Hamline under fire for dismissing professor


WHERE TO DRAW THE LINE. After a Hamline University professor was dismissed for showing a painting depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad, some are questioning whether dismissal was the right choice. Flickr CC image: jpellgen

What was thought to be a well-precautioned and harmless choice in the name of education instead led to an unexpected turn of events that cost one professor her job.
Dr. Erika López Prater of Hamline University decided that as a part of her Global Arts History class curriculum, she was to show the painting “Compendium of Chronicles” to further teach her class about the history of Islam. She felt that showing the painting was essential to her class and according to the New York Times, she stated that without displaying the painting to the class, it would be the equivalent of “[…] not teaching Michaelangelo’s David.”
However, the painting contained imagery of the Prophet Muhammad, meaning that it went against the beliefs of many Muslims, as the Quran prohibits them from viewing any form of imagery of him. Knowing ahead of time that showing the painting would go against the religion of many of her students, Dr. López Prater attempted to make efforts to prepare any students whose religious beliefs it would go against. According to her, the class syllabus made students aware of the showing of the painting and as the semester progressed, no students reached out to her with concerns regarding the painting.
And so, Dr. López Prater exhibited the image, giving a warning to the class a few minutes before doing so. After the class, a senior student in the class took action against the professor with the support of other students, saying that Prater’s actions were Islamophobic. Serious actions were then taken and Dr. López Prater was informed that she had been dismissed. However, Prater’s dismissal sparked controversy among students and most notably, pinned the Muslim community against each other, as according to the Vimal Patel of the New York Times, “Some Muslims distinguish between respectful depictions and mocking caricatures, while others do not subscribe to the restriction at all.”
On Jan. 13, Hamline released an official statement by President Fayneese S. Miller, stating “To suggest that the university does not respect academic freedom is absurd on its face. Hamline is a liberal arts institution, the oldest in Minnesota, the first to admit women, and now led by a woman of color. To deny the precepts upon which academic freedom is based would be to undermine our foundational principles.” Later on in the statement, she expressed that “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,” in response to several disputes about the matter. “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,” she stated.
Due to the wide range of beliefs, it is hard to reach a consensus on the situation, “Degree of belief can vary greatly, which poses the question: how do you address an issue those affected are divided on?” sophomore Aarushi Bahadur said. “From what I understand, everything comes down to one pivotal moment, one that I remain questioning: why did the Muslim student choose to remain silent when asked beforehand whether anyone preferred not to see the image?” Bahadur concluded. “I do not believe the student was completely to blame, nor do I believe the teacher was; rather, for the academics, this calls for a reckoning,” and that, “Instead of a college firing to save face, the gates of academia need to be opened up to discussion of how to better support those who feel victimized by the status quo, and to let them know that they have options. This event should have led to greater inclusivity. Instead, it got a teacher fired.”

This event should have led to greater inclusivity. Instead, it got a teacher fired.

— Aarushi Bahadur

Muslim Student Alliance leader Humza Murad has a varying take on the ordeal: “Content warnings; if you don’t like it, leave. That’s good that we have that, that’s good that the teacher did that. The students who then complained, that’s their fault. They should be in trouble for that, not her.” Murad also considers the faults of the professor in this situation, “The fact that she should know that [not every Muslim wants to see the painting] a little bit better to not show that in general because you don’t have to, right?” he said. “Then again, it’s fine to be like, ‘Look, I have this painting. If you want to see it, please come ask me and I’ll show it to you. But I’m not going to show it out of a sign of respect for all the Muslim students in this class.”
World religions teacher Ben Bollinger-Danielson shares from an educator’s perspective: “I heard an interview where it was the first time she’d ever seen [the painting] and she felt really blindsided. You can also see all these really real issues around academic freedom and how do you approach these complicated issues around depicting religious figures. And from what I’ve read, this professor was trying to do this in a respectful way and show the rich history of our history within Islam and trying to provide some warnings about that in some cautions […].” Focusing more on the teaching perspective, he provides insight to what should be considered when covering a sensitive topic in any class, “[…] there should always be rich alternatives to do things. […] How does one do this in the most appropriate, respectful way? Should one do these? What are the ethical underpinnings?” he said.
In the end, a petition garnering over 2,800 signatures was started, demanding that the university’s board investigate the matter. The week of Jan. 25, the faculty called for Hamline’s president to resign.