Hamline University on the first day of the spring semester, January 23, 2023. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Hamline University classrooms opened for the spring semester on Monday. It marked the first time students returned to campus after a national media firestorm that broke out when the university chose not to renew the contract of an adjunct art history professor who had shown paintings of the Prophet Muhammad in class.

Many Muslim students, who had unexpectedly found themselves at the center of the storm, felt mixed emotions: Excited to be back. Overwhelmed by their new syllabi. Tired of the debate about academic vs. religious freedom.

Things took another turn Tuesday, when many of the university’s full-time professors voted to ask university President Fayneese Miller to resign. Faculty members called for her immediate resignation, saying they “no longer have faith in President Miller’s ability to lead.”

Miller did not immediately respond to a Sahan Journal request for comment on Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s obviously really hard,” said 18-year-old Edna, a freshman education major, at the campus’s Anderson Center on Monday. “I’m just trying to take it day by day.”

For Edna, the hardest part of the firestorm was the threats her classmates received in light of the incident’s international media attention. (Some students and staff received death threats from people outside the Hamline community; at least one email address was temporarily disabled in an effort to curb harassment.) Overall, she found the media reaction “extreme.” She wished people could understand how much the incident had affected Muslim students.

Still, she said, “I’m glad to be back.”

But for some students, the return to class prompted another painful question: can I trust my professors?

“It’s great to be back because it is my last semester,” said Ubah, a senior public health major from St. Paul. “But it’s also the worst-case scenario that you could ever walk into.” The worst part, she said, was fearing that professors would not understand or support her.

Here’s the back story: In an October world art class, Professor Erika López Prater showed two paintings of the Prophet Muhammad as part of an Islamic art unit. According to a civil lawsuit she filed January 18 in Ramsey County District Court, she had instructed students in her syllabus and in class that she would show “representational images” of the Prophet Muhammad, so that students who did not wish to see these images could opt out of viewing them. She had also sent the syllabus to her department chair and Hamline administrators, none of whom had voiced any concern.

Despite her warnings, the president of the Muslim Student Association, Aram Wedatalla, saw the image. She complained to administrators. One sent an email describing the classroom incident as “undeniably Islamophobic.” Hamline rescinded its invitation to López Prater to teach a course in the spring. (Wedatalla initially agreed to be interviewed for this story, but did not respond to multiple requests to meet Monday; a lawyer for López Prater referred a reporter to her civil complaint; and Hamline University did not respond to requests for comment.)

The incident sparked international media attention at the small St. Paul private university, from Fox News to the New York Times, as well as disagreement among national and local Muslim organizations. While many Muslims believe that visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are sacrilegious, that view is not universally held within Islam. The Minnesota chapter of the Council of American–Islamic Relations called the incident Islamophobic and praised Hamline for rebuking it; the national CAIR organization issued a rare public statement breaking with a local chapter, saying that showing the paintings in a proper educational context was not Islamophobic. 

For some students, the incident had started with a professor misunderstanding their religion. And the combination of a media frenzy, vigorous defenses of academic freedom, and threats directed at Muslim students and staff had only made the chasm of misunderstanding wider.

Hamline’s students are increasingly diverse. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 31 percent of Hamline’s undergraduate students are people of color, up from 18 percent a decade ago. Hamline’s website reports that 44 percent of the 2022 incoming class are BIPOC.

But demographic change has come more slowly to the university’s faculty. Fourteen percent of full-time faculty are people of color, according to federal data compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education. That’s a smaller percentage than many peer institutions: At the University of St. Thomas, 20 percent of full-time faculty are people of color; at Augsburg University, 21 percent are.

During the school’s January term, when many students were off-campus, Hamline faculty penned a letter to students. “We want you to know that in the midst of the current media tempest, our thoughts are with you,” wrote a group of 66 professors. “We support students. We also support academic freedom. Our mission as educators demands both.” 

The letter continued, “We want you to know that we are fully committed to listening to and working with you to keep refining and improving the educational experience for all students, even while our classrooms may sometimes be challenging — even uncomfortable — spaces.”

Faculty submitted it to the Hamline Oracle, the student newspaper, where it was printed on January 16.

In a separate January 10 letter to trustees, the Hamline faculty joined national academic and Muslim organizations in expressing concerns about academic freedom. The faculty also expressed concern for student wellbeing.

“We are concerned that an adjunct member of the faculty was labeled Islamophobic, and her Spring course was canceled without affording her due process,” wrote a group of 44 Hamline professors. “We are equally concerned that an important segment of our student population reports that they have experienced subtle and overt discrimination on our campus.” 

The letter says that “despite the seeming ‘silence’ on campus,” Hamline faculty had been supporting students most affected by the situation and demanding answers from senior leadership. It concludes, “In the absence of effective, functional, and strategic leadership, we are gravely concerned about the future of Hamline University.”

For some students, that letter read as a threat to Fayneese Miller, the university’s first Black president. Miller initially took a strong stand in support of the Muslim students, though she backed down from labeling López Prater’s actions Islamophobic after the professor served the university with a lawsuit.

Faculty call for Miller’s resignation

An overwhelming number of the 92 full-time professors at an all-faculty meeting Tuesday voted to adopt a statement asking President Fayneese Miller to resign, said Jim Scheibel, president of the Hamline University Faculty Council. Scheibel said turnout at the meeting was strong, with about 70 percent of the university’s 130 full-time professors in attendance.

“We are distressed that members of the administration have mishandled this issue and great harm has been done to the reputation of Minnesota’s oldest university,” the statement reads. “As we no longer have faith in President Miller’s ability to lead the university forward, we call upon her to immediately tender her resignation to the Hamline University Board of Trustees.” 

The faculty vote does not bind Miller to any course of action, as only the board of trustees can remove her from her position.

In a Sunday email to faculty from Muslim Student Association members, students expressed disappointment that many professors had stood with López Prater. Since the letter was unsigned “because of concern of retaliations from faculty members or others who don’t support our cause,” it’s not clear how many students endorsed the letter.

“While we have been getting threats and targets on our backs, what hurts the most is knowing our faculty members don’t care much for us,” read the letter. “Additionally, they are willing to go to the extent of going after and blaming President Miller who has been supportive throughout this difficult time….Your silence shows us as students that Hamline is not a place for us, and in your classrooms, we don’t feel safe, welcomed, or belong.”

Although Hamline is a small school, Ubah said, few professors had taken the time to get to know her or understand her religion. 

“You have to know who your students are in the class, more than just the name and the pronouns or what their major is,” she said. “Even asking little things like getting to know their religion. That will give you what they value as a person. Then incidents like that wouldn’t even take place, because then you know that a Muslim student values their Prophet so much, you understand that you should not be showing a picture.”

The statement professors adopted Tuesday also expresses support of both students and academic freedom.

“We need to look at how we improve on our teaching and relationships with students of color, particularly the Muslim community,” Scheibel said. “We need to do more; we need to have more exchange; we need to be much more conscious in the classroom, how we are addressing and engaging students of all backgrounds. I also would consider it a call to action to improve.”

‘A lot of things could have been done better’

A Sahan Journal reporter and photojournalist visited Hamline’s Anderson Center—a campus student center with comfortable seating, a Starbucks, and student organization offices—to hear from Muslim students as they returned to classes on Monday.

Students mill about the Anderson Center on Hamline University’s first day of spring classes, January 23, 2022. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

An 18-year-old Muslim student from Lakeville who asked Sahan Journal not to print his name said he thought the art history incident had been characterized by overreaction. “I felt like it was just a mistake and everybody was going overboard with it,” he said. “I feel like they could have just told the teacher it was wrong and just moved on from it.” 

So far he’s enjoyed his time at Hamline, and this incident hasn’t changed how he thinks about the university. “I think we should let it go,” he said.

Abdi, also 18, described a “sine graph” of emotions (if you haven’t taken a math class recently, that’s effectively a roller coaster). “The whole situation’s just a bit iffy,” he said. “A lot of things could have been done better.” In his view, López Prater “brushed aside” the concerns Wedatalla brought after class, and Hamline took too long to respond.

Edna and Ubah both said the broader public was failing to understand the significance of the Prophet Muhammad and the images to the students. And both pointed to López Prater’s trigger warnings as evidence that she knew she should not be showing the images.

“The Prophet is someone that’s very sacred to us,” Ubah said. “That picture itself isn’t going to justify who he was as a person and how loved he is in the community.”

“The term freedom does not mean that you can overstep boundaries and harm others,” added Entisar, a junior studying business analytics.

Ubah said that the Hamline administration had been consistently supportive of Muslim students, checking in throughout the crisis to make sure students were healthy and safe. “They’ve been reaching out one too many times actually,” she said with a laugh. She appreciated Miller’s support, she said, but feared that some faculty saw this controversy as an opportunity to push her out. That, she said, would be the “worst-case scenario.”

“It leaves people that look like us vulnerable,” she said.

As Sahan Journal interviewed Ubah and Entisar in the Anderson Center, a pair of Hamline security officers approached and told the journalists to leave. Sahan Journal requested permission to finish the interview with those two students. The officers asked the students if that was all right with them, and they agreed.

“I think they’re doing the best that they can to ensure student safety is in place for everyone,” Ubah explained.

Ubah had not yet been to her first class of the semester, she said. But she was worried that her classmates and professors might have formed rigid opinions through media coverage. And she was worried about her own response. “How fully am I really going to be participating in my classes without having to feel like someone is going to look at me in a certain way or perceive me in a certain way?” she asked.

Entisar was mostly focused on her new classes, she said. But she reflected that the incident had made her less willing to reach out to professors. Some had made it clear they stood with López Prater and, in Entisar’s view, “this Islamophobic incident.”

“One of them happened to be a professor I had last semester,” she said.“So that didn’t feel great.”

So what should Hamline do now?

“Get to know the populations that they do bring in here,” Ubah said. “I feel like that can teach them a lot.”

“And listen to the students,” Entisar added.

The support Muslim students need now is simple, Ubah said. Professors and students should “go to your fellow Muslim student that you have in your class, ask them questions.” Ubah believes that “there is no stupid question,” as long as people ask with respect and curiosity. 

“‘Why do you wear a hijab?’ or ‘Why are you Muslim?’ I know that there are people who ask those questions, but I can give you an answer,” she said. “You have to be willing to learn.”

Editor’s note: In light of reported harassment and threats directed at Hamline students featured in recent media coverage, Sahan Journal is using first names for students in this story.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...