Hamline University, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, made headlines earlier this year after failing to renew the contract of adjunct professor Erika López Prater, who showed figurative renditions of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad to her Art History students. This month, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a nonprofit membership organization focused on advancing and protecting academic freedom, published a damning report concluding that the university mishandled the incident and led a “de facto campaign of vilification” against López Prater that represented “an assault on fundamental principles of academic freedom.” López Prater subsequently sued the institution, seeking damages due to “loss of income, mental anguish, emotional distress, [and] loss of reputation.”
“The implications for academic freedom in art and art history of the events recounted in this report are clear,” reads the AAUP’s report. “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.”
Last October, López Prater issued a two-minute content warning during a virtual session of her World Art course before displaying two examples of Medieval Islamic art including figurative depictions of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, which are prohibited by some Muslim sects. López Prater had notified her students through the course syllabus that this content would be covered during the course and encouraged anyone who was uncomfortable with this subject matter to exit the virtual classroom or turn off the video component. After she showed the images, Hamline University senior and Muslim Student Association president Aram Wedatalla said she was offended and confronted the professor before raising the issue with the university’s administration.
The AAUP report, published May 22, notes that López Prater’s course syllabus was reviewed and approved by the university in advance of the incident with no requested alterations. After Wedatalla rose the issue with administration, López Prater was encouraged to issue an apology to the student and the rest of the class. On October 24, despite López Prater’s apology, Baker rescinded the offer to renew the adjunct professor’s contract for the spring course via email without further detail and did not respond to López Prater’s inquiry on whether the decision was related to Wedatalla’s complaint and escalation.
In early November, Hamline University’s vice president of inclusive excellence David Everett issued a campus-wide email describing López Prater’s behavior as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic” and later gave an interview with the campus’s student newspaper, the Oracle, confirming that López Prater’s dismissal from the Hamline faculty was directly connected to the incident in her class. A report on the incident in the Oracle a month later included a quote from Patti Kersten, the university’s dean of students, describing López Prater’s decision to display the images as “an act of intolerance.” The AAUP report states that neither Everett nor Kersten had ever communicated with López Prater about the course or the incident.
By mid-January, university president Miller issued a statement reneging on Everett’s use of the word “Islamophobic” to describe the incident but maintained that academic freedom should not be used as an excuse to harm students and minorities at Hamline.
The AAUP report authors reject Hamline’s perspective on this point. “Student rights coexist with the right — indeed, the responsibility — of faculty members to teach according to the scholarly and pedagogical standards of their respective disciplines,” they write. “Hence, the committee rejects claims made at Hamline and elsewhere that support for academic freedom must necessarily conflict with efforts to welcome and nurture a diverse student body.”
In response to the AAUP’s conclusions, Hamline University issued a statement alleging that the report “remains littered with factual inaccuracies and innuendo, and its main conclusions remain unsupported.”
“A report which says in so many words that its investigators lacked evidence of adversarial activity on the part of Hamline University but goes on to assert it anyway is irresponsible, unbecoming of the traditions of the liberal arts, and is worthy of dismissal on its face,” the statement reads.
AAUP has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
AAUP also noted that the incident would have likely been handled differently had López Prater been a full-time tenured faculty member rather than an adjunct. Unlike tenured faculty, adjunct professors perform their duties through short-term contracts with no guarantee for renewal and are afforded fewer protections in regard to academic freedom. Thus, colleges and universities reserve the right to dismiss adjuncts or not renew their contracts for class conduct without it being considered retaliation due to the short-term employment agreement.
“It is difficult to imagine that the events reported here would have transpired as they did if a full-time member of the Hamline faculty had displayed the images in question,” the AAUP wrote. “This is hardly a problem exclusive to Hamline. The perils associated with increasing reliance on part-time and temporary instructors, and the consequences for academic freedom, have been well documented … The events recounted in this report provide yet another warning of the dangers of such reliance.”