The AAUP rebukes Hamline University for academic mistreatment of a professor

May 24, 2023 • 11:45 am

I’ve discussed “Muhammadgate” at Hamline University quite a few times before, and, at any rate, the details are given in the update below from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP; click on screenshot) and especially in the AAUP’s report here and pdf here. 

In short, in June, 2022, an adjunct professor of art history, Erika López Prater, was giving a class on World Art that included two sessions on Muslim art.  Those sessions included showing two images of the prophet Muhammad from famous paintings. In one his face was visible, in the other it was blotted out.  López Prater had given the students a “trigger warning” in the syllabus and also right before the online class, so they knew what they were going to see, and had the opportunity to leave. (The warning came because some Muslims, but not all, consider showing an image of Muhammad to be blasphemy.)  López Prater also vetted the syllabus and its warning to the administration and  the chair of the Art and Digital Media department, who had no problem with it.

The class went forward, and shortly thereafter a student, Aram Wedatalla, who was also president of the school’s Muslim Student Association, was outraged, and reported the incident to President Fayneese Miller and Dean Marcela Kostihova. Wedatalla also expressed her dissatisfaction to López Prater.

Read this summary by clicking on the link, but I especially recommend the AAUP report to show you what happened next: a perfect storm of outrage that led to the total violation of López Prater’s academic freedom

This ensued:

1.) López Prater  met twice with the dean about the complaints.

2.) Her Department chair suggested that López Prater tender an apology to the student body and her art class. But the apology that she wrote was just for the offense she caused; López Prater deliberately did not apologize for showing the images, which would have been ludicrous given the context.

3.) The University Vice President then issued a fulsome and apologetic statement about the Islamophobia supposedly caused by López Prater’s showing the paintings. It was almost a direct rebuke to the faculty member.

4.) López Prater was informed that she would no longer be teaching in the school. Effectively, as an adjunct, she was fired.

5.) The university held a “community conversation” that was clearly meant to reinforce the dastardly Islamophobia of López Prater. The topic was in fact “Islamophobia,” the panel of students were all black women (Muslims, I suspect), and a professor who tried to speak in defense of López Prater was told to shut up.

6.) The story had now become national news with a New York Times article devoting a front-page story to it on January 8 of this year.  Other people wrote in defending López Prater.

7.) The administration, realizing it had embarrassed itself and violated academic freedom, walked back its statements on January 17. The President and Chair issued this statement:

“Hamline University is the epicenter of a public conversation about academic freedom and students with diverse religious beliefs,” the statement began, and “many communications, articles, and opinion pieces . . . have caused us to review and re-examine our actions.” It continued, “Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep. 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 ends with a retraction: “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. Faculty have the right to choose what and how they teach.”

8.)  “That same day Professor López Prater filed suit against the university in Ramsey County District Court, seeking damages for violations of Minnesota’s Human Rights Act, breach of contract, promissory estoppel, defamation, and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

8.) Meanwhile, the regular faculty met and overwhelmingly gave a vote of no confidence to President Miller.

9.) President Miller resigned.

I’ll reproduce just two documents that were part of this kerfuffle. First, López Prater’s “trigger warning” on her syllabus (again, she also gave a verbal one right before class):

I aim to affirm students of all religious observances and beliefs in the content of the course. Additionally, this course will introduce students to several religious traditions and the visual cultures they have produced historically. This includes showing and discussing both representational and non-representational depictions of holy figures (for example, the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ, and the Buddha). If you have any questions or concerns about either missing class for a religious observance or the visual content that will be presented, please do not hesitate to contact me.

That’s pretty good, right? Nobody could object to being blindsided by being shown the two paintings, which I reproduce here.

And here is the damning statement that the school’s Vice President issued, which was then shared with the student body by the Dean of Students:

Several weeks ago, Hamline administration was made aware of an incident that occurred in an online class. Certain actions taken in that class were undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic. While the intent behind these actions may not have been to cause harm, it came at the expense of Hamline’s Muslim community members. While much work has been done to address the issue in question since it occurred, the act itself was unacceptable. . . . I want to make clear: isolated incidents such as we have seen define neither Hamline nor its ethos. They clearly do not meet community standards or expectations for behavior. We will utilize all means at our disposal, up to and including the conduct process, to ensure the emotional health, security, and well-being of all members of our community.

It makes my blood boil to read this even now. There was NO Islamophobia, no disrespect, no harm, and certainly lots of consideration.  This, more than anything else, I think, brought down the AAUP’s wrath on Hamline.

Oh, one other comment. The reports says this, which may account for why the school’s reaction was so strong:

In 2019, a new strategic plan set a goal of increasing enrollment by diversifying the demographic makeup of the student body and improving student retention. According to faculty members who worked on the plan, an unstated goal was to recruit more students from the growing population of East African Muslims in the Twin Cities.

What did the AAUP do about this? I haven’t read the longer pdf file of the report, but I’m not sure that the AAUP can really do anything to Hamline University save censure and embarrass it.  Further, the faculty have already spoken in opposition to the President, Dean’s, and Chair’s mishigass, and the President is toast. Nevertheless, the AAUP’s judgment will stand as a warning to other schools. The last half of the report censures Hamline for doing these things:

a. Retracting López Prater’s teaching assignments.

b. Not affording López Prater academic due process. There was no formal procedure used to assess what she did before they got rid of her.

c. Denying López Prater her academic freedom to teach what she wanted (courts have ruled that so long as material like these pictures serve a didactic purpose, they are protected by academic freedom.

d. Relying largely on part-time appointments, meaning that faculty like López Prater get low pay, not many benefits, and huge workloads. This practice is increasing in American Universities, and it must stop, as it’s a form of indentured servitude.

e. Not creating a climate of academic freedom at the school. As the AAUP report notes:

The implications for academic freedom in art and art history of the events recounted in this report are clear. If a Muslim student can prevent the display of an image of the Prophet Muhammad, why cannot an evangelical Christian student seek to censor a work like the controversial Piss Christ by Andres Serrano or a devout Hindu student object to studying the work of Indian artist M. F. Husain? But art history is not the only field of study potentially at risk. Indeed, as Professor López Prater wrote the committee, “My situation presents a slippery slope not only for the discipline of art history, but for all of academia.”

They do praise the University’s governing board for acting rapidly and forcing the University to retract the charge of Islamophobia. They probably also asked Miller to resign, though it’s not clear.

Finally, the AAUP made a number of conclusions and recommendations, which I’ll put below the fold as this is getting too long. Click “read more” below to see them:

The AAUP’s summary:

V. Conclusions and Recommendations

  1. Professor Erika López Prater’s decision to display historical images of the Prophet Muhammad in a World Art class was not only justifiable and appropriate on both scholarly and pedagogical grounds; it was also protected by academic freedom. The Hamline administration was wrong to characterize this decision as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” Similarly, the university’s contention that care for students must “supersede” academic freedom reflected an inaccurate and harmful understanding of the nature of academic freedom in the classroom. The university has since disavowed both claims.
  2. Although the committee has not seem 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 Muhammed in her October 6 class session, thus violating her academic freedom as a teacher. Neither the administration nor Professor Baker provided a legitimate academic rationale for declining to offer Professor López Prater any further teaching assignments.
  3. From November 7 through January 11, the administration of Hamline University, including President 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.36 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.
  4. The Hamline administration failed to initiate any formal or substantial investigation of the student complaint against Professor López Prater, nor did it afford her a meaningful opportunity to respond to the accusations made against her. According to the faculty handbook and the collective bargaining agreement, Professor López Prater should have been given the opportunity to file a grievance regarding the administration’s withdrawal of the informal teaching offer for the following semester and its campaign of denigration. Under AAUP-supported procedural standards, furthermore, Professor López Prater was entitled to the opportunity to petition an elected faculty body to review her allegation that the action against her had compromised her academic freedom. Absent such a procedure, that allegation stands unrebutted.
  5. The failure of Hamline’s administration to defend the free speech and academic freedom rights of Professor Berkson during and after the December 8 campus conversation and to support Professor Reynolds after inflammatory and false charges were made publicly against him further chilled the climate for academic freedom at the university.37
  6. Hamline’s board of trustees should formally endorse the principles articulated by the Hamline faculty in its January 24 resolution.
  7. The AAUP should closely monitor developments at Hamline University. Among the most welcome developments would be a renewed offer of a teaching appointment to Professor López Prater. The Association’s staff should also be available to provide appropriate assistance to the board, the administration, and the faculty if requested.



14 thoughts on “The AAUP rebukes Hamline University for academic mistreatment of a professor

  1. We will utilize all means at our disposal, up to and including the conduct process, to ensure the emotional health, security, and well-being of all members of our community.

    And there it is — deep, deep concern about the emotional health, security, and well-being of the Little People who can’t be expected to understand and be resilient. No, they’re easily damaged emotionally and regularly attacked physically by Others just looking for an excuse, any excuse, to do so. Now they can commit violence under cover that “the liberal professor must think it’s okay.” See what you set in motion with your “art lesson?”

    It’s been called the Culture of Victimhood and it comes with its own understanding of what people are like.

    1. A key feature of the Culture of Victimhood is the imaginary character of the victimhood it reifies. In the real world, a large Eurasian power is in the second year of a flagrant, imperial war of conquest against a neighboring county—but we can be sure that acolytes of Post-Colonial Theory will still be nattering on about the need to “decolonize” the names of birds and the nomenclature of Chemistry at imperialist headquarters like the University of York.

    2. University administrators don’t seem to understand the point of a university, do they? They consider it just another “safe space” where students can take refuge, in exchange for thousands and thousands of dollars.

  2. Although Hamline’s dim president has agreed to resign (not immediately but next year!),
    I have not seen anything about the vice-president who issued the outrageous screed about Lopez-Prater’s “inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic” art history class.
    This hack should by now be looking for new job, perhaps in the DEI bureaucracy at Oberlin.

  3. Excellent report by the AAUP. We need to continue to stand up for academic freedom and to resist acts of intimidation designed to limit it. We also need victims of this sort of intimidation to file lawsuits—as did Dr. Prater. If university administrators won’t stand up for academic freedom based on principle, they need to be encouraged to do so via damage to their reputations (as per the AAUP statement) or damage to their pocketbooks (via lawsuits). It’s also scary to read that “repercussions appear to have followed Professor López Prater to a neighboring institution.” Again, this is intimidation that needs to be called out and stopped.

  4. I am not surprised to read that Hamline’s terrible response to the incident was likely inspired by an effort to pander to a specific community whose tuition dollars they need. DEI is used, and will continue to be used, as a cover for the power structure to wash its hands of “trouble-makers” in the name of moralistic ethos. Good for AAUP.

    1. This specific community is not descended from American slaves, it should be noted. They all emigrated freely, fleeing their own failed majority black-ruled state of Somalia to a country that gave them refuge. Having no race grievance they have to invent the religious grievance that America is somehow Islamophobic.

      1. Black immigrants experience racism in the US, no doubt, just as there are bigots in the US that are Islamophobic. However this is not an issue of racism or of Islamophobia, this is about academic freedom. I am relieved to see organizations and individuals standing up for academic freedom.

  5. This case is eerily similar to my own. However, in my case: 1. The grievant was another faculty member (then the dean of faculty himself) rather than a student; 2. I was suspended immediately and exiled for 10 weeks prior to my hearing; 3. The local AAUP chapter (5 individuals) sided with the administration; 4. The National AAUP declined to investigate my case; 5. There was never an investigation of my case; 6. The faculty members on my review committee (all worked for the dean) sided with the administration; and 7. The Board of Trustees, accepted false statements by the president and dean to support termination of my tenure and dismissal for cause. The federal case has now lasted over 5 years with no clear end in sight.

    If you are unfamiliar with my case, more of the particulars are here:

    And the survey (which admittedly included realistic scenarios similar to actual events the Administration did not want to acknowledge) is here:

      1. The specific charge was “personal conduct which demonstrably hinders fulfillment of professional responsibilities.” In my case, conducting a survey study for as part of my industrial relations course was the “personal conduct” and including scenarios in the survey similar to actual events was deemed to “hinder by professional responsibility” (to shut up and color)…

        1. Ooops” Correcting typos…

          The specific charge was “personal conduct which demonstrably hinders fulfillment of professional responsibilities.” In my case, conducting a survey study for my industrial relations course was the “personal conduct” and including scenarios in the survey similar to actual events was deemed to “hinder (my) professional responsibility” (to shut up and color)…

          1. Ugh. I’m sorry to read that sordid story of your case at Berea College.

            I must say—not that it would have changed the outcome—it confirmed for me the advice of some smart people who say ***never*** to apologize for such purported “incidents” of X, Y or Z discrimination, especially if no wrong has been committed.

  6. Caveat: I am a political liberal of the, IMO, rationalist type, in line with people like Jesse Singal and John McWhorter. I am vigorously opposed to Donald Trump, less because of his political beliefs (which he does not truly hold, IMO) than his manifest personality disorder, which leads him to filter ***everything*** through a self-centered prism of grievance and self-adulation. Also, I’m an atheist.

    Re “If a Muslim student can prevent the display of an image of the Prophet Muhammad, why cannot an evangelical Christian student seek to censor a work like the controversial Piss Christ by Andres Serrano or a devout Hindu student object to studying the work of Indian artist M. F. Husain?”

    The bomb-throwing (deliberately provocative, IMO) “conservative” commentator Ann Coulter a number of years ago poked at liberals/progressives by noting that (paraphrase), “Liberals hate every religion … except Islam.”

    Though she was no doubt merely trying to provoke (as is her wont), I think Coulter touched a nerve with that comment. It’s incredibly bizarre that progressives who vigorously reject almost all religion feel the need to bend over backward to coddle &^%$#!! Islam.

    Like most faiths, Islam has many reasonable adherents. But the tenets of the faith are truly horrific, anti-human, superstitious and demonstrably false in many ways.

    In some ways, Islamo-philia among progressives is like their purported support for racial reparations: It’s a performative act that, one presumes, they don’t really suspect will ever have any real-world impact on their lives.

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