Minnesota college head to retire after Islamic art dispute

Apr 3, 2023, 9:07 AM | Updated: 4:12 pm

The president of a private university in Minnesota that was criticized for firing a professor who showed a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class announced Monday that she is retiring next year.

Hamline University President Fayneese Miller said at a news conference that although the school has been in the headlines, journalists were “reporting on a false narrative.”

Issues arose in October when Erika López Prater showed a 14th-century painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad to her students as part of a lesson on Islamic art, after warning them beforehand and giving them an opportunity to opt out. In Islam, portraying the Prophet Muhammad has long been taboo for many, and a Muslim student in the class complained to the university.

López Prater has since sued the liberal arts school in St. Paul over Miller’s decision not to renew her contract. Her attorneys didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Miller previously conceded that she mishandled the episode, but insisted Monday that the school believes in free speech.

“Never has Hamline University violated anyone’s academic freedom,” she said. “I want to make that perfectly clear.”

Miller said she wants to spend more time with her husband, who lives in Vermont. They didn’t meet in person for more than a year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and she wants “to make my family whole again.”

Some local Muslim groups criticized López Prater, but the national office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country’s largest Muslim advocacy organization, disputed claims that her actions were Islamophobic. The group said professors who analyze images of the Prophet Muhammad for academic purposes are not the same as “Islamophobes who show such images to cause offense.”

However, the group’s Minnesota chapter on Monday repeated its position that the lesson was disrespectful, and condemned what they described as Miller’s “forced retirement.”

“We believe that her support for Muslim students and her stance against Islamophobia ultimately cost her job,” the group’s executive director, Jaylani Hussein, said in a statement.

Faculty at the school were so upset about what happened to López Prater that they called in a January vote for Miller to resign, objecting to what they considered a violation of academic freedom.

“The faculty I talked to today, it’s not what people wanted, but it’s enough,” Jim Scheibel, the Faculty Council president, said Monday.

He said Miller will partly be on sabbatical, and may help with the new president’s transition. She officially retires on June 30, 2024.

“Faculty,” he added, “recognize there’s a lot of hard work that needs to be done.”

The school’s retirement announcement was filled with praise for Miller, who is the school’s first Black president, describing highlights of her tenure and how she had “created a reputation for Hamline as an institution that welcomes students from diverse backgrounds.” Several student groups previously defended her in a letter to the student newspaper.

Board of Trustees Chair Ellen Watters said Miller’s departure was not related to the Islamic art controversy and that her eight-year tenure is relatively long.

“Hamline has been around for 170 years and we are determined to be her for another 170 years,” he said.

Vice Chair Reuben Moore offered a similar assessment, saying he was “saddened” by Miller’s retirement but “excited about this huge opportunity for the school to double down on equity and inclusion on campus.”

He described her as a “wonderful human and amazing talent.”

Although it’s not mentioned in the Quran, Islam’s ban on depicting the Prophet Muhammad has run firm through the centuries. Islamic tradition is full of written descriptions of Muhammad and his qualities — describing him as the ideal human being. But clerics generally have agreed that trying to depict that ideal is forbidden. The ban is further rooted in a wider prohibition against images or statues of human beings.

There have been exceptions. A rich tradition of depicting Muhammad emerged in miniatures and illustrations for manuscripts from around 1200 to 1700. The art is mainly from Turkey and Iran, where pictorial traditions were stronger than in the Arab world. The paintings often show traditional stories from Muhammad’s life, although in some the prophet’s face is obscured by a veil or a plume of flame.

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Minnesota college head to retire after Islamic art dispute