Donate to RNS

Who says you can’t show students a portrait of Muhammad?

A multiple-choice quiz to help college administrators navigate religious freedom on campus.

(RNS) — By now most of you will have heard about the adjunct lecturer in art history at Hamline University in Minnesota who was let go last month after she showed her class a famous medieval Persian painting of the Prophet Muhammad receiving the words of Allah from the Angel Gabriel.

Yes, many Muslims consider pictorial representations of Muhammad to be blasphemous. And others don’t. And some of the finest examples of devotional Islamic art, and notably the painting in question, do indeed represent him.

But in deference to complaints from Muslim students, and notwithstanding the fact that the lecturer, Erika López Prater, gave her students due notice and permission not to attend class if they chose, the Hamline administration jumped on the alleged offense with both feet. 

Not only was López Prater let go, but David Everett, the school’s vice president for inclusive excellence, called her action “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” Hamline President Fayneese S. Miller co-signed an email stating that in this case respect for Muslim students “should have superseded academic freedom.”

Media coverage of the university’s action has created a firestorm of opposition, not only from the familiar forces of anti-wokeness on the right but from the liberal professoriate, up to and including the American Association of University Professors, which has called on Hamline to reinstate López Prater.

Thus far, more than 13,000 scholars and students in the humanities — including many Muslims — have signed an open letter of protest addressed to Hamline’s board of trustees. PEN America’s Jeremy Young denounced López Prater’s dismissal as “one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory,” 

In short, the case has become just the kind of self-inflicted public relations disaster that institutions of higher education dread.

How to avoid it?

Well, these days teachers and students at colleges and universities are often given multiple-choice tests to educate them on how to navigate the treacherous waters of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Sadly, these tests rarely include questions on religion.

Herewith then, as a public service, I offer administrators and DEI personnel at private colleges and universities such as Hamline the following multiple choice test, designed to help them balance the sometimes competing demands of religion, academic freedom and student sensibility. Answers at the end.

I. A group of fundamentalist Christian students objects to a Bible professor teaching that the books of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were produced and assembled by human authors with differing agendas. You should:

  1. Suggest the students consider dropping the class.
  2. Reprimand the professor.
  3. Tell the students that academic freedom permits the professor to teach what she’s teaching.
  4. Urge the professor to tone it down.
  5. (1) and (3)
  6. (2) and (4)

II. LGBTQ students object to an adjunct professor of religion teaching that religious conservatives understand Leviticus 18:21 (“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”) to be a condemnation of homosexuality. You should:

  1. Not renew the professor’s contract.
  2.  Tell the students that there is nothing wrong with explaining how different communities interpret their scriptures. 
  3. Tell the professor to avoid such teaching.

III. A group of conservative Christian, Jewish and Muslim students complains about receiving bad grades from a sociology professor for voicing their opposition to LGBTQ rights based on their religious beliefs. You should:

  1. Tell the students that the professor’s academic freedom permits him to do this.
  2. Tell the professor to cease and desist.
  3. Tell the students that the professor’s behavior is unacceptable.
  4. Tell the students to either change their views or enroll in a different college.
  5. (1) and (4)
  6. (2) and (3)

IV. The same students object to what they consider to be a persistent bias on the part of their professors in favor of LGBTQ rights. You should:

  1. Tell the students they should abandon their faith-based views.
  2. Tell the students that they are entitled to their faith-based views but are not free to express them on campus.
  3. Tell students that they are free to express their faith-based views on campus but that the college as an institution does support LGBTQ rights and will not do anything to prevent faculty from conveying such support.
  4. Encourage faculty members to tone down their pro-LGBTQ statements.

V. An Orthodox Jewish student says he was made to feel uncomfortable by a Judaic studies professor who teaches that the oral law was created by rabbis after the destruction of the Second Temple rather than being handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. You should:

  1. Tell the professor to cease and desist.
  2. Tell the student that making a student feel uncomfortable is not in itself sufficient grounds for the DEI office to speak with the professor in question, much less for the administration to reprimand or sanction him/her/them.
  3. Suggest that the student transfer to an institution of higher learning where his belief is widely held.
  4. Explain to the student that your institution teaches religion according to secular academic criteria.
  5. (2) and (4)

VI. The Hindu Students Association contends that Hindu students have been made to feel unwelcome on campus by an international studies professor who teaches that the caste system violates democratic principles. You should:

    1. Inform the students that academic freedom gives the professor the right to teach that.
    2. Tell the students that the mere assertion that something makes them feel unwelcome on campus is not in itself sufficient grounds for the DEI office to take action.
    3. Encourage the professor to avoid such editorial comments.
    4. (1) and (2)

VII. Many students complain that a professor continually makes disparaging remarks about religious believers. You should:

  1. Tell the students that academic freedom gives the professor the right to do so.
  2. Suggest to the professor that he tone down his remarks.
  3. Threaten to get the professor fired if the behavior persists.
  4. Ignore the complaint.
  5. (1) and (2)

VIII. An adjunct professor of religious studies repeatedly tells students that his religion is the right one and adherents of all others will not be saved.

  1. Tell the professor to cease and desist.
  2. Do not renew the professor’s contract.
  3. Make clear to students that such statements are unacceptable at your institution.
  4. All of the above.

IX. Muslim students complain that your school’s class schedule doesn’t provide them sufficient time for Friday prayers. You should:

  1. Tell the students that there’s a limit to your school’s religious accommodations.
  2. Suggest that faculty members permit those students who need time for Friday prayers be excused from class during that time.
  3. Work with the faculty to change the class schedule to permit students to attend Friday prayers without sacrificing class time.

X. Muslim students protest an adjunct art history professor’s showing a classic representation of the Angel Gabriel revealing the words of Allah to the Prophet Muhammad. You should:

  1. Consult with the professor in question and the members of your religious studies department.
  2. Make clear to students that showing such a portrait is not in itself Islamophobic. 
  3. Tell students that in this case academic freedom supersedes their sense of injury.
  4. Do not prevent renewal of the professor’s contract.
  5. All of the above.

Answers: I.5; II;2; III.6; IV.3; V.5; VI.4; VII.5; VIII.4; IX.3. X.5.


Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!