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
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:
Continue reading “The AAUP rebukes Hamline University for academic mistreatment of a professor”