Hamline University’s response to a Muslim student’s art class complaint last fall violated the professor’s academic freedom, according to a new report by the American Association of University Professors.
The faculty membership organization visited the St. Paul private school campus in February and interviewed numerous school administrators, faculty and others following widespread news coverage about the use of ancient art depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Aware that some Muslims take offense to visual depictions of the Prophet, adjunct professor Erika Lopez Prater warned students about the content on her world art class syllabus and again before showing the art during an online lesson in October.
Still, a student who viewed the art complained to Hamline administrators, who went on to criticize Lopez Prater’s decision in multiple statements and withdrew an offer to have her teach again in the spring.
“The committee can only speculate about the reason for the decision not to reappoint Professor López Prater. But circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that it was directly and solely a consequence of what transpired during the October 6 class meeting,” the association said in a 19-page report Monday.
Lopez Prater’s use of the art was “justifiable and appropriate,” the report said, and the “administration was wrong to characterize this decision as ‘undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.’ Similarly, the university’s contention that care for students must “supersede” academic freedom reflected an inaccurate and harmful understanding of the nature of academic freedom in the classroom.”
The report said the controversy took place three years into a campus strategic plan that had an unstated goal of recruiting more East African Muslim students from the Twin Cities.
The association also concluded that Lopez Prater’s job status left her unprotected.
“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. When the committee asked President (Fayneese) Miller how this situation would have been handled if the faculty member had been tenured or probationary for tenure, she replied that the instructor ‘would still be here,’ adding that ‘maybe the dean would have [had] a conversation’ with the professor,” the report said.
Even without tenure, Lopez Prater should have been given a “meaningful opportunity to respond to the accusations,” the report said. But because Hamline never initiated a formal investigation, she wasn’t able to file a grievance about having her teaching offer withdrawn.
Lopez Prater sued Hamline in January, claiming defamation, breach of contract and religious discrimination. Lawyers since have been battling over whether the case belongs in state or federal court.
The same day of the lawsuit, President Miller and Ellen Watters, chair of the Hamline Board of Trustees, said in a statement that “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.’”
Before making Monday’s report public, the faculty association shared a draft with Hamline administrators.
In a statement to the Pioneer Press, Hamline said it’s “committed to, and supports, academic freedom,” but objected to the report’s conclusions.
“Unfortunately, in the AAUP draft report, Hamline found a pattern of factual inaccuracies and omissions, subjective characterizations, and conclusions that were unsupported by AAUP’s draft findings,” Hamline said.
In April, Miller announced that she will retire next year.