A national organization promoting academic freedom released a new report Monday assailing Hamline University's response after an art history instructor showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in class.
The American Association of University Professors accused the private university in St. Paul of engaging in "what amounted to a de facto campaign of vilification against Professor [Erika] López Prater that also represented an assault on fundamental principles of academic freedom."
The association is one of many groups that have commented on the episode last fall that placed Hamline University at the center of a high-profile debate over academic freedom, religious tolerance and Islamophobia. López Prater's contract was not renewed for the spring semester.
The university didn't immediately comment on the report, and an attorney for López Prater couldn't immediately be reached.
López Prater was working as an adjunct instructor at the university when she showed students two centuries-old artworks depicting the Prophet Muhammad. One showed the prophet — including his face — as he received a revelation from the Angel Gabriel that would later form the basis of the Qur'an. The second showed a similar moment, but with the prophet's face veiled and his image surrounded by a halo.
Scholars and religious leaders have sometimes disagreed about whether Islam permits images of the Prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims argue the images are strictly prohibited to avoid idolization, while others have images of the prophet in their homes.
López Prater said she provided a disclaimer in the syllabus for the course and spent "at least a couple minutes" preparing students for the images. One of her students, Aram Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Student Association, said she heard the professor give a "trigger warning," wondered what it was for "and then I looked and it was the prophet." Wedatalla contacted university administrators.
The university decided not to renew López Prater's contract. In a campus email, an administrator called her actions "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic," a word choice that the university's president and board chair have since described as "flawed."
The American Association of University Professors' 19-page report was based on information gathered during a two-day visit to campus, interviews with five administrators and others on campus, and written statements issued through López Prater's attorney.
The association wrote that López Prater's decision to show the artworks was justifiable, appropriate and "protected by academic freedom."
"The committee can only speculate about the reason for the decision not to reappoint Professor López Prater," the report said. "But circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that it was directly and solely a consequence of what transpired during the October 6 class meeting."
A footnote in the report says Hamline University told the association it "does take issue," with the group's findings, saying they were speculative and contradictory.
The association's report says it also has concerns "about the climate for academic freedom at Hamline" based on incidents with other staff members, including one who felt his attempts to publicly defend López Prater had been stifled.
López Prater has sued the university for religious discrimination, defamation and other claims. A federal judge heard arguments on some motions last week and is weighing whether to dismiss the case, allow it to proceed, or move it to state court.