Erika López Prater and the Assault on Academic Freedom

I could belabor this case, but I’ll refrain. This New York Times article tells you what you need to know. A summary:

Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor at Hamline University, said she knew many Muslims have deeply held religious beliefs that prohibit depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. So last semester for a global art history class, she took many precautions before showing a 14th-century painting of Islam’s founder.

In the syllabus, she warned that images of holy figures, including the Prophet Muhammad and the Buddha, would be shown in the course. She asked students to contact her with any concerns, and she said no one did.

In class, she prepped students, telling them that in a few minutes, the painting would be displayed, in case anyone wanted to leave.

Then Dr. López Prater showed the image — and lost her teaching gig.

We’ve had some disagreements on this blog about the nature and scope of “cancel culture”–what it is, whether it’s justified, who is to blame, etc. But we can abstract from those disagreements for present purposes. This is an easy case. An instructor exercises academic freedom in an academically uncontroversial, pedagogically responsible way. A small group of religious dogmatists, weaponizing their particular brand of ethno-religious tribalism, claims to be “offended” in the name of Islam, and demands the instructor’s ouster from the university. The university, pandering to these students’ fashionable temper tantrums, and taking advantage of the instructor’s adjunct status, violates the norms of academic freedom and fires her. It’s a clear, paradigmatic, textbook case of what should never happen, but often does. It demands push back.

From New Lines Magazine: “This painting is one of the images at the center of the discussion in the Hamline classroom. It is included in a historical text written by Rashid al-Din, a famous 14th-century Muslim vizier and historian. (Edinburgh University Library, Or. Ms. 20)”

There are many ways of pushing back, but for now, I’ll recommend the simplest and most straightforward. The Times article mentions a petition organized by Christiane Gruber, a well-regarded historian of Islamic art, on behalf of “an international group of scholars and students, Muslim and non-Muslim, specializing in Islamic History, Islamic Studies, History of Art, Islamic Art History, and allied fields in the arts and humanities.” The petition is prefaced by an eloquent and informative statement, which I assume was written by (or primarily written by) Gruber. I signed the petition about an hour ago, when the total number of signatures was around 4,900. I highly encourage readers of this blog to sign it. The petitioners’ original goal was to reach 5,000 signatures. I suspect that that’s been reached by now, but there’s no harm in exceeding it.

Gruber also has a longer form essay on the controversy in New Lines Magazine, which I highly recommend, with useful background, and a series of irrefutably commonsensical arguments against Hamline and in defense of López Prater.  I’m copying an image of the contested painting into this post, but if for copyright reasons I have to remove it, you can find it (as well as the quoted caption) in Gruber’s New Lines essay.

It’s a sad truth that many of the people with the unchecked power to remove faculty from our universities, whether students or administrators, are themselves the ones who have no place there. I’m thinking specifically of opportunist mediocrities like Fayneese Miller, the university’s president, and ignorant dogmatists like members of the university’s Muslim Students Association, who demanded (and got) Dr. López Prater’s ouster. Either we support competent pedagogy and scholarship against assaults like theirs, or we’ll lose something priceless to the moral and epistemic hacks of the world. That loss might not register on people who lack the intellectual autonomy to make much use of it, but would deal a significant blow to the rest of us. If a jihad is required to avert that eventuality, we should be willing to wage it, and make that willingness clear to the other side as well.

5 thoughts on “Erika López Prater and the Assault on Academic Freedom

  1. Yes, I just read this article. Unbelievable. My sister just finished a book called The Faculty by John Dale which fictionally explores pretty much this issue. I’m a minority of one and I have lived experience of being me: does that mean no one is entitled to say anything that may offend me?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I think the explanation is largely bureaucratic, and possibly specific to American universities (though I’d be curious to read Dale’s book to see if there is cross-over). There have been real racial problems at American universities, having to do with how to integrate urban minority students into environments that have often been inhospitable to them. So a bureaucracy was created to handle this. As is often true of bureaucracies, it eventually took on a life of its own, and got to be staffed by unprincipled careerist drones–a certain brand of administrator. These administrators typically have a lot of unaccountable power, but lack classroom experience, bona fide academic credentials, and genuine scholarly interests or achievements.

    The one–and often the only–thing that they know is that their jobs depend on the discovery and punishment of racialized infractions. So they power themselves “on” each morning, looking for easy targets to attack, and there is no easier target than an adjunct instructor who has offended some very loud minority group. Once this much has been established, there is no need for further inquiry or due process. There is a template for wrecking careers, and one puts it into play. Since everybody’s job is always on the line, and everyone but tenured faculty or upper administration is employed “at will,” anything goes.

    The preferred tactic is to demonize the instructor during the academic term, then wait for the term to end (so that the grades can be harvested without disruption), decline to re-appoint them, and then pretend that nothing has really happened; the instructor was never “terminated,” they simply happened to complete their appointed term, and simply happened not to be re-hired. Cadres of mind-destroying mediocrities make their living on such sophistries, oblivious to the cost in talent. Since they lack the relevant sort of talent themselves, they can hardly be expected to appreciate it in others. And so we get cases like this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kevin,

      I need to get back to Scot and be certain that his legal team approves of public distribution. If so, we should find a specific journalist willing to read the document and write up the story. Otherwise, giving it to them will be a waste. But I’ll contact Scot tomorrow (or rather, later today, Tuesday).


  3. Pingback: The “Muhammad Painting” Case: An Update | Policy of Truth

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