I wrote ten posts on the 2022 “Muhammadgate” controversy at Hamline University, a small liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota. There’s now a new development, and it doesn’t look good for the administration of Hamline (see screenshot below). Let me refresh you briefly on what happened.
1.) An instructor, since identified as Erika López Prater, was giving her class a unit on Islamic art as part of a “global history of art” semester.
2.) As part of the syllabus, she showed two photos of paintings depicting the Prophet Muhammad, one of which depicted his face. In some, but not all, sects of Islam, that’s considered a form of blasphemy. In others it’s fine. Historically, however, it wasn’t. The two paintings, which I’m going to put below, were shown because they are historically important, considered important part of the canon of Islamic art.
In this picture, from Wikipedia Commons (and here), Muhammad is receiving his first revelation (which became the Qur’an) from the angel Gabriel:
In this painring the face of Muhammad is obscured, in line with the tradition of other Muslim sects:
3.) On the syllabus she gave the students at the beginning of her class, López Prater issued a “trigger warning” about when the Muhammad paintings would be shown to students. She also gave that same warning on the day they were shown, so that students didn’t have to look at them if they thought they’d be upsetting. (Whether the face of Muhammad in an ancient artwork should be upsetting is dubious; I think what we have here is manufactured outrage.)
4.) The two trigger warnings didn’t matter. Aram Wedatalla (a Black Muslim who was President of the Muslim Students Association) complained to the administration, and, as I wrote at the time, “After that, the university’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence (AVPIE) declared the classroom exercise ‘undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic’.”
5.) López Prater apologized directly to the student, saying “I would like to apologize that the image I showed in class on [Oct. 6] made you uncomfortable and caused you emotional agitation. It is never my intention to upset or disrespect students in my classroom,” the professor wrote in the email to Wedatalla, who shared it with the Oracle [the student newspaper.]
6.) Nevertheless, despite the two trigger warnings and her apology, López Prater was fired, facing campuswide accusations of racism and Islamophobia from the students and administration.
7.) Many people rose to López Prater’s defense, including the art-history faculty, a Muslim organization, Kenan Malik, and scholars from other institutions. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) condemned Hamline for violating the instructor’s academic freedom. The NYT had a big article on the controversy that generally took the instructor’s side, quoting Muslim art scholars who said the paintings at issue were masterpieces.
8.) In a stinging blow, 86% of Hamiline’s full-time faculty (71/83) voted to ask President Fayneese S. Miller, an African-American, to resign, and López Prater, who I believe has other job offers, sued the school.
9.) President Miller, who was instrumental in López Prater’s dismissal, said that she, Miller would retire. She apparently hasn’t, as you see below.
10.) In a further black mark on the school, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found that Hamline University had arrantly violated López Prater’s academic freedom.
11.) As of this writing, López Prater’s suit against Hamline for religious discrimination, defamation, retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, violations of Minnesota’s whistleblower law, and breach of contract is in federal court, A judge recently threw out four of the five claims (defamation, retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act), but allowed the religious discrimination claim to go forward. López Prater claims that she was discriminated against not only because she is not Muslim, but that she was fired because she didn’t conform to Muslim belief. It’s hard for me to understand how the judge could toss the defamation, retaliation, and emotional distress claims, but I hope López Prater wins on the other claims.
In the meantime, other scholars weighed in supporting López Prater’s showing of the paintings and decrying her abysmal treatment by Hamline University.
In light of this, you’d think that Hamline would try to repair its damaged reputation. The article below shows that that isn’t the case. Hamline just held a seminar on the whole sordid affair, and it turned out to be the administration’s put-up job on academic freedom, a show designed to conclude that López Prater’s own academic freedom was superseded by the “harm” she inflicted on the students. (Don’t forget the two trigger warnings!).
Click below read about the seminar in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Fayneese Miller didn’t only not retire, but she’s adamantly defending what Hamline did, and the faculty apparently had no say in who was invited to speak during the seminar. The school is simply refusing to admit that it did anything wrong, and is buying into the woke trope that academic freedom and freedom of speech has be be carefully balanced against the kind of confected emotional “harm” produced when a trigger-warned Muslim sees the visage of Muhammad:
You can read the piece for yourself; I’ll give just a summary of the proceedings. When the mild-mannered Chronicle is this critical of a school’s behavior, you know the school deserves it.
It has been almost one year since the classroom incident, and despite the damage to the university’s image, there has been no internal inquiry. Not a single administrator has issued an apology or taken responsibility. Instead, Hamline’s administration — after having had a long period to reflect on the media response, the AAUP report, and the statements of outraged faculty — organized “Academic Freedom and Cultural Perspectives: Challenges for Higher Ed Today and Tomorrow.” Despite its promising title, the event — which included introductions from David Everett, Hamline’s chief diversity officer, and Fayneese S. Miller, Hamline’s president; and a keynote address by Michael Eric Dyson — was essentially a full-throated defense of the administration’s actions against López Prater. Of the four panelists who convened after the keynote, only one, David Schultz, was drawn from the Hamline faculty. (Unsurprisingly, he alone seemed to evince any skepticism about the administration’s actions, albeit in a rather indirect way.) The others — Stacy Hawkins, of Rutgers Law School, and the antiracist activists Tim Wise and Robin DiAngelo — did not discuss the controversy in any substantive way.
Robin DiAngelo, for crying out loud! Why were these outsiders brought in? Clearly to cast the whole incident as an example of racism, which of course it wasn’t. Here’s President Miller justifying abrogation of academic freedom:
Next up was President Miller, who was eager to note that she did not see this event as a defensive move, “but rather an offensive” one (with the stress on the first syllable). Miller’s insistence that “this is not defensive” foreshadowed an event that was, in many ways, highly defensive.
Miller’s comments at the event were clearly directed at the faculty, who, she said, “continue to teach in ways that are more likely to mirror the educational experience that we endured.” When we exercise academic freedom, she said, we must “still see who is in our classrooms.” And she advised us that faculty must “not treat [students] as cattle to be prodded and moved in the direction we want.” The real threat to academic freedom, she concluded, occurs in places like Florida and Texas. “It is not being threatened that way in Minnesota. It is not being threatened that way at Hamline University.” Miller fails to see that there are many ways that academic freedom can be threatened. Despite the important differences, there is a key similarity between much of what is happening in places like Florida and Texas and what happened at Hamline last year. In both instances, a particular religious or ideological viewpoint is being used in an attempt to deny everyone in the community the opportunity to see certain material.
Indeed! Finally, the speakers not only set unconscionable limits to academic freedom, but also repeatedly conflated academic freedom with freedom of speech (what was violated was López Prater’s academic freedom to teach relevant material, not her freedom of speech), and then emphasized that both should be restricted when there’s the possibility of emotional “harm”.
It is clear that López Prater had no intent to upset anyone. She was teaching an important work of Islamic art, which is part of her job. She showed concern for her Muslim students by giving them multiple warnings, in writing and orally, to avert their eyes when she showed the image if they so wanted. This is nothing like the examples — some given more than once by many speakers at the event — of Holocaust denial, flat earth theory, fomenting an insurrection, and using the N-word in the classroom. None of these absurdly inappropriate disanalogies are remotely similar to the challenge that arose in López Prater’s art history class and that many of us regularly face — responsibly teaching relevant and suitable academic content that might be disturbing to some students.
. . . What happened to López Prater, whose academic freedom was clearly denied, was outrageous and unfair. It also serves as a chilling cautionary tale to all of us, especially those of us who teach controversial subjects. An administration that issues statements professing their commitment to academic freedom, as Hamline’s did in the wake of the avalanche of criticism, must be willing to support faculty in such situations — including adjunct faculty — or the statements mean nothing. Nothing said at “Academic Freedom and Cultural Perspectives: Challenges for Higher Ed Today and Tomorrow” gave me confidence that our administration understands this.
That last paragraph is the important one. Hamline University pays only lip service to academic freedom, for their decision to strongly defend what they did to López Prater is reprehensible. The Hamline faculty, but not the administration, does understand academic freedom, but the administration apparently runs the show. (López Prater would never have been fired at The University of Chicago.)
The obvious conclusions are that if parents want their kids to have a real education—one in which controversial matters can be openly discussed—they shouldn’t send their kids to Hamline University. Further, it’s time for President Miller to go, as she said she would. She kept the faculty out of this seminar, for she knew, given their vote, that they don’t share her misguided ideas about “harm”.