Amid controversy that resulted from the dismissal of a professor who had shown images of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class, Hamline University has walked back its initial description of the incident as “Islamophobic.”
Leadership at the school, located in Saint Paul, Minnesota, chose not to rehire the professor after the incident, which took place in October. The professor, Erika López Prater, had reportedly given students a two-minute warning about the pictures she was about to show, acknowledging that observant Muslim students may not want to see them, since some Islamic cultures forbid figurative imagery of Muhammad.
A member of the university’s Muslim Student Association raised concerns over López Prater’s handling of imagery to school administrators. In an email to university staff, the school’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence described López Prater’s move as “undeniably disrespectful” and “Islamophobic.”
López Prater sued Hamline University school last week, claiming religious discrimination and defamation.
But in its statement on Tuesday, Hamline University seemed to change its tune. “It was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students,” the school’s statement reads.
While respect for observant Muslim students involved in the on-campus debate does not “supersede” academic freedom, these two policies rather “coexist,” the school said.
Ellen Watters, the university’s board of trustees chair, and the school’s president, Fayneese S. Miller, said Hamline’s initial stance on the incident was a “misstep.” The usage of the word “Islamophobic” was “flawed,” they added.
López Prater’s lawsuit, which was filed in a Minnesota district court, claims that Hamline’s handling of the incident and the student objections that followed caused her to lose of income and weakened her professional prospects. According to the suit, the use of the word “Islamophobic” could hinder her chances of securing a tenured-track position.
The court filing also took aim at Aram Wedatalla, a Muslim student who raised the initial complaint of the incident to school administrators. The documents say she sought to “impose” her religious views on the professor and other students present for the remote class. Wedatalla could not immediately be reached by ARTnews for comment.
In a letter published last week, Miller defended the university’s stance around equity and protecting students rights to religious freedoms. She also called into question the “privilege” that underpins debates around academic freedom and its misapplications in campus settings. The president also claims the administration disagrees on the terms around which Prater’s employment with the school ended.
“Prioritizing the well-being of our students does not in any way negate or minimize the rights and privileges assured by academic freedom. But the concepts do intersect,” Miller wrote. She went on to say it was “absurd” that some would claim the school had violated its guiding academic principles.