Hamline University has walked back its condemnation of an art history professor after being pummeled in the press and public, and admits now that it only ever labeled her 'Islamophobic' to appease its Muslim students.
In a statement last night - released two hours after Prater's attorneys announced they'd filed a defamation lawsuit against the school for making her a 'pariah' - its top brass said it had 're-examined' its handling of the scandal.
'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.
'Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep,' said the statement by Board of Trustees Chair Ellen Watters and school president Fayneese Miller.
In October, adjunct professor Erika López Prater showed an online class an image of the Prophet Muhammad as part of an art history class.
She warned the students watching virtually what she planned to do, and gave them ample warning to look away from the image if they were so inclined. In some - but not all- fractions of Islam, it is forbidden to look at the image of the Prophet.
After the class, a student who is also the president of the university's Muslim association complained.
Prater, who'd been hired that semester for the first time and was due to return for the spring semester, was shown the door.
The university, bending to the demands of the Muslim association, called the incident 'Islamophobic'.
It sparked uproar among other Muslims and professors across the country, who said the school had stifled academic freedom.
One Muslim professor accused the school of advancing an 'extreme' Islamist view that is only held by a small number of people.
The school dug its heels in initially, saying it wanted to protect its Muslim students and make them feel heard.
On January 14, Professor Prater broke her silence in a discussion with Muslim scholars.
'In the way that I was framing Islamic art, I know that there are many practices within Islam, I know historically there have been differing attitudes as to how the divine should be depicted but I know that inconsistency is consistent within many religions - it's not specific to Islam.
'In my syllabus, I did note that I would be showing both representational and non representational of holy figures such as the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ and Buddha.
'During my class I did give my students a heads-up that I was about to show an image of the Prophet Muhammad, I explained my reasons for doing so, but also to demonstrate the rich diversity within the history of Islam.
'Of course, in an art history classroom, images are the primary source documents that we use as evidence in order to learn about diverse cultures and thinking and attitudes.
'I spent a couple minutes explaining to students, before I showed the images. I told my students if they didn't feel comfortable engaging visually, they were free to do what made most sense to them.
'I tried to empower them to walk away from the video portion of the online classroom, or do what kind of made most sense to them.
'I'm not a mind reader. My discussion in my class was fact based and on explaining the beginnings of Islam itself.
'All of the images that I used were very respectful, they were meant to be instructional and also referential in their original historical contexts.'
Professor Prater added that the student said her warnings 'didn't matter'.
'She had some pretty strong feelings that she expressed to me. But one of them that perhaps gets to the heart of the matter was she thought the warnings that I had provided to the class didn't even matter, because she believed that images of the Prophet Muhammad should never be shown full stop.
'Even if those are pedagogically relevant that are primary source documents from history.'
Now, Hamline says it'll host 'two major conversations.'
'One will focus on academic freedom and student care. The other will focus on academic freedom and religion,' the statement said.
Prater's attorneys have not yet responded to the statement.
In her lawsuit, Prater's attorneys say she shared her syllabus plan with her superiors, and 'no one' raised any concerns.
'Students viewing the online class had ample warning about the paintings.
'Students viewing the online class also had ample opportunity to turn away from their computer screens, turn their screens away from them, turn off their screens, or even leave their rooms before the paintings were displayed.
Her attorney slammed the university for making her a 'pariah' in the aftermath of the students' complaints.