Home News Opinion | Fired by a College for Showing a Painting of Muhammad

Opinion | Fired by a College for Showing a Painting of Muhammad


To the Editor:

Re “She Showed a Prophet’s Image, and Divided a College Campus” (front page, Jan. 8):

After a student complained that her art history professor’s showing of a 14th-century image of the Prophet Muhammad (one shown regularly in art history classes) was deeply offensive to Muslims, the professor was told by school officials “that her services next semester were no longer needed.”

Never mind that Erika López Prater was teaching appropriate course material, or that she had given ample warnings, both in class and on her syllabus, that if any student found images of holy figures insensitive to contact her with any concerns or to feel free to leave the class before they were shown. Or that her department chair initially backed her 100 percent.

She was dismissed because adjuncts are disposable; they can be fired, for anything. But the administration of Hamline University, where Dr. López Prater taught, should know all too well how needed adjuncts are. Like so many colleges and universities across our country, they worry about shrinking enrollments and growing costs. Adjuncts are cheap; they teach at a fraction of the salary of full-time faculty.

The ratio of adjunct to full-time faculty in American colleges is shockingly high. They are a way to penny pinch in a climate where administrative salaries drain budgets and where parents are fed up with astronomical tuition costs.

Cathy Bernard
New York
The writer was a tenured associate professor of English at the New York Institute of Technology.

To the Editor:

The fight over free speech rights and academic freedom at Hamline University underscores several problems facing higher education in America.

Years ago I drafted Hamline’s civility code. It states in part, “The University embraces the examination of all ideas, some of which will potentially be unpopular and unsettling, as an integral and robust component of intellectual inquiry.” In drafting it, I was guided by a couple of principles.

One, schools are mini-democracies. They should inculcate the type of virtues in students we would expect them to display as citizens in a democracy. Instead they are now captured by the polarization, culture wars and interest groups that plague America.

Two, we live in a pluralistic society where not all of us share similar views on controversial issues. Education is not a pep rally; learning demands confronting contrary viewpoints.

As I emphasize in my classes (one of which was featured in this newspaper), education is about recognizing context. Presentation of controversial ideas in an academic context is different from proselytizing hate.

Universities face fiscal and enrollment challenges. Some will pick and choose whose speech to privilege in order to placate donors and students. This is the wrong approach. Schools must respect neutrality and allow for all voices and opinions in the pursuit of truth of inquiry.

David Schultz
St. Paul, Minn.
The writer is a professor of political science and legal studies at Hamline University.

To the Editor:

Did Erika López Prater’s decision to display the painting of the Prophet Muhammad support student learning and success or compromise the learning environment? Educators should care for students as much as art, and keep an open mind about their approach.

During class, Dr. López Prater could have provided a link to the painting, offering options to participate by viewing or listening (as it’s unfair to ask students to leave the class). Before offering such options, educators can seek guidance from experts with different perspectives as well as from students themselves, through one-to-one conversations, written reflections, anonymous surveys or dialogues with student organizations.

Ultimately what matters most is the students’ right to a quality education, which requires taking their needs into account and not forcing them to adopt an educator’s choice of whether or how to perceive an object.

A truly just and fair education enables freedom of thought and expression for all. Aram Wedatalla, the student who objected to the showing of the painting, courageously expressed her viewpoint, thus opening a broader and necessary conversation about what inclusion really means.

Catherine Elizabeth DeLazzero
New York
The writer is an educational researcher who has taught in high schools and universities.

To the Editor:

As a Muslim professor, I’m so angry at the Hamline University administration about this firing! I admit that I’m not too religious anymore, but I still cannot look at a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.

However, the students were given ample information on the syllabus and in the class prior to the image being shown. They can hardly claim to be “blindsided.”

My take is that the Muslim students are feeling let down by their university for other reasons and they took out their frustration on an adjunct faculty member. The administration took the easy way out by firing her.

Seyda Ipek
The writer is an assistant professor of physics at Carleton University.

To the Editor:

There are many disturbing aspects of this sad story, but what concerns me most is the apparent inability to acknowledge that more than one truth can exist simultaneously, even when they are not in complete alignment.

In the rush to identify villains and heroes, we lose sight of the complicated possibility that a) the professor was justified and well intentioned and b) the student was nevertheless genuinely offended by the professor’s decision to show the image.

Or that a) the professor gave opt-out options in advance but b) the student didn’t feel empowered to exercise them fully.

If the university had begun with a presumption that all of these things were simultaneously true and had attempted to find a better conflict resolution process along the lines of restorative justice, both the student and the professor might have felt that they had benefited from the conflict.

Instead, we go back and forth between dichotomous positions of right and wrong, villain and victim, oppressor and oppressed, and we end up not with progress toward unity but rather with more deeply entrenched differences.

Michael Rigsby
New Haven, Conn.

To the Editor:

Re “House G.O.P. Votes to Cut I.R.S. Funds; Senate Will Say No” (news article, Jan. 10):

The so-called Republican deficit hawks have made defunding the Internal Revenue Service their priority this week. Thankfully this proposal has no chance to become law, but it reeks of hypocrisy to try to reduce I.R.S. staffing at a time of significant budget deficits and uncollected taxes.

Instead of backing the overdue overhaul of an essential revenue-producing arm of government, the deficit hawks invent a new conspiracy theory: I.R.S. agents are out to get the average taxpayer. I guess that Republicans don’t have a problem with wealthy tax cheats, but that’s old news.

Last week’s House Republican sideshow was the agony to make Kevin McCarthy the speaker. What will be next week’s sideshow from Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell and Co.?

Andrew J. Sparberg
Oceanside, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Re “What It’s Like to Be Queer in Alabama,” by Lydia Polgreen (column, Jan. 8):

Thank you for this pointed and poignant opinion piece about L.G.B.T.Q. life in Alabama. Having lived in Birmingham, Ala., for a season, I was brought to tears by the tenderness with which she portrayed this often overlooked yet vibrant queer community.

I’m a lifelong Southerner who, like many queers, has fled to Atlanta for its relative community and safety. Even so, Birmingham and Alabama hold a special place in my heart, and I’m gratified to see them represented with the nuance and respect they deserve.

Grayson Hester

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