U of M professors say Hamline admin compromised academic freedom

An exterior look at Hamline university buildings05
Hamline University buildings in the snow on Friday. The university has been in the news this week over a controversy with academic freedom.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The University of Minnesota’s art history department says it is taking an unusual step of making public its criticisms of another school’s actions involving a professor. The U’s department issued a public statement on its website excoriating Hamline University’s actions following adjunct professor Erika López Prater’s showing an image of the Prophet Muhammad in a world art class last fall.

U of M department chair Jennifer Marshall said they felt the need to speak out Friday because López Prater is a 2019 alumna of the department’s doctorate program.  Hamline is under fire for not renewing the professor’s employment.

Marshall says to her knowledge, the U’s art history department has never released a statement like this.

“In this case, the story was close to home and impacted our disciplinary practice,” Marshall says. “What tilted our decision to issue something jointly and unanimously, and so publicly, was the fact that we are the only Department of Art History in Minnesota that offers a Ph.D. in art history. And in fact, we've offered Ph.D.s in art history in Islamic art for over 30 years.” 

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Marshall emphasized that the fault does not fall with the student who complained to López Prater and then Hamline administrators and that the department is “admiring” of her for bringing the issue to the fore.  

“The blame for the mishandling falls entirely to Hamline’s administration,” the statement says. “Academic freedom, too, is a privilege we fear is currently under threat."

“To suggest that the university does not respect academic freedom is absurd on its face,” wrote Hamline President Fayneese Miller in a Jan. 11 public statement. 

In her statement, Miller says that various “stakeholders” and media reports accused Hamline University of violating academic freedom when it prioritized the well-being and equity of students, referring to the New York Times story that made the controversy national and international news

“The Times went so far as to cite PEN America’s claim that what was happening on our campus was one of the ‘most egregious violations of academic freedom’ it had ever encountered.” 

In her online class at Hamline in October, López Prater showed an image of a 14th-century painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad created by a Muslim artist. For many Muslims today, viewing or creating imagery of the Prophet is not allowed within the faith.  

Aram Wedatalla, a student in the class and president of Hamline’s Muslim Student Association, said it deeply pained her to see the image and to continue to explain why she feels it was Islamophobic for the image to be part of a class.

Miller argues that “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. Faculty have the right to teach and research subjects of importance to them, and to publish their work under the purview of their peers. At the same time, academic freedom does not operate in a vacuum.” 

A person speaks during a news conference
Aram Wedatalla, a Hamline senior and the president of Muslim Student Association (MSA) speaks during a news conference at the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations office in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

The University of Minnesota’s statement describes much academic work as precarious, describing employment like López Prater’s position as an "underpaid adjunct gig economy" that leads to the “disposability of expertise in pursuit of rising revenues.”   

It is signed by all the tenured and tenure-track faculty in the department of art history, including assistant professor Sinem Casale and emerita professor Catherine Asher, both experts in Islamic art. 

The statement goes onto say that the art history faculty is strongly against “Hamline’s intertwined attacks on academic freedom, on the integrity and dedication of faculty (especially those vulnerable to dismissal) and on the related enterprises of knowledge dissemination and debate.” 

Marshall says they hope Hamline University officials will read the statement. The University of Minnesota art history department, she says, would also like to expand the debate and is beginning to plan conversations and curriculum to investigate the issue of showing potentially offensive imagery.  

Hamline University declined to comment for this story and referred to the statements already made public. 

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.