammad, particularly images like the one shown in class, which was from the 14th century, and those that are respectful of Muhammad.

Then, on Friday, the Hamline Board of Trustees released this statement, published in full:

“As Minnesota’s first university we’ve learned a lot in our nearly 170 years. Recent events have required us to look deeply into our values. We are a beautifully diverse community committed to educating our students and ourselves, and sometimes that means we need to make space for hard conversations and serious self-reflection. This is one of those times. We are listening and we are learning. The Hamline University Board of Trustees is actively involved in reviewing the university’s policies and responses to recent student concerns and subsequent faculty concerns about academic freedom. Upholding academic freedom and fostering an inclusive, respectful learning environment for our students are both required to fulfill our mission. We will move forward together and we will be stronger for it.”

The references to “self-reflection” and “listening” and “learning” were encouraging to those who thought Hamline handled the controversy inappropriately.

Another Statement

But Hamline published the one-paragraph statement from the board underneath a 15-paragraph statement by the university’s president, Fayneese Miller, defending the university and elaborating on the decision not to rehire López Prater.

“Because Hamline University is now under attack from forces outside our campus, I am taking this opportunity to comment upon, and in several important instances, correct the record regarding critical aspects of this incident—both as reported in the press, and as shared by those who have been enjoined in the conversation about academic freedom,” Miller said in the statement.

Miller criticized a New York Times article on the controversy for saying that an adjunct had lost her job as a result of the incident.

“The adjunct taught the class to the end of the term, when she, like all other faculty, completed the term requirements, and posted her grades. The decision not to offer her another class was made at the unit level and in no way reflects on her ability to adequately teach the class,” Miller said.

“To suggest that the university does not respect academic freedom is absurd on its face. Hamline is a liberal arts institution, the oldest in Minnesota, the first to admit women, and now led by a woman of color. To deny the precepts upon which academic freedom is based would be to undermine our foundational principles.”

And she noted limits on academic freedom.

“At the same time, academic freedom does not operate in a vacuum,” she wrote. Miler quoted from an April 2022 op-ed in Inside Higher Ed (before the current controversy) by Inara Scott, assistant dean for teaching and learning excellence and the Gomo Family Professor for the College of Business at Oregon State University, that said, “academic freedom, like so many ideological principles, can be manipulated, misunderstood, and misrepresented … academic freedom can become a weapon to be used against vulnerable populations. Why? Because on the other end of a professor claiming academic freedom may be a student—a student who lacks tenure, who must rely on that professor for a grade and who may be emotionally, intellectually, or professionally harmed by the professor’s exercise of the power they hold.”

And Miller criticized her critics. “It is far easier to criticize, from the security of our computer screens, than it is to have to make the hard decisions that serve the interests of the entire campus community. What disappoints me the most is that little has been said regarding the needs and concerns of our students that all members of our community hold in trust. I hope this changes,” she wrote.

The mixed statements have led the critics of Hamline to remain skeptical.

“We are pleased to see the Board of Trustees taking an active interest in this case. It’s our hope that Hamline might reverse their decision, and we’d be eager to engage with them regarding this challenging situation. Universities can hear out their students’ concerns, and they should work toward fostering an inclusive climate,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of Free Expression and Education Programs at PEN America.

Responding to the president’s statement, he added, “Many are speaking out not to ‘attack’ the university—rather, to protect it. The idea that any one student’s beliefs can trump the honest teaching of art history is a chilling idea indeed. What if that logic were applied to every discipline or subject, from science to world history to LGBTQ identities? Everyone knows that adjunct faculty often have the fewest protections for academic freedom, and that the academy’s cardinal commitments to the open pursuit and transmission of knowledge are under threat. The Hamline administration should have taken this opportunity to take a strong stand for academic freedom and support their instructors. In fact, they still can.”

Other Points of View

Tenure-track and tenured faculty in art history of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, issued a statement in support of López Prater, who earned her Ph.D. there.

“In its removal of Dr. López Prater from its teaching roster, Hamline’s administration took an explicit stand against higher education’s longstanding tradition of instructional prerogative, compromising the freedom of college-level instructors to make individual selections and decisions in presenting expert knowledge of all stripes (factual, theoretical, interpretive, editorial),” the Minnesota faculty said. “This prerogative goes by the term ‘academic freedom’ and it is an extraordinary privilege. As faculty, we cherish this privilege as necessary to our scholarly enterprise and earned through our pursuit of scholarly inquiry, knowledge, and insight. We take the responsibility that comes with this privilege seriously, practicing it within the social contract of the university classroom and the responsive learning communities we seek to forge there. Academic freedom, too, is a privilege we fear is currently under threat, a precarity made worse specifically by the casualization of academic labor via the underpaid adjunct gig economy and the disposability of expertise in pursuit of rising revenues.”

There also have been statements of support from two Muslim organizations.

“Given the ubiquity of Islamophobic depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, it hardly makes sense to target an art professor trying to combat narrow understandings of Islam,” said a statement from the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “There is an unmistakable irony in the situation, which should be appreciated. Additionally, misusing the label ‘Islamophobia’ has the negative effect of watering down the term and rendering it less effective in calling out actual acts of bigotry.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement that acknowledged the pain caused to some Muslims from depictions of Muhammad.

“It is important to note that Muslim artists in some regions did draw reverential paintings of the Prophet in later Muslim history, and that some Muslims use certain images as part of their religious practices. Muslims are a diverse community and we respect that diversity.”

The statement added, “Academic freedom is an important principle of the higher education system. Far too often, professors who teach inconvenient facts—from structural racism in America to the oppression of Palestinians—face censorship, condemnation and even termination. This is wrong. Professors at colleges and universities have a duty to teach facts relevant to their areas of study. They also have the duty to exercise wisdom in determining when, whether and how to address sensitive and disputed subjects, such as visual depictions of the Prophet.”

The president emerita of Hamline, Linda N. Hanson, weighed in with a letter to the editor of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

“I am concerned about the effect on Hamline’s reputation from the recent incident in which an art professor’s contract was not renewed and the missed opportunity for students to understand and expand their knowledge of Islamic art and history,” the letter said. “This decision has sent the wrong message to Hamline faculty, alumni and the communities it serves. Since Hamline’s founding in 1854, faculty have taught within the principle of academic freedom and examined subjects through the lens of open inquiry and respect for the beliefs, rights and opinions of the students they teach. Generations of Hamline faculty have taught with the belief that adhering to the bright line of academic freedom and supporting students are not mutually exclusive.”

And the Hamline chapter of the American Association of University Professors this morning released a statement that said, “We deeply regret that a colleague was unjustly accused of being ‘undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic’ in a fall semester class. We reject this divisive public statement that has exacerbated the incident, and we call on the administration to do the same.”

The statement added, “To preserve the vibrant environment for open inquiry and free exchange of ideas that Hamline values, we also affirm the primacy of faculty discretion to choose how classes are taught, free from interference by administration. Such administrative respect for faculty judgment is essential to faculty being able to continue to provide innovative and challenging student learning opportunities, consistent with Hamline’s long history.”

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