Hamline University reconsiders its stand on academic freedom; fired instructor sues the school

January 18, 2023 • 10:00 am

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.”

—Fayneese Miller, President, Hamline University

The statement above was issued by the President of Hamline University in Minnesota after she fired an instructor, Erika López Prater, who showed the students in her art history class an ancient painting of Muhammad. The problem was that the painting, shown below, depicted the Prophet’s face. Different sects of Islam take different positions on whether showing Muhammad’s face is blasphemy, and there are many paintings, old and new, showing his face. The one López Prater showed, from the 14th century, is considered a masterpiece of Islamic art. (It shows the angel Gabriel dictating the Qur’an to Muhammad.)

Despite the instructor’s warning on the syllabus and also in class that this picture would be shown, some Muslim students, claiming that they were offended, objected, and López Prater was let go (rather, her contract was not renewed).  There were many objections to the firing, including from FIRE, PEN America, and lots of individuals (including Muslims), for Hamline had clearly violated the instructor’s academic freedom. The case is clear cut, and FIRE wrote the University taking them to task.  Hamline refused to re-hire the instructor or admit that it had erred, and Hamline’s President, in a statement excerpted above (see below the fold for her entire statement), dug in her heels.  See here for my previous reports on this shameful episode, including a video in which López Prater explains why she showed the painting and how the University reacted.

FIRE then reported Hamline University to its accreditation agency, and, according to the NYT article below, López-Prater sued the University. Further, as Inside Higher Education reported yesterday (second screenshot below), the University’s trustees issued a statement walking back what they did to the instructor.  For some rea$on they’ve had second thoughts.

Now, because the administration caved into the “offended” students, the school is in a whole heap of trouble. This is the second time the NYT wrote about the school, and Hamline is looking bad. What parent would want to send their kid to such a Pecksniffing school?  As I’ve said, it should be renamed Hamhanded University.

I suspect that the two articles that you can read below will lead to the instructor either being rehired (though she’s apparently had other job offers), or, more likely, a fat monetary settlement. And Hamline deserves to pay big time for firing someone who was not only doing their job, but doing it well—warning students in advance.

From the NYT:

And from Inside Higher Ed:

On January 13, Hamline’s board of trustees, clearly having rethought the actions against Lopez Prater, issued this statement:

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.

They are listening and learning, and now they have to pay. The statement clearly shows that they are “rethinking”, but they still refuse to admit that they violated academic freedom and that López Prater DID provide a respectful learning experience for her students.

The New York Times quotes a stronger “walkback” statement” from the head of the board of trustees:

Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep,” said a statement from Ellen Watters, the chair of the university’s board of trustees, and Fayneese S. Miller, the president. “In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom. Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term ‘Islamophobic’ was therefore flawed.”

The statement added, “It was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students — care does not ‘supersede’ academic freedom, the two coexist.”

At least Watters admits that there was a misstep. She still doesn’t realize, however, that academic freedom results in some students being offended or disturbed. You can’t always have both, and when they don’t coexist, academic freedom almost always takes precedence over “offense”, real or pretended.

Inside Higher Ed didn’t mention the lawsuit yesterday, so it must just have been filed because it’s described in today’s NYT:

University officials changed their stance after the lecturer, who lost her teaching job, sued the small Minnesota school for religious discrimination and defamation.

. . . The lawsuit, in Minnesota district court, states that Hamline’s actions have caused Dr. López Prater the loss of income from her adjunct position, emotional distress and damage to her professional reputation and job prospects.

In a statement, David Redden, a lawyer for Dr. López Prater, said that having had her actions labeled Islamophobic would follow her “throughout her career” and hurt her ability to obtain a tenure-track position.

According to the lawsuit, Ms. Wedatalla [an “observant Muslim student” who complained] “wanted to impose her specific religious views on López Prater, non-Muslim students and Muslim students who did not object to images.”

Mr. Redden said that the university’s new stance would not affect the lawsuit.

The lawsuit added that Hamline treated Dr. López Prater negatively because “she is not Muslim, because she did not conform her conduct to the specific beliefs of a Muslim sect, and because she did not conform her conduct to the religion-based preferences of Hamline that images of Muhammad not be shown to any Hamline student.”

As for American Muslims, they’re divided, though I’m heartened by reports that other Muslim groups had no objection to López Prater’s showing the painting, since not all Muslims object to depictions of Muhammad and because the instructor did provide a warning. From the NYT:

Muslim groups are also divided over the Hamline controversy. Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), believes that showing the image was Islamophobic. But the national group disagreed.

“Although we strongly discourage showing visual depictions of the prophet,” the group said in a statement, “professors who analyze ancient paintings for an academic purpose are not the same as Islamophobes who show such images to cause offense.”

Finally, IHE gives two statements supporting the instructor:

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.”

The only people siding with the firing of López Prater, then, are University President Miller, who pretends that she didn’t fire the instructor (LOL: she didn’t renew her contract) and Jaylani Hussein of CAIR. Everybody else, clearly including the timorous trustees, seem to realize that letting the instructor go was a huge mistake—a violation of academic freedom that besmirches Hamline’s reputation.

Oberlin College in Ohio did a similar thing when it besmirched the local Gibson’s Bakery by defaming it with accusations of racism. Gibson’s asked for an apology an Obelin refused. The case went to court, an it cost Oberlin $36 million in damages.  López Prater is clearly entitled to a big chunk of change because her reputation has already been damaged, and even if she gets another job, she’ll be demonized by a subset of students. She won’t be able to stay at Hamline, because all those offended students are still there.

The only thing that would have made Hamline back off, as it has done, is a lawsuit. The next headline we’ll see is probably “Money talks, Hamline squawks.”

Best of luck to Professor López Prater! Many of us support you, and not because you’re “Islamophobic”, but because you were doing your job and suffered greatly for it.  As to the firing, the person who should really be fired (and perhaps will) is President Miller. I rarely call for someone’s job, as I believe in second chances, but in Miller’s case her second chance involved digging in her heels and mischaracterizing academic freedom. Having clearly misconstrued the nature of a University, Miller should get her pink slip.

h/t: Wayne. Greg

Click “read more” below to see the statement from Hamline’s President, Fayneese 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.


29 thoughts on “Hamline University reconsiders its stand on academic freedom; fired instructor sues the school

  1. . . . 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.

    The logic behind that statement would serve to undermine and discredit any freedom. Good luck to Professor López Prater. Colleges seem to no longer care about academic freedom and truth, but I bet they still care about money!

  2. I never knew paintings had such potential to be misused, misunderstood, misrepresented, mississippi, weaponized, vandalized, and tenderized – imagine the paintings we aren’t being shown – what if, IDK, Chinese paintings show Chinese people having a fart competition, and had their things showing? And the children who aren’t going to know what to think of it?

    I’m glad someone is defending the dignity of all humans, because No True Human would let us suffer from violent harm that we now know paint can inflict – through space, even! Like astrology.

    [ Apologies – I try, I really do. ]

  3. You can’t fix stupid. This was so easily prevented simply by informing the complainers that their professor treated their concerns with the appropriate dignity and respect, and that she was doing her job. Hamline’s incompetent and embarrassing president needs to go, and Prater needs to recover significant damages.

    1. I wonder how much of this results from today’s mantra of “black students can never be in the wrong”. If they want a large rock moved, then it has to be moved. If one of them doesn’t want a picture shown, then it must not be shown.

  4. What leaves me floored is that we are debating whether you can teach Islamic Art WITHOUT showing Islamic art. Bigots are poisonous people

  5. Love to know the ratio of the monetary suit against Hamline and its endowment – compared to, say, Oberlin.

  6. Meredith Raimondo, the DEI wizard whose tenure as an Oberlin VP helped to cost the college $36 million, left Oberlin to become a VP at an outfit called Oglethorpe U. The current President of Hamline, who supposes that ordinary proper teaching is a “weapon” of oppression, is obviously qualified to move to Oglethorpe. BTW, the Ogel coat of arms shows three boar’s heads, with the motto “Nescit Cedere”, which means “never give up”.
    The curriculum there must be a treat,

    1. BTW, the Ogel coat of arms shows three boar’s heads, with the motto “Nescit Cedere”, which means “never give up”.
      Are they deliberately being, um, pig-headed?!

  7. “I rarely call for someone’s job, as I believe in second chances, but in Miller’s case her second chance involved digging in her heels and mischaracterizing academic freedom. Having clearly misconstrued the nature of a University, Miller should get her pink slip.”

    I’m inclined to agree: someone holding the beliefs she does, and acting according to them, is simply unsuited to be a part of a university. She fundamentally doesn’t understand what a university is.

  8. I think the instructor would be quite within her rights to bring suit against the complaining students as well, who quite clearly stayed behind to see the images — even after being warned not to — deliberately so that they could then claim to be offended. Harassment, malicious prosecution, slander — take your pick.

    1. I share the same view. This student intended to “view” the image, after being informed in the syllabus and on the day of the class that the art piece would be shown, in order to file a complaint and seek “harm” against the professor. She should be held accountable. Also, if the student has never seen a purported image of Muhammad, how would she know this was such an image? The actions, and statements, of the University President clearly demonstrate she is not qualified to lead it. She must be replaced immediately.

  9. I can’t believe we are living in a time when society has to cater to the feelings of muslims, christians, and jews.

    1. I agree with you, Moses, but to be fair, if it were Christians offended by the teaching of evolution or Jews offended by any assigned books that include “G-d” without dropping the ‘o’, I suspect the university administration would not be removing all the teachers who use such texts. So what you say is true, but the catering gradient seems tilted to one side.

      1. Censorship gradient:

        This offends a small, vulnerable minority.
        This offends community values.
        This offends our country.
        This is an offense to humanity.
        This offends God.

  10. A welcome development, lacking so far, would be a series of administrative dismissals and forced resignations of the petty despots and over-reaching idiots responsible for cases as open-and-shut as this one. Earlier cases of this kind include the suspension at USC of Greg Patton after he mentioned in a business class the Chinese interjection ‘na ge’; the non-renewal of Nathaniel Hiers at North Texas after he dared to refer to a piece of DEI agitprop as “garbage” (he later won a civil award of $165k and lawyers’ fees); and no doubt many, many others that made less news. If just a few such bureaucrats (e.g., President Miller of Hamline) were sacked for their incompetence, the atmosphere in academe would be greatly improved. The impunity these mandarins currently enjoy could be weakened if civil suits impose big costs on their institutions, but so far the costs have been much too small (except in the Oberlin/Gibson’s case). Therefore, I hope that Lopez Prater’s suit is demanding plenty for defamation, and that future suits do likewise.

  11. “It was never our intent …” — Wow! Quite a bold defense, considering these are the people who have been ruining lives and careers for years on the premise that “intent doesn’t matter.”

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