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The Hamline Fiasco is no Isolated Incident

Well over a decade ago, I found myself teaching about abortion, eugenics, evolution, holy war and the history of the papacy at a Catholic university in the Chicago area. If you’ve been inundated with stories about the threats of campus culture to free speech, you might have expected me to have been worried. But although I had students who opposed my beliefs on every issue, I knew that at Dominican, everyone — from the chair of my department to the president of the university — had my back. If a student felt that my teaching somehow violated their beliefs and complained, I always knew that so long as I performed with integrity and care, I’d be fine. And I was, even when teaching Darwin to a creationist.

Last fall, Hamline University, a fine liberal arts institution just down the road from where I live in Minnesota, hired Erika López Prater, an art history professor, on an adjunct basis to teach a global art history class.

As reported in The New York Times, she warned students both verbally and in the syllabus that they would be shown sensitive images of holy figures such as the Buddha and Prophet Mohammed. For the class in question, she offered students a chance to leave the room without penalty before displaying and discussing an important image of the prophet made for and by Muslims in the 14th century. In other words, she performed with integrity and care.

A student complained. López Prater shared the student’s complaint with her department head, and they co-wrote an apology to the student. Hamline’s administration informed López Prater that she would not be returning to campus to teach the following semester. The Times reported that David Everett, Hamline’s vice president for inclusive excellence, described what happened in a universitywide email as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic” and that the school’s president, Fayneese S. Miller, co-signed an email saying that respect for Muslim students “should have superseded academic freedom.”

How should we respond to incidents such as this one? There’s a temptation, seen widely throughout commentary on the event over the past few weeks, to graft it onto ongoing disputes about campus culture. I’d suggest that we try not to let those details govern our analysis but instead look at two issues: labor rights and the exercise of power.

It’s not that the details don’t matter. The story broke more widely after art historian Christiane Gruber, one of the foremost experts in pre-modern Islamic book arts, wrote for New Lines Magazine about the painting in question. She called it “an authentic and irreplaceable work of art,” a shining example of a centuries-long “corpus of depictions produced mostly in Persian, Turkish and Indian lands between the 14th and 20th centuries.”

Islam, like all world religions, is complicated and multifaceted, and these depictions are part of its history. It doesn’t mean that a student who finds it blasphemous should be forced to witness it or required to engage it for course credit. But no one has so far disputed the efforts López Prater says she took to allow students to make their own choice, following the best practices we have for teaching controversial material (as I argued for CNN back in 2014 during another campus culture moral panic).

Read entire article at CNN