The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an organization devoted to academic freedom, has announced that it is starting an inquiry into the actions of administrators at Hamline University, where a conflict between the rights of instructors to teach as they see fit and respect for the beliefs of religious students has been brewing since last fall.
The controversy began in October, when Dr. Erika López Prater, an adjunct art professor, showed students a depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims believe that such depictions are forbidden to view. After a student complained, López Prater was told that she would not be teaching a course in the spring semester. Hamline’s president, Dr. Fayneese S. Miller, signed a statement saying that care for the beliefs of the Muslim students in the class should have “superseded academic freedom,” and another administrator wrote to students that López Prater’s actions were Islamophobic. After López Prater sued the school, officials retracted the claim of bias and said that “care does not ‘supersede’ academic freedom, the two co-exist.”
The AAUP had previously issued a statement arguing that Hamline should reinstate López Prater, calling the situation “disturbing.” It quoted from a 2007 AAUP report on freedom in the classroom, stating that “ideas that are germane to a subject under discussion in a classroom cannot be censored because a student with particular religious or political beliefs might be offended. Instruction cannot proceed in the atmosphere of fear that would be produced were a teacher to become subject to administrative sanction based upon the idiosyncratic reaction of one or more students. This would create a classroom environment inimical to the free and vigorous exchange of ideas necessary for teaching and learning in higher education.”
The committee of inquiry will be composed of Dr. Henry Reichman, former chair of the AAUP’s standing committee A on academic freedom and tenure and professor emeritus of history at California State University, and Dr. Jessica Sponsler, visiting professor of art history at York College of Pennsylvania. They plan to visit the Hamline campus on February 3rd and 4th and hope to speak to Hamline administrators and trustees, as well as to López Prater and other faculty. The AAUP did not say when a report might be made public.
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.