As I’ve written about several times, Erika López Prater, an instructor at Hamline University in Minnesota, was fired by the school for showing a 14th-century image of Muhammad’s face in her art-history survey course. (She also showed a painting of the Prophet with his face veiled but rest of his body complete). The instructor warned the students, both in the syllabus and before the class, that they didn’t have to go to the class or look at the image of this famous painting (TRIGGER WARNING: MUHAMMAD FACE):
López Prater’s warning didn’t matter: some offended Muslim students (mostly black Muslims but probably not from the Nation of Islam) complained, and the instructor’s contract was not renewed. The story made the NYT and Hamline got some severely bad publicity, but their President, Fayneese S. Miller, signed a statement that prioritized student comfort over academic freedom, and argued that the instructor was not “fired”—her contract simply wasn’t renewed. That is a distinction without a difference.
FIRE reproduces Miller’s statement, which includes this (scroll down on the FIRE page to see it):
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.”
Well, clearly López Prater was not using her academic freedom as a weapon to demonize Muslims or make fun of Islam. Miller was simply out to lunch here, trying to confect reasons for violating the instructor’s acemic freedom.
According to the NYT, Miller also said that “respect for the Muslim students ‘should have superseded academic freedom.’ ” Clearly Miller (below) has no idea what academic freedom really means, and now I do think she should be fired—for complete cluelessness. Nobody should be President of a university if they think that student complaints like the ones leveled against López Prater are grounds for dismissal.
As FIRE said, Miller has “tripled down,” refusing to reconsider her decision and making even more extreme statements defending the firing (i.e., not renewing a contract). FIRE wrote Miller asking her to reconsider (she didn’t respond), and then reported Hamline University to its accrediting agency. Fortunately, López Prater seems to have several other job offers.
Another reason Miller should go is that she’s lost the confidence of the entire Art History faculty of the University of Minnesota, which issue a unanimous statement (with an emeritus signing on) supporting the right of López Prater to have taught about that painting. Here’s the statement.
You can read it for yourself, so I’ll provide just one excerpt. Note the sarcastic subtitle, as the statement shows a painting of Jonah, a big fish, and the angel that resembles the Muslim painting above:
The big support is here:
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). 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.
In response to Dr. López Prater’s non-renewal, we speak strongly against Hamline’s intertwined attacks on academic freedom, on the integrity and dedication of faculty (especially those vulnerable to dismissal), and on the related enterprises of knowledge dissemination and debate. We strongly urge Hamline’s administrative leadership to examine critically its approach to this instance and its broader policies and procedures, not only regarding student complaints and controversies, but also with respect to hiring, training, setting expectations for, and listening to adjunct faculty.
And kudos to the faculty who signed it (below):
The Tenure-Stream Faculty of the UMN Department of Art History
Dr. Jane Blocker, Professor
Dr. Emily Ruth Capper, Assistant Professor
Dr. Sinem Casale, Assistant Professor
Dr. Michael Gaudio, Professor
Dr. Daniel Greenberg, Assistant Professor
Dr. Laura Kalba, Associate Professor
Dr. Jennifer Jane Marshall, Professor & Chair
Dr. Steven Ostrow, Professor
Dr. Anna Lise Seastrand, Assistant Professor
Dr. Robert Silberman, Associate Professor
Co-signed by Dr. Catherine Asher, Emerita Professor, in her capacity as an expert in Islamic art
Wouldn’t it be lovely if the HAMLINE faculty issued a statement of support? One professor in another department has spoken out, but I suspect most of the faculty are cowed and chilled.
And, if you click below, you’ll see an additional statement of support from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which seems to be a mainstream organization advocating for tolerance and understansing of Muslims—much like the anti-Defamation League. And it’s firmly on the side of the
fired non-renewed instructor.
Brief excerpt. The message comes right at the beginning rather than at the end:
It is with great concern that the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) views the firing of an art professor, Erika López Prater, from Hamline University on the grounds of showing a fourteenth-century painting depicting the Prophet Muḥammad. We issue this statement of support for the professor and urge the university to reverse its decision and to take compensatory action to ameliorate the situation.
. . . As a Muslim organization, we recognize the validity and ubiquity of an Islamic viewpoint that discourages or forbids any depictions of the Prophet, especially if done in a distasteful or disrespectful manner. However, we also recognize the historical reality that other viewpoints have existed and that there have been some Muslims, including and especially Shīʿī Muslims, who have felt no qualms in pictorially representing the Prophet (although often veiling his face out of respect). All this is a testament to the great internal diversity within the Islamic tradition, which should be celebrated.
This, it seems, was the exact point that Dr. Prater was trying to convey to her students. She empathetically prepared them in advance for the image, which was part of an optional exercise and prefaced with a content warning. “I am showing you this image for a reason,” stressed the professor:
. . . The painting was not Islamophobic. In fact, it was commissioned by a fourteenth-century Muslim king in order to honor the Prophet, depicting the first Quranic revelation from the angel Gabriel.
Here’s a video that was just posted involving a discussion with López Prater, Christine Gruber (a Michigan art-history professor who defended her in an eloquent statement at New Lines), and several others (Mr. Salam Al-Marayati from MPAC, and Dr. Hyder Khan) who have also defended López Prater. The moderator is Muqtedar Khan, a professor at the University of Delaware. I found the video while looking for images of López Prater, which don’t seem to appear on the Internet. In the YouTube image below, she’s on the upper right. But she talks at length below, and do listen to hear her story.
The You-Tube statement:
Dr. Erika López Prater was fired from Hamline university after she showed classical paintings of Prophet Muhammad in her Art History class. She discusses the sequence of events, her syllabus, and her pedagogy. Dr. Christine Gruber explains that Islamic tradition is diverse and sheds light on the practice of painting Prophet Muhammad specially from the 13th to the 16th century in Iran and Turkey. MPAC President Salam al-Marayati shares the concerns that prompted MPAC to make the statement in support of Dr. Prater. Dr. Hyder Khan discusses the diversity of opinion in the Muslim Community of Minnesota. He feels the issue is not over and once the internal debates are over the community will take a more deliberated position on the matter.
And the video. López Prater acquits herself well, and it’s outrageous that she was let go. Well, Hamline’s loss is some other university’s gain.
h/t: Luana, Colin