The Medieval Academy of America condemns the decision of Hamline University not to renew Dr. Erika López Prater’s teaching contract following the widely-reported incident in which López Prater showed in a classroom context a 14th-century image of the prophet Muhammad. This image is widely celebrated as a landmark of Islamic art, and it has been taught in many classrooms because of its visual representation of the prophet Muhammad. Dr. López Prater followed best practices in preparing students with multiple warnings before she showed the image. Students were also invited to leave the class, if they preferred, rather than to view the image and participate in a discussion about it. After the complaint was made, Dr. López Prater was not allowed to address the issue, but was, rather, unfairly maligned, and her contract was not renewed.
Claims that the image is “Islamophobic” ignore its important historical context, and the value of teaching full and true versions of the past. As University of Michigan Professor Christiane Gruber, a noted expert on Islamic art, has cogently written, the presumption that such a work is “Islamophobic” is ahistorical, and it effaces the richly diverse dimensions of Islamic art and thought across time.
We cite the 1940 joint Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure issued by the American Association of University of Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges (AAC, now the Association of American Colleges and Universities, or AAC&U), of which Hamline University is a member institution: “Academic freedom is essential … and applies to both teaching and research. . . . Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.” So long as the subject material in question is germane to course content, “[t]eachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject” and, in doing so, “they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”
The Medieval Academy of America condemns Hamline’s decision as regards Dr. López Prater, and, more generally, because such decisions impact all precariously employed faculty without the protections of full-time, tenure-line employment. Hamline University’s own website specifies that it “embraces the examination of all ideas, some of which will potentially be unpopular and unsettling, as an integral and robust component of intellectual inquiry.” The Medieval Academy of America agrees with this statement and urges the university to live up to these principles in practice.