A new American Association of University Professors report criticizes Hamline University for its treatment of an adjunct professor who showed students images of the prophet Muhammad, saying she was academically justified in displaying them and the institution was wrong to label this “Islamophobic.”
Erika López Prater’s situation made national headlines this winter. The report says the university didn’t renew her part-time teaching position and an administrator—David Everett, vice president for inclusive excellence—called her actions “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic” in a universitywide email.
This all came in the wake of a Muslim student complaining about the images. Many but not all Muslims believe these images are sacrilegious.
López Prater was teaching global art, and the AAUP report says she forewarned students both in the syllabus and on the day she showed the images of Muhammad, Oct. 6, that she would be displaying them.
“The session, devoted to Islamic art, included PowerPoint slides of the paintings The Prophet Muhammad Receiving Revelation from the Angel Gabriel and Muhammad, Shown with a Veiled Face and Halo, at Mount Hira,” says the AAUP report, released today.
“Although the committee has not seen facts sufficient to justify a definitive conclusion on this issue, circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that the Hamline administration rescinded the informal offer to assign Professor López Prater another art history course in spring 2023 solely because she had displayed images of the Prophet Muhammad in her Oct. 6 class session, thus violating her academic freedom,” the report says.
The AAUP report says Hamline officials also didn’t provide a rationale for the nonrenewal, citing López Prater’s ongoing lawsuit.
The report cites emails from López Prater’s department chair, before Oct. 6, asking if she would like to teach in the spring and saying, “My students in your class have said nothing but wonderful things, so we would really love to have you back in the spring!” The department chair had also seen the syllabus with the forewarning and didn’t object, the report says.
“From November 7 through January 11, the administration of Hamline University, including President [Fayneese] Miller and Dr. Everett, encouraged and promoted, through email messages and other means, what amounted to a de facto campaign of vilification against Professor López Prater that also represented an assault on fundamental principles of academic freedom,” the report concludes. “This campaign appears to have engaged outside entities and may have encouraged student involvement, and its repercussions appear to have followed Professor López Prater to a neighboring institution.”
In a joint statement to employees Dec. 9, the report says, Miller and Everett had written, “It is not our intent to place blame; rather, it is our intent to note that in the classroom incident—where an image forbidden for Muslims to look upon was projected on a screen and left for many minutes—respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom … Academic freedom is important, but it does not have to come at the expense of care and decency toward others.”
Miller is resigning a year from now. Her announcement came after, the report says, Hamline’s full-time faculty members approved 71 to 12, with eight abstentions, a resolution calling for her to leave.
“We acknowledge,” the report says, “that Muslim students at Hamline University are struggling with genuine and serious concerns about Islamophobia and anti-Black racism. These students have a right to be heard, and we condemn abuse directed at them. At the same time, we reject administrative overreach, no matter how well-intended, on their behalf. It is precisely because the Hamline student body is increasingly diverse that the university must defend the rights of students and faculty members alike to express and study various viewpoints and experiences, some of which will undoubtedly offend some members of the community.”
Henry Reichman, one of the report’s authors and a professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay, said he doesn’t expect the report to lead to the AAUP placing the university on its list of censured administrations.
But he said he was “a little discouraged” that the administration was “so defensive” in response to the report. He had hoped it would be an opportunity for change.
“I must admit I was probably more optimistic when I left the campus at the beginning of February than I might be now,” he said, though he conceded there may be progress he hasn’t heard about.
The report quotes from the university’s rebuttals from “a nearly 4,000-word response.” The university didn’t provide Inside Higher Ed this response or interviews Friday, but it emailed a comment.
“AAUP was provided with full access to administration and faculty during their time here,” the university said. “Unfortunately, in the AAUP draft report, Hamline found a pattern of factual inaccuracies and omissions, subjective characterizations and conclusions that were unsupported by AAUP’s draft findings. Accordingly, Hamline expressed its disappointment and provided an illustrative set of observations regarding the draft report. However, while we have not reviewed the AAUP final report, Hamline remains committed to its policies, procedures and the principles of academic freedom.”
Hamline is currently trying to dismiss López Prater’s lawsuit against its Board of Trustees. The suit is now in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota.
“The facts underlying this matter have gained significant media attention over the past several months, partly due to plaintiff’s own efforts,” the university’s lawyers wrote in a filing. “While there may be some general public debate about ‘academic freedom’ and a university’s right to exercise its own discretion in making personnel decisions, plaintiff’s claims, as presented in the complaint, must be sufficient to satisfy the applicable legal standards.”
“Merely alleging that an adverse employment action touches upon religion is insufficient to state a plausible claim for discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and statements of opinion concerning a matter of public discourse do not provide a plausible claim for defamation,” the lawyers wrote. “As set forth below, plaintiff’s complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and should therefore be dismissed.”