Hamline University officials made an about-face on Tuesday in its treatment of a lecturer who showed an image of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class, walking back one of their most controversial statements — that showing the image was Islamophobic. They also said that respect for Muslim students should not have superseded academic freedom.
University officials changed their stance after the lecturer, who lost her teaching job, sued the small Minnesota school for religious discrimination and defamation.
"Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep," said a statement from Ellen Watters, the chair of the university's board of trustees, and Fayneese S. Miller, the president. "In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom. Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term 'Islamophobic' was therefore flawed."
The statement added, "It was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students — care does not 'supersede' academic freedom, the two coexist."
The controversy began in October, when Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor, warned students multiple times before showing a reverential image of the holy figure created in the 14th-century. Many Muslims believe they are prohibited from viewing visual representations of Muhammad. But historians of Islamic art said that images of the Prophet Muhammad are regularly shown in art history classrooms without incident.
After Aram Wedatalla, an observant Muslim student, complained to administrators, Dr. López Prater was told that she would no longer be teaching an art history course in the spring. An email to students and faculty from David Everett, a senior administrator, said the instructor's actions were clearly Islamophobic. The university's president co-signed a statement saying that respect for the Muslim students in the online class "should have superseded academic freedom."
Academic freedom has been an especially fraught issue at small schools like Hamline, which is facing shrinking enrollment and growing financial pressures. To attract applicants, many small colleges have diversified their curriculums and tried to be more welcoming to students who historically have been shut out of higher education.
Ms. Wedatalla has praised Hamline, which is in St. Paul, for taking her concerns as a Muslim student seriously. She could not be immediately reached for comment about the university's latest statement.
The lawsuit, in Minnesota district court, states that Hamline's actions have caused Dr. López Prater the loss of income from her adjunct position, emotional distress and damage to her professional reputation and job prospects.
In a statement, David Redden, a lawyer for Dr. López Prater, said that having had her actions labeled Islamophobic would follow her "throughout her career" and hurt her ability to obtain a tenure-track position.
According to the lawsuit, Ms. Wedatalla "wanted to impose her specific religious views on López Prater, non-Muslim students and Muslim students who did not object to images."
Mr. Redden said that the university's new stance would not affect the lawsuit.
The lawsuit added that Hamline treated Dr. López Prater negatively because "she is not Muslim, because she did not conform her conduct to the specific beliefs of a Muslim sect, and because she did not conform her conduct to the religion-based preferences of Hamline that images of Muhammad not be shown to any Hamline student."
Many scholars and free-speech groups had denounced Hamline's treatment of Dr. López Prater as an attack on academic freedom. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a speech advocacy group, said Dr. López Prater had a right to show the paintings without fear of losing her job.
But on Tuesday, Alex Morey, FIRE's director of campus rights advocacy, said Mr. Everett's comments were legally protected speech, because he was stating his opinion.
Muslim groups are also divided over the Hamline controversy. Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, believes that showing the image was Islamophobic. But the national group disagreed.
"Although we strongly discourage showing visual depictions of the prophet," the group said in a statement, "professors who analyze ancient paintings for an academic purpose are not the same as Islamophobes who show such images to cause offense."