Art History Faculty Statement on Recent Events at Hamline University
The tenure-stream faculty of the Department of Art History at the University of Minnesota writes to address the recent non-renewal of adjunct instructor, Dr. Erika López Prater, from her term appointment at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. As has been widely reported, and especially well documented in a New York Times article of January 8, 2023, Dr. López Prater showed a 14th-century manuscript painting depicting the Prophet Mohammad in her art history survey course, prompting student complaint and the subsequent cancellation of Dr. López Prater’s spring semester course. This happened without the due process of formal investigation, without an opportunity for Dr. López Prater to respond to the administration’s ill-informed and unfounded accusations, and without good-faith institutional investment in open dialogue or the restorative practices of communication and relational repair. The blame for the mishandling falls entirely to Hamline’s administration.
In response, we offer this unanimous statement from our position as tenure-stream faculty at the only PhD-granting institution in art history in the state of Minnesota and as faculty in a department that has long been proud to be a leader in the field of Islamic art. These distinctions overlap. We are uniquely positioned to serve and learn from Minnesota’s rich and diverse Islamic communities, which include students whom we know regularly negotiate an educational landscape often pitched against them. It is in view of all of this that we offer our strong support of Dr. López Prater, an alumna of our graduate program who achieved her PhD in Art History from the University of Minnesota in 2019. We view her course at Hamline to uphold the standards and norms of our discipline and its changing, global canon. We also admire Dr. López Prater’s thoughtful approach to teaching, as demonstrated by, among other things, her clear and sophisticated understanding that historical knowledge always intersects with contemporary circumstances and experiences.
As art historians, we believe that images and objects are unique sources of cultural information. Our job is to study them in their original and ongoing historical contexts -- contexts that we understand to be widely varied, overlapping, and dynamic. As art historians, we believe in the unique power of images and objects in social life. Our discipline treats that power with responsibility and respect. As educators, we are challenged to make past worlds alive and relevant to contemporary viewers, which we do through the conveyance of artworks, even when it means presenting cultural realities that are distinct from or even anathema to our own. Indeed, we study artworks from the past precisely because they were understood in their own time very unlike how viewers might apprehend them now. This is what makes them indispensable records of individual, cultural, and historical difference.
Dr. López Prater’s course included a discussion of a medieval Persian painting, commissioned by the Il Khanid Prime Minister, Rashid al-Din for an illustrated manuscript known as Jami al-Tawarikh: Compendium of Histories. The Compendium itself is widely considered to be the first truly global written history, covering all time periods and religions of the known world. Illustrated copies were made in both Arabic and Persian, the main languages of the Muslim world at the time, and distributed widely to libraries. Rashid al-Din established a trust so that at least one copy would be made every year to ensure its longevity and spread. In other words, the book’s paintings had a wide audience in the 14th century, achieving something akin to what we might now call public domain. Illustrations from the Compendium, including the image at the center of the Hamline controversy, are considered masterpieces in Islamic art history, commonly taught in college and university courses, and reproduced in Yale University Press’s textbook, The Art and Architecture of Islam, by Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom, as well as in many other specialist publications.
Including the Jami al-Tawarikh illustration in a classroom lecture and displaying it at length allowed Dr. López Prater to analyze its considerable formal merits, to explain the artistic and theological diversity of Islamic visual histories, to demonstrate their change over time and across cultural geographies, and indeed to present Islamic artistic and scholarly traditions as having always been central, not peripheral, to a global, cosmopolitan world. For all these reasons, we agree with the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s statement of January 9, 2023, which affirmed Dr. López Prater’s lecture as useful to the effort “to combat narrow understandings of Islam” and so also “to combat Islamophobia” writ large. Such a perspective does not delegitimize student experience or obviate the need for sustained conversation when classroom harm and cultural offense occurs. It is this experience of active discussion, response, disagreement, and curiosity about alternative perspectives that we as art historians and college educators often enjoy most about our classrooms.
In its removal of Dr. López Prater from its teaching roster, Hamline’s administration took an explicit stand against higher education’s longstanding tradition of instructional prerogative, compromising the freedom of college-level instructors to make individual selections and decisions in presenting expert knowledge of all stripes (factual, theoretical, interpretive, editorial). This prerogative goes by the term “academic freedom” and it is an extraordinary privilege. As faculty, we cherish this privilege as necessary to our scholarly enterprise and earned through our pursuit of scholarly inquiry, knowledge, and insight. We take the responsibility that comes with this privilege seriously, practicing it within the social contract of the university classroom and the responsive learning communities we seek to forge there. Academic freedom, too, is a privilege we fear is currently under threat, a precarity made worse specifically by the casualization of academic labor via the underpaid adjunct gig economy and the disposability of expertise in pursuit of rising revenues.
In response to Dr. López Prater’s non-renewal, we speak strongly against Hamline’s intertwined attacks on academic freedom, on the integrity and dedication of faculty (especially those vulnerable to dismissal), and on the related enterprises of knowledge dissemination and debate. We strongly urge Hamline’s administrative leadership to examine critically its approach to this instance and its broader policies and procedures, not only regarding student complaints and controversies, but also with respect to hiring, training, setting expectations for, and listening to adjunct faculty.
At the University of Minnesota, all ten of us in the tenure-stream faculty of the Art History Department views the event as an opportunity for renewed attention to our practice as art history professors, which, necessarily, requires showing diverse and powerful images to diverse and dedicated student audiences, and to listening to the discussions that ensue when we do. Our goal is always to call our audiences into academic study through art -- not discourage them from it. We are in the process of planning activities for the coming calendar year, which will take the form of events convened both for the department’s immediate stakeholders and the wider community. In this way, we can continue the conversation and, we hope, demonstrate art history’s vital role in higher education, cultural competency, and contemporary life.
The Tenure-Stream Faculty of the UMN Department of Art History
Dr. Jane Blocker, Professor
Dr. Emily Ruth Capper, Assistant Professor
Dr. Sinem Casale, Assistant Professor
Dr. Michael Gaudio, Professor
Dr. Daniel Greenberg, Assistant Professor
Dr. Laura Kalba, Associate Professor
Dr. Jennifer Jane Marshall, Professor & Chair
Dr. Steven Ostrow, Professor
Dr. Anna Lise Seastrand, Assistant Professor
Dr. Robert Silberman, Associate Professor
Co-signed by Dr. Catherine Asher, Emerita Professor, in her capacity as an expert in Islamic art.
Please see statements issued by both the College Art Association and the Middle East Studies Association, for official perspectives from scholars and professionals in these allied fields.