Erika López Prater, a lecturer at Hamline University, showed a 14th-century painting of the Prophet Muhammad in a global art history class.
Officials at the university in Minnesota subsequently decided to let López Prater go, stating that the incident was Islamophobic and that respect for the Muslim students should have superseded academic freedom.
A student in the class complained to the administration and was supported by other Muslim students who were not in the class.
However, an Islamic art historian wrote an essay defending López Prater and started a petition demanding that the university's board investigate the matter. The petition had over 2,800 signatures.
PEN America called the incident "one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory." Islamic paintings of the Prophet Muhammad are an important piece of history and are taught regularly.
Many Muslims Object to Depictions of Muhammad
Debates around the subject of depicting the Prophet Muhammad in artwork are ongoing. Many Muslims today believe it is inappropriate to depict Muhammad, and that the use of such images can encourage idolatry.
López Prater is an adjunct professor, who, unlike tenured faculty members, is paid little and has few workplace protections. The university's president, Fayneese S. Miller, defended the decision in a statement, saying that it was important for Muslim students and all other students to feel safe and respected in and out of classrooms. Aram Wedatalla, the student who complained to the administration, said that she felt blindsided by the image and did not feel like she belonged in a community that did not value or respect her. In her letter she stated "
Todd H. Green, who has written about Islamophobia, said the conflict at Hamline University was tragic because administrators pit respect for students against academic freedom, rather than finding a way to balance the two.
Some Muslim students have called for a more diverse faculty and more attention to their cultural and religious needs, while others believe that the university should not have caved to their demands. The incident has highlighted the difficulties and complexities of balancing academic freedom and respect for students' beliefs and cultural backgrounds.