Hamline enters the national spotlight — for all the wrong reasons

Ben Rosenberg and Sabine Benda


Major national coverage erupted after an Oct. 6 incident in a Hamline classroom where adjunct Art History professor Erika Lopez Prater shared depictions of the Prophet Muhammed in a class which included Muslim students. The Office of Inclusive Excellence described the incident in a university-wide email as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic,” sparking outrage from free speech advocates and academics.

News outlets including CNN, The New York Times, Breitbart and Fox picked up coverage of the incident and events since. As a result of the national coverage, a number of students who took part in a forum hosted by the Office of Inclusive Excellence were targeted with online threats and harassment. 

When Hamline’s administration first acknowledged the classroom incident in a Nov. 7 email, the message briefly outlined a plan of action which included “an open forum on the subject of Islamophobia.”

That forum did not occur until Dec. 8 — a month after the Office of Inclusive Excellence’s email about the incident, two months after the classroom incident, and the day before Hamline’s Finals Reading Period.

As part of the panel, students from the Muslim Student Association (MSA) shared experiences of Islamophobia on campus and called on professors, peers and the administration to be better allies for their Muslim students. Their experiences included being targeted for wearing hijab, needing to outperform their peers to be seen as equal, and to speak for their cultures in ways other students are not expected to. Panelists described having to “fight tooth and nail” to have these reports taken seriously by administration.

Students were targeted on social media, but the response wasn’t limited to online interactions. Hamline’s office of Public Safety (HPS) and the Anderson Center front desk have both received angry and threatening phone calls, many of which were taken by student workers.

An internal email sent by HPS offered advice to student workers for handling those abusive phone calls. HPS also directed students to forward troubling messages to an email created for the sole purpose of consolidating and redirecting hate mail.

Outside coverage: a continuing conversation on free speech

Early discussions of this incident spiraled out of academia and the Upper Midwest and into a large and growing wave of outside media coverage. Pundits and experts from the fields of religious studies and art history expressed outrage on behalf of Lopez Prater.

Despite the rising public outcry, Hamline’s administration has remained largely silent. Representatives for Hamline’s administration, including the Office of Inclusive Excellence and the Dean of Students Office, declined to comment for this story.

An email signed by President Fayneese Miller acknowledged the media frenzy on Dec. 31 and asserted that the administration’s actions were only to address students’ concerns. The administration has not publicly addressed the concerns for academic freedom on campus. 

Academic Response: weighing in on academic freedom in the classroom

Amna Khalid, an associate professor of history at Carleton College, called out the Hamline Administration for reacting with “blatant disregard for and active suppression of the very thing an institution of higher learning is valued for — the specialized knowledge of its faculty[.]” 

Khalid, who is Muslim, felt that the nonrenewal of Lopez Prater had stifled alternative Muslim viewpoints.

New Lines Magazine published a response to the incident by Dr. Christiane Gruber, professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan, who Berkson had cited in his letter. 

In her response, Gruber joined Berkson in arguing against describing the classroom incident as Islamophobic. 

“The painting no doubt was produced to extol Muhammad’s prophecy and Quranic revelations, making it an Islamophilic artistic endeavor for its painter and viewers. The painting thus falls on the other side of the Islamophobia coin, in both intent and impact,” Gruber said in the response.

Additionally, Gruber created a Change.org petition calling for “an independent, outside investigation into this series of incidents, above all the processes and mechanisms by which one of its faculty members was dismissed without access to due process.”

The petition has received over 11,000 signatures as of press time.

David M. Perry, Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies in the History Department of the University of Minnesota, encouraged readers in an article published by CNN to be cautious and empathic when considering why the affected students felt unwelcome.

“I don’t know what these students were experiencing, but I know this: academic freedom encompasses the right to teach controversial material and the right for students to complain about it,” Perry wrote.

Perry also addressed the labor issues involved in Lopez Prater’s ouster, describing the uncomfortable power dynamics of teaching on a contract. 

“No one is safe when it’s easier for the bosses to wash their hands instead of getting down into the dirt with the rest of us doing the work,” Perry said. 

Accusations of censorship

In an article for Reason.com, UCLA Professor of Law Eugene Volokh delved further into the incident and specifically took issue with Lopez Prater’s dismissal.

Volokh argued that “it is precisely when people feel strongly that some things must be banned (either in general or from classrooms) that we need debate about whether the objections are indeed sound.”

Volokh also criticized The Oracle for its decision to remove a letter of commentary written by Hamline Professor of Religion Mark Berkson. Berkson’s letter addressed both Lopez Prater’s intent and a broader context for the incident itself. 

The Oracle originally published Berkson’s commentary online and in print on December 6. Two days later, The Oracle’s Editorial Board removed Berkson’s letter from the publication’s website in response to numerous messages from students as well as statements made at a “Community Conversations” event held by Hamline’s Office of Inclusive Excellence. 

Taking down this letter was roundly criticized by free speech advocates. Volokh and others criticized the removal of the letter as “censorship.” As of today, Berkson’s letter has been reposted

Academic freedom and accreditation called into question

PEN America, a free expression advocacy group, also published a sharp critique of Hamline’s response to the incident, saying “Hamline University has committed one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has now made multiple efforts to challenge the Hamline administration’s nonrenewal of Lopez Prater’s contract, including a letter calling for the professor’s reinstatement and a complaint with Hamline’s accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).

“Accrediting agencies like HLC are often the last line of defense for faculty members’ expressive freedoms, particularly adjuncts who lack tenure protection and the resources to challenge such decisions. … FIRE urges HLC to hold Hamline accountable for violating this laudable standard [2.D.],” the complaint reads.

Although the HLC has not yet responded, when FIRE previously used this tactic to address complaints at Emerson College and Saint Vincent College, neither of their accreditors offered a timely, public response.

Most recently, the American Association of University Professors has joined FIRE in publicly calling for Lopez Prater’s reinstatement.

Contingent faculty wonder what comes next 

Media coverage in the aftermath of the classroom incident has largely focused on arguments for academic freedom. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) published an open “Faculty Letter” on Jan. 3 addressed to Hamline President Fayneese Miller and other members of the Hamline administration. This was signed by over 300 members of college faculty from around the world. Among the initial signees were three Hamline faculty members, all working as adjuncts. As of press time, an additional nine Hamline professors have signed the letter.

The three adjunct signees were Lucas Threinen, Will Cooley and Ginna Watson. Cooley and Watson both agreed to speak with The Oracle; Threinen declined to comment.

While Cooley, an adjunct history professor, expressed that the incident seemed like “a clear-cut example of infringing on academic freedom,” he went on to address the broader issue of vulnerability for adjuncts.

“I thought the way the administration handled it by saying that the person was an adjunct, so therefore, it wasn’t ‘fired’ [sic] … shows that there’s a lot of precarious labor in the academic world,” Cooley said. “I’m sure Hamline has a pretty high percentage of classes taught by adjuncts. So there becomes this attitude that they’re disposable.” 

Watson, a music professor, expressed her gratitude for the flexibility of work as an adjunct since it has allowed her to take time for her work as a musician. Still, she has concerns about the insecurity of adjunct work. 

“We don’t have the protection that tenure track professors have, but I do feel that we should be given a due process,” Watson said. 

Employment data published by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 2021 confirms that a large majority of instructional positions around the country are filled with faculty who are not on the “tenure track.”

“Since the principal purpose of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom, the trend toward an increasingly contingent faculty is deeply worrisome … When faculty members can lose their positions because of their speech or research findings, they cannot properly fulfill their core responsibilities to advance and transmit knowledge,” the AAUP said in an accompanying press release.

According to Hamline’s own class listings and staff directory, at least 43% of classes offered in fall 2022 were taught by adjunct faculty. 

“I’m an alum. I enjoyed my time at Hamline, I thought I learned a lot. I thought I was challenged intellectually. And I hope that can continue into the future,” Cooley said.

Watson’s contract has been renewed for the spring semester. Cooley’s has not.

A job opening and little closure

For all involved, the classroom incident that began nearly two months ago has not ended.

Students are still processing their experience in the classroom, their exposure to a national spotlight, and the subsequent rain of abusive comments from outside the university. 

Faculty members are preparing at least two letters in response to Lopez Prater’s nonrenewal, and the community collectively awaits the next response from the administration.

The university continues to look for ways to gauge the threat level of these sorts of comments and asks for any hateful or threatening messages to be forwarded to operations@hamline.edu.