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Hamline University at the center of debate on academic freedom and respect for religion

A student filed a complaint with university administrators. After the incident, Dr. Lopez Prater was told she will no longer have a class to teach there.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Hamline University in Saint Paul is at the center of debate after a professor was denied another class to teach after she displayed an artistic depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in her lecture.

Dr. Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor at Hamline University, spoke to the New York Times after the incident. 

She was teaching a global art history class for Hamline University, and told the Times she took precautions before showing her online class a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. 

She said she put a warning in her syllabus, asked students to contact her with any problems, and told the class right before the painting would be shown in case they wanted to leave. 

A student filed a complaint with university administrators. After the incident, Dr. Lopez Prater was told she will no longer have a class to teach there.

The senior who went to the administration was Aram Wedatalla, who is also president of the Muslim Student Association at Hamline University.

“I’m 23 years old, I’ve never seen a picture of a prophet. Never in my whole life” said Wedatalla, tearfully, as she spoke to the media during a press conference hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It hurts, it breaks my heart to stand here to tell people and beg people to understand me. To feel what I feel.”

Wedatalla said she has received numerous threats since the incident became public. 

“It's just so sad to like, see my parents being worried for me to like go to school,” she said. “It’s never our intent to decrease freedom of speech. No, we encourage freedom of speech. But not when it's being disrespectful or not when it's like, affecting us as people.”

Leaders of CAIR commended the university for their actions following the class. 

An email that is co-signed by Hamline’s president Fayneese S. Miller said ”respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”

Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of CAIR, said the showing was very hurtful to the Muslim community.

“'Islamophobia can manifest in a variety of ways, such as the recent incident at Hamline University,” said Hussein. 

Hussein said the professor's warnings weren't enough.

“How can a classroom be considered inclusive when an instructor asks, in this case, a Muslim student, to leave the class while they engage,” said Hussein “And in this case to depict or show an image of our beloved Prophet Muhammad.” 

A number of organizations and academics are standing up to defend Dr. Erika López Prater.

“The idea that administrators at any institution of higher education would choose to take these actions that just ruthlessly trash academic freedom is quite frankly, unbelievable,” said Irene Mulvey, the President of the American Association of University Professors.  “The instructor does not have a tenured position. So they could quietly not renew the instructor and thought they put out a small fire.”

Catherine Asher is a UMN Emeritus Professor who specializes in Islamic Art. She has shown the same 14th-century painting of Islam’s founder to students herself. 

“They're historically well known and extraordinarily important,” said Asher. “The manuscripts she showed from the 14th century is the first world history and its significance should not be underestimated.”

UMN Professor Imam Hassan Mohamud was also at the press conference at CAIR and commended Hamline’s handling of the situation. Hassan Mohamud teaches Islamic studies. 

“Muslims believe to not depict those prophets or not only Prophet Muhammad, any prophets, to avoid these major sins,”  said Hassan Mohamud. 

There is debate within the Muslim community on the appropriate reaction to the showing of the depiction. 

Abdulrahman Bindamnan is a Ph.D. student at the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. He studies international students and their challenges in U.S. higher education. 

“As a foreign Muslim student, I really was not offended by showings of prophetic imaging,” said Bindamnan. “We as Muslims have different reactions to it.”

Bindamnan said the debate within the community is something society can often forget. 

The internal debate within the Muslim community was highlighted Friday, when the national chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations issued its own statement, arguing Professor Lopez Prater's actions were not Islamophobic. 

Edward Curtis is Chair of Liberal Arts and a professor of religious studies at Indiana University. 

He said that it is common practice in classes similar to Lopez Prater to show similar art depicting the prophet. 

“There could have been much more dialogue, leading towards a solution that did not result in the unfair firing of a professor,” said Curtis. “But that also took seriously the hurt feelings of students.”

Curtis said that while he disagrees with the university’s actions, he thinks this issue is repre 

“I think a better response might be in just incorporating all the voices of the Muslims,” said Bindamnan. “I'm not saying that my voice is the right voice there’s a monopoly on who represents Islam. But it seems to me that the voices of foreign Muslims always silence and that is why I tried to write this piece.”

Hamline University has declined a request for an interview but released a new statement Friday. 

The statement said that the president, other administrators, campus staff and students have received daily threats of violence. 

“To suggest that the university does not respect academic freedom is absurd on its face,” said Miller. “To do all the good you can means, in part, minimizing harm. That is what has informed our decisions thus far and will continue to inform them in the future. We hope you understand and respect the values guiding our efforts.”

This is the full statement from President Miller:

My institution, Hamline University, a small liberal arts college located in St Paul, Minnesota, has been in the news lately. The New York Times ran an article leading with the headline, “Prophet Image Shown in Class, Fraying the Campus.”

The article reports on an incident that occurred on our campus in October, where an adjunct instructor, teaching a class in art history, showed an image of the prophet Muhammad to a class attended by a number of Muslim students. And when a Muslim student objected to its showing, to quote the Times, the adjunct “lost her job.”

Various so-called stakeholders interpreted the incident, as reported in various media, as one of “academic freedom.” The Times went so far as to cite PEN America’s claim that what was happening on our campus was one of the “most egregious violations of academic freedom” it had ever encountered.

It begs the question, “How?” 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.

First, I must state that the adjunct instructor hired to teach the course in art history did not “lose her job,” as has been reported by some outlets. Neither was she “let go” nor “dismissed,” as has also been reported. And most emphatically, she has not been “fired,” as has also been claimed.

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.

However, media coverage of the characterized the aftermath differently: reports were that the adjunct instructor was “dismissed” or “fired.” Fueled by commentary not well-informed on the particulars of this situation, we now find ourselves at the heart of a purported stand-off between academic freedom and equity. It has escalated to the point where I, members of my executive staff, other campus staff and, most sadly, one of our students now receive daily threats of violence.

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.

Prioritizing the well-being of our students does not in any way negate or minimize the rights and privileges assured by academic freedom. But the concepts do intersect. Faculty have the right to teach and research subjects of importance to them, and to publish their work under the purview of their peers.

At the same time, academic freedom does not operate in a vacuum. It is subject to the dictates of society and the laws governing certain types of behavior. Imara Scott, in an April 2022 article published in Inside Higher Ed, noted that “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.”

Also, the American Federation of Teachers correctly notes that “academic freedom and its attendant rights do not mean that ‘anything goes’”. It notes that “faculty must act professionally in their scholarly research, their teaching, and their interactions with students and…ensure this through policies and procedures that safeguard both students and the academic integrity of the institutions and disciplines”.

I ask those who presume to judge us the following questions: First, does your defense of academic freedom infringe upon the rights of students in violation of the very principles you defend? Second, does the claim that academic freedom is sacrosanct, and owes no debt to the traditions, beliefs, and views of students, comprise a privileged reaction? That is why Hamline’s Civility Statement, which guards our campus interactions, notes that any student, regardless of race, ethnic background, religion or belief, deserves equal protection from the institution.

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.

I also note that Hamline is an independent university still closely affiliated with the United Methodist Church, and its foundational principles inscribed in the oft-repeated words on our campus of John Wesley: “To do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” We at Hamline live by these words.

To do all the good you can means, in part, minimizing harm. That is what has informed our decisions thus far and will continue to inform them in the future. We hope you understand and respect the values guiding our efforts. Sincerely, Fayneese Miller, PhD President.

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