Erika López Prater, an adjunct art history professor at Hamline University in Minnesota, was not invited back for the spring semester after including images of medieval paintings of the prophet Muhammad in her online art history class last month.
Prater had previously warned students that the images would be included in presentations during the semester, first in the course syllabus provided to students at the start of the semester and again prior to the presentation, even offering the students an opportunity to leave the presentation if they had any concerns or could be offended by the images due to their faith — making the entire experience optional. She also offered her students the opportunity to speak with her prior to the material being shared (though none did).
In addition to the aforementioned images, the presentation included images of Buddha and other spiritual and holy figures.
During the presentation, no students expressed concern or raised questions. Following the class period, however, student Aram Wedatalla, president of Hamline’s Muslim Student Association, came to Prater to express her offense and then complained to university administrators. Despite the numerous advance warnings, Wedatalla claimed she was “blindsided” by the images.
As soon as she spoke with Wedatalla, Prater wrote to her department chair Allison Baker about what happened and was told “It sounded like you did everything right” and “I believe in academic freedom so you have my support.”
Baker also helped Prater write an apology letter to her students which stated that sometimes “diversity involves bringing contradicting, uncomfortable and coexisting truths into conversation with each other.”
That support didn’t last long.
Days later, Prater met with the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Dr. Marcela Kostihova. Kostihova told Prater that showing the art depicting Muhammad was the equivalent of using racial slurs against black students.
Despite her apology, and following the complaint by Wedatalla, numerous other students expressed their outrage. Hamline administrators let Prater know she would not be welcomed back as a professor for the spring semester.
The university also went so far as to write an open apology to students, calling the incident “Islamophobic” and in an email to all Hamlin employees, stated that Prater’s actions were “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”
Images of Muhammad are commonly shown in art history courses across the country, and with the ample warnings provided, students had plenty of time to express concerns or remove themselves from the environment to avoid any personal offense connected to their personal beliefs.
Numerous outside organizations and professors have expressed their support for Prater, including PEN America and Dr. Christine Gruber who started a Change.org petition calling upon Hamline’s Board of Trustees to launch an independent, outside investigation into the entire situation and the actions that followed.