Hamline University refuses to admit that they screwed up by firing an instructor who showed a picture of Muhammad’s face

September 26, 2023 • 9:45 am

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”.

34 thoughts on “Hamline University refuses to admit that they screwed up by firing an instructor who showed a picture of Muhammad’s face

  1. I don’t know why most of the earlier charges were dismissed, since those were pretty obvious charges. But the new seminar designed to re-write the whole sordid story seems to be an opening to put back some of those dismissed charges. Defamation among them.

  2. “What the political left, even in democratic countries, share is the notion that knowledgeable and virtuous people like themselves have both a right and a duty to use the power of government to impose their superior knowledge and virtue on others.
    ~ Thomas Sowell”

    If Fayneese S. Miller is the boss of the university and convinced of her own knowledge and virtue then it follows that everyone else who dissents is not knowledgeable or virtuous and may be disregarded.

    Perhaps like Oberlin College there is no impetus to stop digging the hole they are in because they can’t even see the hole.

    1. I think you’re right about Hamline, like Oberlin, being unable to even see the hole. I certainly hope that the court outcome for López Prater is in line with (although faster) the Gibson family’s.

  3. There’s a word for this: corruption. Glad to see that the Chronicle is calling it out. It’ll get sorted out eventually, with Fayneese S. Miller eventually going away. In organizing the conference, Hamline is engaging in a conspiracy to feign racism in a misguided effort to restore their (ruined) reputation. They are only digging themselves in deeper. Keep digging.

  4. In April, 86% of Hamline faculty voted for Fayneese Miller to resign. Anyone with any probity, or self-respect, who received that verdict would have resigned immediately. But not only did she grudgingly announce that she wouldn’t resign for another year, but she’s used her time — and the university’s resources — since then concocting this elaborate poke in the eye to her critics. Since faculty weren’t even allowed to attend, in whose eyes did she think she was being vindicated?

  5. Replace the word “Islamophobic” in this story with “Christophobic” and ask yourself if Hamline’s or Miller’s response would have been different had the professor shown the “Piss Christ” in class?

    What Miller really doesn’t understand is her own bigotry of low expectations directed at Muslims.

  6. Refusal to admit a mistake is rarely recognized as the enormously powerful factor it is—it
    determines much of history. The best personal account of the late 30s Soviet Purge, “The Accused” by Alexander Weissberg, postulated that the Purge was set up to prevent any discussion of the enormous earlier mistake of the collectivization of farming. The present war in Ukraine continues as Russia avoids admitting how utterly mistaken its invasion in February, 2022 was.

  7. Let me get this straight. Muslim students were ‘offended ‘ by a professor showing some classical Muslim art? Must Hamline really be the arbiter in internecine Muslim fights?
    Those pictures were not made by ‘islamophobes’, but by devout muslims. Maybe not devout Whahhabists, but devout Muslims just the same. Hamelin’s fealty to fundamentalist Islam is profoundly unconscionable, and immo, disgusting. And their throwing Lopez Prater under the bus is unconscionable squared.
    Note, I think Lopes Prater made a big mistake in her trigger warnings. Trigger warnings give the dogs the smell. Just give your students classical Islamic art: warnings be damned.

    1. I totally agree, why have we reduced ourselves to this ridiculous business of “ trigger warnings” so that people are warned that they might be “offended” Being offended is part of life, the only trigger warning justified is to keep your finger off it unless you mean to fire.

      1. More to the point, there is simply no point in issuing them if those who would be offended complain anyway. Since they provide no cover for the warner, and no comfort to the warnee, what is the point?

        1. I think the point is that if you can be compelled to issue a trigger warning, the compellors have demonstrated their power over you. That it might expose you to greater risk of fury from the triggered is part of the fun. The best part is that the authorities who will administer the punishment (in obeisance to the furiously triggered) are the same ones who compelled you to issue the trigger warning in the first place.

      2. Of course, “trigger warning” is itself considered too, er, triggering and so the approved term is now “content warning”. We’re doomed!

  8. There are essays by D.H. Lawrence which I never assigned to students. Maybe this was because I found the anti-Semitic remarks at the end offensive. Offensive to me. I wasn’t considering their offensiveness to students. There was so much else I might include in a syllabus, I had no second thought about not using the pieces with conspicuous anti-Semitism. They weren’t top candidates to be in my syllabus. There is also a piece by Matthew Arnold in which the anti-Semitism hits you in the face like a wet kipper. I would have put that on a syllabus if it were relevant. I haven’t ever had to think whether it would be pedagogically appropriate to say something about a piece like that in advance. I know people who do teach the Chaucer tale about which Arnold is writing, and who do find that you have to confront how deeply problematic that tale is. It’s an incitement to anti-Semitic murder, as well as a piece of literature.

  9. Hamline University’s trustees, in particular the president of the board, are conspicuous by their absences in all this.

    1. Correction: The board has a chair, not a president, most likely to prevent confusion with President Miller. My point still pertains.

  10. I recall watching the video of the offended Hamline student speaking at a press conference surrounded by Islamic supporters. It was a textbook example of victimhood theater and the infantilization of academia. The whole situation is sickening and disturbing. Clearly Miller is putting self-interest (job, money, reputation) above ethics by abusing her power to wage a double-speak PR defense campaign, which is the normal behavior of people in positions of power. BTW, looking at that painting in your post, I noticed that Mo really gained a lot of weight since he moved in with Jesus. Here’s a pic of Mo naked to illustrate my point:

  11. The way the angel Gabriel is pointing at Mo in the painting seems more like she is admonishing him for taking advantage of too many underage girls, not transmitting the Koran.

  12. Hamline is, was, and likely always will be a joke (sez this Macalester alum). “University” sez it — was Hamline College back in the day, but some consultant probably thought they’d up their status with the “U” word.

    Robin DiAngelo! A parade of horrors here! The author of the worst book I have ever read (most of) and perhaps the worst book of all time.

    On the up side, the famous Mo painting has had vastly more exposure to the world than it ever would have except for the endlessly sensitive and determined-to-be-offended student.

  13. Referring late to comment #8 et. al., I have suggestions in regard to trigger warnings. Courses in Geology should henceforward issue a warning for religious believers that the actual age of rocks, geological formations, and the earth will be discussed. Courses in Biology must warn students in advance that evidence for evolution will be presented. Courses in every STEM subject will begin with a trigger warning that the subject is based on something called EVIDENCE, a practice which may give offense to the faithful.

    1. I worked at the National Zoo, Department of Invertebrates and there was a class of evangelical kids coming for a tour and we were told not to mention evolution during their visit. This was around 1999. The staff thought this was b.s.

  14. I think more people need to publicly point out that religious rules only apply to followers of the religion, not non-believers. We can observe the rules of polite society in such situations, but that is as far as it needs to go.

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