Hamline University hits back at professor fired for showing class a painting of Muhammad

Hamline University hits back at professor fired for showing class a painting of Muhammad – says student who complained was ‘harmed’ by seeing the image and that teacher ‘failed to safeguard’ her

  • Professor Erika López Prater, 42, received complaints when she showed her class at the Minnesota university a 14th Century picture of Muhammad
  • Prater had warned the class in writing, in advance, that the lectures on Islamic art would contain images of the Prophet Muhammad and the Buddha
  • Yet following the October class a Muslim student complained, and Prater was informed that her teaching contract would not be renewed
  • Civil rights organizations such as the ACLU reacted with anger to Prater’s treatment, but the university insisted it was necessary
  • On Wednesday the university’s president issued a statement defending their actions, saying they were protecting the students
  • Fayneese Miller added that she, faculty members and a student had received death threats amid the fallout from the saga 

The president of a Minnesota university which ousted an art history professor after she showed her class a 14th Century painting of Muhammad has defended the decision, insisting that they acted to ‘safeguard’ students.

Professor Erika López Prater, 42, did not have her contract renewed after the controversial class.

In October, she showed her students the image amid a discussion of Islamic art – having warned them in writing in advance that the class would feature pictures of Muhammad and the Buddha, and allowing any students who wanted to leave the room to do so.

A Muslim student, Aram Wedatalla, complained and Prater lost her job.

Fayneese Miller, president of Hamline University, defended her decision not to renew the professor's contract following the controversy

Fayneese Miller, president of Hamline University, defended her decision not to renew the professor’s contract following the controversy

Nearly 8,000 people have signed this Change.org petition in support of the fired professor

Nearly 8,000 people have signed this Change.org petition in support of the fired professor 

Hamline University is a small liberal arts college in St Paul, Minnesota

Hamline University is a small liberal arts college in St Paul, Minnesota

On Wednesday, the president of Hamline University – a small liberal arts college in St Paul, Minnesota – defended the decision, which was condemned by the ACLU, PEN America, New York Times and Fox News.

In a letter sent out to students, Hamline University President Fayneese Miller apologized for the incident and said not offending the school's Muslim students is incredibly important

In a letter sent out to students, Hamline University President Fayneese Miller apologized for the incident and said not offending the school’s Muslim students is incredibly important

Fayneese Miller said she, faculty members and a student had received death threats, and insisted Hamline respected freedom of speech.

But, she wrote in a statement, their overriding priority was to protect students.

‘Prioritizing the well-being of our students does not in any way negate or minimize the rights and privileges assured by academic freedom,’ she wrote.

‘Academic freedom does not operate in a vacuum. It is subject to the dictates of society and the laws governing certain types of behavior.’

Miller quoted the American Federation of Teachers as ‘correctly’ stating that ‘academic freedom and its attendant rights do not mean that ‘anything goes’.

Miller added: ‘It notes that ‘faculty must act professionally in their scholarly research, their teaching, and their interactions with students and…ensure this through policies and procedures that safeguard both students and the academic integrity of the institutions and disciplines’.’

She asked: ‘Does your defense of academic freedom infringe upon the rights of students in violation of the very principles you defend?’

Miller also issued a harsh rebuttal of her critics, calling them misguided and ill-informed.

‘It is far easier to criticize, from the security of our computer screens, than it is to have to make the hard decisions that serve the interests of the entire campus community,’ she wrote.

‘What disappoints me the most is that little has been said regarding the needs and concerns of our students that all members of our community hold in trust. I hope this changes.’

Muslim student Aram Wedatalla had complained about the use of the painting – despite being warned about it ahead of time

Muslim student Aram Wedatalla had complained about the use of the painting – despite being warned about it ahead of time 

Miller concluded: ‘I also note that Hamline is an independent university still closely affiliated with the United Methodist Church, and its foundational principles inscribed in the oft-repeated words on our campus of John Wesley: ‘To do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.’

‘We at Hamline live by these words.

‘To do all the good you can means, in part, minimizing harm.

‘That is what has informed our decisions thus far and will continue to inform them in the future.

‘We hope you understand and respect the values guiding our efforts.’

Earlier this week it emerged Hamline could lose its accreditation after a formal complaint was filed against it for firing Prater.

An attorney sent the complaint to the Higher Learning Commission saying the liberal college was ‘failing to protect the academic freedom’.

Meanwhile the ACLU also slammed the university for ‘punishing educators for presenting controversial material’.

the ACLU also slammed the university for 'punishing educators for presenting controversial material'

The ACLU also slammed the university for ‘punishing educators for presenting controversial material’

Many practicing Muslims do not believe in looking at pictures of the Prophet Muhammad as they believe it may lead to worshipping an image. 

Now the American Civil Liberties Union – ACLU – has hit out at the decision to get rid of the professor.

They tweeted: ‘Universities can and should regulate professional standards — but punishing educators for presenting controversial material harms academic freedom.’

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) also announced that they filed a formal complaint with the Higher Learning Commission – Hamline’s accreditor.

In a letter to the accreditor, FIRE’s director Alex Morey wrote that the professor’s ‘nonrenewal violates both HLC and Hamline policies clearly committing the university to free expression and its corollary, academic freedom for all faculty.’

They are demanding that the professor be reinstated, adding: ‘We gave Hamline plenty of time to reverse course, but it’s clear they’re not planning to deliver on their academic freedom promises.

‘If Hamline won’t listen to free speech advocates or faculty across the country, they’ll have to listen to their accreditor.’

The Higher Learning Commission’s mandate requires accredited institutions to provide academic freedom – something they say the University has not done.

Wedatalla is a member of the Muslim Student Association and gained support from Muslim students who were not in the class but called the incident an attack on their religion

Wedatalla is a member of the Muslim Student Association and gained support from Muslim students who were not in the class but called the incident an attack on their religion

By firing the professor, they say it violates Hamline’s strong academic freedom policy which gives faculty the right to examine ‘all ideas, some of which will potentially be unpopular and unsettling.’

FIRE Program Officer Sabrina Conza added: ‘Hamline has no right to dismiss an art history instructor for teaching art history.

‘Hamline clearly doesn’t understand what academic freedom means, even though it explicitly promises faculty this core right.’

 I am offended as a Muslim. In choosing to label this image of Muhammad as Islamophobic, in endorsing the view that figurative representations of the Prophet are prohibited in Islam, Hamline has privileged a most extreme and conservative Muslim point of view
Professor Amna Khalid, who supports the fired Hamline professor

The complaint to the HLC says: ‘Such nonrenewal violates both HLC and Hamline policies clearly committing the university to free expression and its corollary, academic freedom for all faculty, with Hamline claiming it ‘is committed to academic freedom and celebrates free expression for everyone.

‘The University embraces the examination of all ideas, some of which will potentially be unpopular and unsettling, as an integral and robust component of intellectual inquiry.’

‘Accrediting agencies like HLC are often the last line of defense for faculty members ‘expressive freedoms, particularly adjuncts who lack tenure protection and the resources to challenge such decisions.

‘HLC’s Standard 2.D. is one of the strongest protections for student and faculty expression at private institutions in the United States, and FIRE urges HLC to hold Hamline accountable for violating this laudable standard.’ 

Miller before Christmas apologized for the incident and said not offending the school’s Muslim students is incredibly important.

In a letter sent out to students, she said: ‘It is not our intent to place blame; rather, it is our intent to note that in the classroom incident—where an image forbidden for Muslims to look upon was projected on a screen and left for many minutes—respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.’

By firing the professor, they say it violates Hamline's strong academic freedom policy which gives faculty the right to examine 'all ideas, some of which will potentially be unpopular and unsettling'

By firing the professor, they say it violates Hamline’s strong academic freedom policy which gives faculty the right to examine ‘all ideas, some of which will potentially be unpopular and unsettling’ 

Muslim professor Amna Khalid said Hamline 'privileged a most extreme and conservative Muslim point of view'

Muslim professor Amna Khalid said Hamline ‘privileged a most extreme and conservative Muslim point of view’

A Minnesota adjunct professor who showed students a painting of the Prophet Muhammad lost her job after the incident

A Minnesota adjunct professor who showed students a painting of the Prophet Muhammad lost her job after the incident

In a statement given to DailyMail.com a Hamline University spokesman said: ‘As we have stated, in the immediate aftermath of students’ expressed concerns, the University’s initial response and actions were to address our students’ concerns.

‘And, contrary to what has been reported and become the story, it is important that this aspect be reported. 

‘It is also important that we clarify that the adjunct instructor was teaching for the first time at Hamline, received an appointment letter for the fall semester, and taught the course until the end of the term.’

López Prater allegedly gave students a heads-up moments before the painting was shown, giving them another chance to leave the room if they didn’t feel comfortable looking at the picture.

Students do not relinquish their faith in the classroom 
Hamline University 

Again, no students brought any concerns or exited the classroom during the October lecture.

Wedatalla told the schools newspaper: ‘As a Muslim and a Black person, I don’t feel like I belong, and I don’t think I’ll ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member, and they don’t show the same respect that I show them.’

After the class ended, Wedatalla stuck around to speak with López Prater.

The conversation prompted the professor to sent an email to her department head, Allison Baker, to give her a heads up about the situation.

Baker, the chair of the digital and studio art department, responded by saying: ‘It sounded like you did everything right.’

Deangela Huddleston, a Hamline senior and Muslim Student Association member, said of the incident: ‘Hamline teaches us it doesn’t matter the intent, the impact is what matters.’

A spokesperson for Hamline said López Prate ‘received an appointment letter for the fall semester, and taught the course until the end of the term.’

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