Hamline professors call on university president to resign over Muhammad paintings controversy

Faculty members at Hamline University say they need to repair the damage done to the university’s reputation, and they do not feel President Dr. Fayneese Miller is the best person to do that.

Hamline has been at the center of international headlines for weeks after an adjunct professor lost her job in the aftermath of showing historic paintings depicting Muhammad, sparking criticism from Muslim students.

Full-time faculty members from Hamline held an in-person meeting Tuesday, and 86 percent of members in attendance voted in favor of adopting a statement calling for Miller to immediately tender her resignation.

"The sentiment was that President Miller is not the person right now to bring us back to where we were with our reputation," said Jim Scheibel, a professor of practice at Hamline University and president of the Faculty Council.

About 70 percent of Hamline’s full-time faculty members attended the meeting, which Scheibel told FOX 9 is a high turnout.

The statement issued by full-time faculty reads in part: "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. We, the faculty of Hamline University, stand for both academic freedom and the education of all students. We affirm both academic freedom and our responsibility to foster an inclusive learning community. Importantly, these values neither contradict nor supersede each other."

The controversy started in the fall semester when the adjunct professor, Dr. Erika Lopez Prater, showed a 14th-century painting titled "The Prophet Muhammad Receiving Revelation from the Angel Gabriel" and a 16th-century painting "Muhammad, shown with a veiled face and halo, at Mount Hira" during her art history class on October 6. Despite warnings about the paintings from the professor and a message in the syllabus offering students who object to seeing religious figures an alternative to the viewing, one student who was shown the paintings objected after class.

The student, who is also the president of the Muslim Student Association, lodged a complaint with the university that ultimately ended with the university rescinding an offer to the professor to teach a spring semester course. However, the university has denied the job decision was a result of the controversy, noting Lopez Prater was allowed to finish out the semester.

A message sent out by a university official to staff and students in the weeks after the class also referred to the professor's actions as "Islamophobic." The university later walked back that statement.

While local Muslim activists have agreed with the university's initial assessment that showing the paintings was Islamophobic, the professor has seen support from her fellow professors – who have blasted the university for infringing on academic freedom.

Scheibel points to the comments about Islamophobia as one of the ways he feels the situation was mishandled. He referred to it as a "crisis" to Hamline’s reputation.

"It's just time for new leadership. There were mistakes made. Academic freedom is really important and at the same time … we're here to help students learn," Scheibel said.

However, Miller has the support of the student who made the initial complaint. She spoke at an event Sunday put on by local Muslim organizations honoring the Prophet Muhammad.

"Firing a president who stood up for her students – a Black, Muslim student – is wrong," said Aram Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Student Association. "Removing President Miller from her position will make all of us Muslim students unsafe and unvalued."

The American Association of University Professors, an institution devoted to advancing academic freedom, has launched an inquiry into the decision and is planning a campus visit next month.

"Our association was really surprised at the overreaction to what happened in the classroom at Hamline. It's a remarkable violation of academic freedom to essentially fire the faculty member over a student complaint that involved a curricular decision that the faculty have responsibility for," said Dr. Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors.

Lopez Prater has also since filed a lawsuit accusing the university of discrimination, defamation and other violations. Her lawyer told FOX 9 she has no comment on the calls for Miller’s resignation.

The university has issued a pair of statements related to the incident. In the first, Miller blasted media reports for inaccurately representing what happened, arguing that the professor wasn't let go due to the paintings controversy. However, in a follow-up statement last week, the president and the Board of Trustees chair admitted mistakes during the handling of the matter – including the university referring to the act as Islamophobia.