News came yesterday that after being sued for defamation and religious discrimination, Hamline University in Minnesota reversed its decision to fire an adjunct art history professor who showed a slide of an Islamic painting of Mohammed in an art history class. The Hamline administration also walked back its description of the professor’s decision to show the painting as “Islamophobic.”
The lecturer, Erika Lopez Prater, showed a 14th century painting of Mohammed created by a Muslim artist and included in one of the earliest Islamic histories of the world. The class in which the painting was shown was a survey course in global art and paintings of other religious figures were shown as well.
While many Muslims believe that it is forbidden to display figures of Mohammed, this belief is not universal among Muslims and the very existence of this painting shows that the rule was not always observed. Prof. Lopez Prater warned students in the syllabus that such paintings would be shown and invited students to contact her if this was a concern. None did. On the day the painting was shown, she again told students what they were about to see, told students they could leave the class if this was a problem for them, and then waited some time before actually showing the slide. It was only after this that one of the students in the class filed a complaint and the university issued a statement calling the professor’s action “Islamophobic” and saying that student sensitivities should supersede academic freedom.
It seems to me that the professor in this case did everything right and in none of the news coverage of this situation that I read, did I ever see an explanation as to why the student did not contact the professor beforehand or leave the classroom when given an opportunity.
The question of showing or reading materials which may be offensive or disturbing can be complicated. I think it is reasonable to expect that a lecturer will give a content warning so that those who might be disturbed can opt out. But I don’t see how a university can give a course on the Holocaust, for example, without exposing students to offensive content. Over the years I have worked with Catholic educators to revise how Jews and Judaism are presented in Catholic education, and it is sometimes necessary to present anti-Jewish material to students in the context of explaining why it is harmful and incorrect.
I’m glad that Dr. Lopez Prater got her job back and I hope that Hamline will do a better job in the future of balancing student concerns and academic freedom.
As a reminder, I am having drop-in hours on Thursday afternoon from 2 to 4 at the shul. You do not need to make an appointment -- that would negate the whole point of drop-in hours -- but I’d urge you to check and make sure I am there regardless as sometimes there are unavoidable pastoral or other emergencies which might take me away from the building.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at email@example.com or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment. I have been spending more time in the synagogue recently but if you want to speak with me it’s best to make an appointment rather than assuming I will be there when you stop by.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian