A recent scandal at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, has gained international attention. Dr. Erika Lopez Prater, an art history professor, after providing her students with multiple warnings, and offers to opt out if the material was unacceptable to them, showed, in an art history class, a slide of an artwork that depicts Mohammed, the putative founder of Islam. The image Lopez Prater shared with her students is widely recognized as a masterpiece, and essential to any understanding of Islamic art. Aram Wedatalla, “who in a public forum described herself as Sudanese,” according to a January 8, 2023 article in the New York Times, complained. Hamline University fired Lopez Prater, and Hamline officials defamed her.
On January 17, 2023, news broke that Lopez Prater’s representatives, Fabian, May, and Anderson, PLLP, were commencing a “religious discrimination and defamation lawsuit against Hamline University.” After this announcement, Hamline walked back its allegations that the professor was a malicious Islamophobe, and university officials who had previously pooh-poohed the concept suddenly began to express respect for “academic freedom.”
The Hamline University scandal is the tip of a much larger iceberg. There are several important trends at play here that concerned Americans should fully understand. This essay will summarize the initial incident and then address important issues involved.
As quoted in the civil complaint, Lopez Prater’s syllabus informed students that images of religious figures would be viewed in her World Art class. “This includes showing and discussing both representational and non-representational depictions of holy figures (for example, the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ, and the Buddha). If you have any questions or concerns about either missing class for a religious observance or the visual content that will be presented, please do not hesitate to contact me.” Lopez Prater distributed the syllabus the first day of class, went over it with her students, and posted it to the class website. Lopez Prater brought extra syllabus copies to future classes to distribute to anyone who might need another copy.
This syllabus was also shared with and approved by Lopez Prater’s superiors. Not only Lopez Prater’s students had been informed that images of Mohammed would appear in class. So were Hamline’s administrators, the very administrators who would later verbally lynch her. “Hamline did not inform Lopez Prater that displaying images of the Prophet Muhammad as part of the class was improper in any way.”
In late September, Lopez Prater’s superior, Allison Baker, offered her a teaching job in the subsequent, spring semester. “My students in your classes have said nothing but wonderful things so we would really love to have you back in the Spring!” Lopez Prater agreed and the course offered to her was listed by the university. Lopez Prater, her direct supervisor, and Hamline University all clearly assumed that Lopez Prater would be teaching a Hamline art class in spring, 2023.
Lopez Prater’s civil complaint provides key details about the controversial classroom moment.
“During an online class on October 6, 2022, as part of a unit on Islamic Art, Lopez Prater displayed the painting The Prophet Muhammad Receiving Revelation from the Angel Gabriel. The painting dates to the year 1307 and is part of the Ilkhanid manuscript Jami’ al-tawarikh (“Compendium of Histories”), made by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani (a Muslim) in Tabriz, Iran. This artwork was commissioned by a Sunni Muslim King in Iran. It is undisputed that the painting was made by a Muslim for Muslims. The painting is part of a cycle of illustrations narrating and commemorating the Prophet Muhammad’s life. The painting is considered by art historians to be a global artistic masterpiece. It is undisputed that the painting was made with great reverence for Muhammad and Islam and could never be accurately labeled ‘Islamophobic.'”
It is clear that not only was Lopez Prater not disrespecting or criticizing Islam or its putative founder. Lopez Prater was in fact introducing many non-Muslim students to a highly esteemed work of art produced by and for Muslims, exemplifying Muslim artistic conventions, in a Muslim milieu. Lopez Prater was arguably doing PR work for Islam. Considering how she has been vilified, one need only imagine the dire fate of any teacher who dared to voice any critique of Islam, no matter how well-supported and pertinent, for example in a class devoted to the Crusades or to 9-11.
Indeed, the civil complaint goes on, emphatically, to defend Lopez Prater not on the grounds that as a qualified scholar she has not just the right, but the duty to introduce students to pertinent information, whether that information is flattering to Islam or not. Rather, the civil complaint defends Lopez Prater because the material she introduced is flattering to Islam. Further, this material is embraced by Muslims worldwide. “Multiple Muslim scholars and Muslim advocacy organizations” support Lopez Prater’s use of the image in class.
This is the wrong defense. It is not any true scholar’s job to proselytize for Islam or any religion, or to submit to the tastes and desires of members of any given religion. That an American scholar, in her own civil complaint, is defended on the grounds that her teaching elevated Islam is a sign of dhimmitude. It would be incomprehensible for a professor in 2023 America to have to defend herself by insisting that her classroom teaching proselytizes for or elevates Christianity. In fact any professor who proselytized for Christianity in an American classroom would be subject to opprobrium for doing so.
The civil complaint emphasizes that Lopez Prater repeatedly communicated that images of Mohammed would be shown and that any student could opt out without penalty. She did this even after the crystal clear announcement on the syllabus, that all students were required to read and that Lopez Prater walked students through on the first day of class. Lopez Prater informed students that they were about to be shown an image of Mohammed immediately prior to its appearance. Students had every opportunity to close their eyes, turn off their computer screens, or do whatever else they needed to do if a canonical artwork depicting Mohammed, shown as part of a course dedicated to world art, was too traumatic for them to endure.
“As the October 6 class ended, the Muslim student, Aram Wedatalla, who is the president of Hamline’s Muslim Student Association … expressed outrage to Lopez Prater that images of the Prophet Muhammad were displayed.” Lopez Prater informed Allison Baker, her superior, who wrote back, “I’m sorry that happened and it sounded like you did everything right. I believe in academic freedom so you have my support but thank you for the heads up.”
After Wedatalla complained to Dean Marcela Kostihova, Baker wrote to Lopez Prater telling her to send an email to Wedatalla “apologizing” for “making her feel uncomfortable.” Baker was insisting that Lopez Prater assume responsibility for Wedatalla’s feelings. In fact, of course, Lopez Prater did nothing to make anyone uncomfortable. Wedatalla’s alleged discomfort was her own creation. Please note that professors are regularly instructed to tell students troubled by critical race theory, feminism, or evolution classes that any discomfort they feel is their own responsibility, and not the responsibility of the teacher or the material.
Resorting to scatological language, Kostihova upbraided Lopez Prater for showing images of Mohammed. Kostihova asked Lopez Prater to apologize to the entire class. As directed by Kostihova, Lopez Prater apologized to her class. Needless to say, these apologies did nothing to forfend Hamline’s inevitable Woke verbal lynching of Lopez Prater.
On or about October 24, Lopez Prater was informed that she would not be teaching the spring semester class she had been assigned to teach just a month previously. “Lopez Prater was prepared to finish out her World Art course and leave Hamline quietly. Hamline and Everett had other ideas,” states the civil complaint.
David Everett is Hamline Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence – how’s that for an Orwellian title? You expect him to wear a Gaddafi-esque uniform with braids, epaulets, fringe, and medals. Everett sent out an email to all Hamline employees and students. He called Lopez Prater “inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic.” Dean of Students Patti Kersten accused Lopez Prater of committing an “act of intolerance.” Assistant Director of Social Justice Programs and Strategic Relations Nur Mood said that Lopez Prater’s act was “something that in a million years, I never expected . . . would happen here at Hamline.”
Executive Director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic relations, Jaylani Hussein, an invited speaker on the Hamline campus, compared Lopez Prater’s act to pedophilia, Nazism, and white supremacy. He called the images Lopez Prater showed “racist” and “disgusting” and said they should be banned. Everett and Hamline President Fayneese Miller sent an email to all staff stating that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.” Everett and Miller thus rejected Western civilization and its millennia-old championing of free inquiry. In exchange, they chose the suppression of freedom of thought that typifies Islam as practiced in Sudan.
Sudan, the nation Wedatalla identified as her own, has a 60% literacy rate, a life expectancy of 65 years, a high infant mortality rate, and a negative human rights rating from Amnesty International. Sudan, unlike Yemen, Tibet, and Ethiopia, has produced no Nobel Prize laureates. According to the UN, 88% of females in Sudan have undergone female genital mutilation. Stoning is still practiced. Slavery has remained a problem in Sudan up to the present. In 2014, Sudanese courts sentenced Meriam Ibrahim to death for her Christian faith. On death row in a Sudanese prison, she was chained to a floor even while giving birth; thus chained she was unable to open her legs and she initially feared that her baby was permanently damaged. Millions of Sudanese are classed as refugees; people from Sudan long to escape Sudan. Virtually no one is crowding the borders of Sudan attempting to enter.
What penalty would Wedatalla’s culture exact on one who insulted Mohammed or Islam? “There is no dispute that anyone who curses Allah is killed.” This decision is supported by verses from the Koran, the hadith, and examples from the biography of Mohammed, who did indeed order and approve of the killing of those who criticized him. Recent victims of this belief include Hitoshi Igarashi, a 44-year-old Japanese professor, Sister Leonella Sgorbati, a 65-year-old Italian nun, and Frédéric Boisseau, a 42-year-old French janitor. And then, of course, there is, or at least there was, a “gentle,” young Seattle cartoonist named Molly Norris. She disappeared in 2010. All of these people and uncounted others were murdered, or, in the case of Norris, merely erased, because Muslims felt compelled to kill in response to an allegation of an insult to Mohammed.
Indeed, Jaylani Hussein invoked such killing on the Hamline campus, and, according to Lopez Prater’s civil complaint, there is no public record of Hamline officials resisting Hussein’s threatening invocation. From the civil complaint: “At no point did Everett or any other Hamline administrator interrupt Hussein, [or] address his allusion to violence … Everett and Hamline demonstrated their support and agreement with Hussein’s defamatory statements regarding Lopez Prater and adopted them as their own.”
As long as powerful institutions like Hamline University, founded as a Methodist school, and named for Methodist Bishop Leonidas Lent Hamline, in the name of a Woke “multiculturalism,” reject Western Civilization in favor of other worldviews, we, the public served by those institutions, and supporting these institutions directly or remotely through tax dollars and other public benefits, deserve to know exactly what our newly dominant cultural values are. These cultural values don’t end at “Don’t show depictions of Mohammed.” They end with murder, as CAIR’s own Jaylani Hussein reminded us.
After the civil complaint was announced, Hamline University performed a dizzying volte-face worthy of an Olympian figure-skater. Hamline released a statement that included the following: “In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom.” Note the passive voice: “language was used,” a.k.a. “mistakes were made.”
President Fayneese Miller, though, remained mired in her own errors, and piled on some more. She insisted that Lopez Prater was not fired, though clearly she was. Miller wrote, “To suggest that the university does not respect academic freedom is absurd … Hamline is … now led by a woman of color.” Miller’s statement is not just illogical – being lead by “a woman of color” has no relevance to respect for academic freedom. Miller’s statement reveals her flawed thinking. Miller conflates identity with values. This is racism, pure and simple.
Miller played the victim, claiming that she receives threats of violence, and that “Hamline University is now under attack.” In fact it was she and her colleagues who created a hostile situation that might yet end in physical violence. Miller went on to double down on unfounded accusations against Lopez Prater, saying that students are vulnerable and professors can be abusive. Miller supplied no support for these inflammatory insinuations about a professor previously described by her immediate superior as one students reported “wonderful things” about, a professor the university would “love” to retain.
Finally, Miller wrote, “I am taking this opportunity to comment upon, and in several important instances, correct the record regarding critical aspects of this incident — both as reported in the press, and as shared by those who have been enjoined in the conversation about academic freedom.” Miller misuses the word “enjoin.” Miller, here, is a university president speaking to the world about a dangerous scandal that she helped create. It behooves a personage of her status and her resources, in such a high-stakes situation, to use language with more finesse.
As mentioned, Hamline’s mishandling of Wedatalla’s false claim of victimization has made international headlines. Even with all the attention this scandal has received, important aspects of the issues involved remain unmentioned. The Hamline scandal is not isolated. It, rather, epitomizes how education in the U.S. operates today. The Hamline scandal is not just about Muslims or pictures of Mohammed. It is about significant trends weakening this country.
For readers to grasp the full import of the Hamline scandal, one must believe that knowledge gained through disciplined, traditional academic activity has value. Both the political left and the political right practice their own forms of anti-intellectualism.
Probably the single best current resource on contemporary leftist anti-intellectualism is the Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay book, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – And Why This Harms Everybody. Leftist scholars have abandoned the very concept of objective truth. In place of scholarship, they have exalted narcissism and Marxist-informed grievance. Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian demonstrated how far scholarship has fallen through their “Grievance Studies Affair” publications. These authors managed to publish, in peer-reviewed academic journals, hoax papers including “Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks” and ” Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use.”
Opposition to traditional scholarship certainly exists on the right, as well. My ultra conservative social media friends David and John regularly mock all schools, all teachers, and all formal education.
It has been my job, as a teacher, to convince my students that their college educations are not just empty performances. Rather, I urge them to consider that traditional scholarship contributes directly to their lives.
“Suppose someone you love has just gotten a cancer diagnosis,” I say. “Where are you going to go for information? To some crank on the internet who says that you can cure cancer by drinking apple cider vinegar? Or are you going to find the doctor with the most impressive academic credentials you can find?”
It’s a bit easier to convince someone that if you want to treat cancer, or build a spaceship, or design a military drone, you’d choose someone who attended Harvard medical school or M.I.T. over an internet crank peddling cider vinegar. How about when it comes to the humanities? I told my students that if they wanted to write a high impact letter to their congressman, or understand a legal contract, or penetrate the hidden messages of the TV shows their kids are watching, a humanities scholar would bring more to the table than someone who has never analyzed a poem.
Aristotle is hailed as one of history’s most important thinkers. In addition to writing about logic, nature, and politics, Aristotle wrote a book entitled Poetics. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle understood the importance of mastering the humanities. So, yes, anti-intellectual forces on the right and on the left, scholarship is important to you, even if you never graduated high school.
What, then, is the villain here, that threatens America’s intellectual life and America’s students? Is it Muslims? No. I began teaching Muslims in the 1980s. I’ve taught Muslims born in the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, and East Asia. I’ve had a few Wedatalla types, and even a couple of students who self-identified as terrorists. These extremists have not been representational. My Muslim students, as a group, have distinguished themselves by their hard work, dedication, and eagerness to cooperate with me toward the A grade and substantive letter of recommendation that they felt they had to earn. My Muslim students have been, largely, immigrants from poor, chaotic homelands who wanted everything the American Dream has to offer, and were willing to work to achieve it, not just for themselves, but for their extended families, who sacrificed for them and demanded much from them. These students, as devout as they might have been, made no attempt to impose Islamic beliefs on my classroom. Rather, they wanted to absorb a real American education from me in preparation to become the doctors, engineers, and businessmen they hoped some day to be.
At the same time, Islam is facing a “tsunami, an avalanche,” of apostasy. Given that apostasy is a capital offense in Islam, my students did not tell their parents if they no longer believed in Islam; they told me. These young people, eager to leave Islam, or at least to leave behind the failed Islamic homelands they escaped, and embrace all that the West has to offer, deserve a supportive environment. They do not find that in American institutions.
The villain here, rather, is not Muslim students. It’s not even CAIR. The villain here is the Woke “institutional capture” of American society. One excellent voice on the topic of institutional capture is Christopher Rufo. Universities claim that they want to protect Muslim students from pervasive American Islamophobia. Universities are lying. The previously mentioned Hamline staff, Everett, Miller, Kersten, Kostihova, and Baker, do not give a fig about Muslim students. Rather, they care about themselves, as their dramatic volte-face demonstrates. To these unscholarly careerists, one narrative is true one day and a different narrative suddenly becomes true when power balances shift. They monger power primarily within the Marxist narrative that has controlled education in the United States for the past fifty years. In this narrative, the West must be replaced by a Marxist or, lately, Woke Utopia. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Non-Western worldviews must be used as a lever to topple the West. Once the West has been cleansed, the lever used to topple it, including Muslim students, can be discarded. Of course these fools are themselves merely “useful idiots” in the eyes of extremists like Jaylani Hussein. We are looking at two scorpions in a bottle, Islamists and Woke Marxists, struggling over power.
The only person here who cared about Aram Wedatalla was Erika Lopez Prater, who put her all into an attempt to endow even surly, ungrateful Wedatalla with the priceless gift of a real education. Lopez Prater insisted on assessing Aram Wedatalla through the lens of the West. Wedatalla is an imago dei, an educable human being, whose mind transcends ethnic identity, who deserves to participate in free inquiry as much as anyone else. Aram Wedatalla, to the Everetts and the Millers is nothing but a faceless, expendable pawn. She exists, her benighted worldview exists, to contribute to the master plan of toppling the corrupt West. She exists so that Everett, Miller and the rest can prance around the world stage, exhibiting their glow-in-the-dark Woke-itude.
Wedatalla could have been a trans student offended by laughter at a showing of Some Like It Hot in a film class or a vegan student traumatized by mention of the nutritional needs of human infants in a nursing class. No matter. The public spectacle would be the same. The adjunct professor would be verbally lynched and the administrators would flaunt their Woke credentials and there’d be another in a long line of defeats for free inquiry, freedom of speech, the scientific method, the raison d’être of the university, and for a genuine human equality that transcends ethnic identity.
One can be disgusted by Wedatalla’s strident ignorance, bigotry, hostility, and obscurantism while, at the same time, recognizing that Wedatalla is not, no matter how much she may think so, the one driving the car. Had Wedatalla attended a real university, she would have been told to get a grip and perform in class or face expulsion. But no. Not only was Wedatalla coddled and advanced by Hamline’s administrators. Even before Wedatalla or any other student approached the campus, she and her fellows were groomed as unwitting conscripts marching toward Woke Utopia. These students, like all students, received materials from the university trumpeting, not academic excellence and accomplishment, but, rather, “diversity.” The message of these slickly produced pamphlets: identity politics über alles. Students would be rewarded, not on their self-discipline or mastery, but for their victim status. Once arriving on campus, students would be tutored in “microaggression.” Students would be told to scan their environment at all times, not for learning opportunities, but for those allegedly ever-present American sins, racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and fat phobia. Students would be given email addresses and phone numbers to report any suspected infraction. Wedatalla, no doubt, had previously been primed to whine to Kostihova when the inevitable Islamophobia broke out. Students would be more familiar with the procedure for reporting microaggression than with the intelligent handling of peer-reviewed scholarship – or the unmistakable announcements on their own class syllabus. They would spend their entire college careers on the edge of their seats, ready to spring.
At whom would students spring? After all, don’t professors have tenure and don’t professors lead cushy, privileged lives remote from the pressures faced by less exalted civilians? Again, no.
One can assume that the majority of student-teacher contacts in the U.S. today involve adjunct professors, not tenured professors. This is hard to calculate because, for example, adjuncts tend to teach introductory courses attended by large numbers of freshmen and sophomores, whereas tenured professors may teach classes with as few as three or four students. Given that adjuncts teach freshman and sophomores, adjuncts, if they are sincere, spend a great deal of time orienting confused youths in how to function on a campus. Thus, not only are adjuncts the ones most likely teaching students at any given moment, they are also the ones most likely to be interacting with students during office hours. In any case, raw numbers suggest that students are more likely to interact with an adjunct than a tenured professor. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Instructors off the tenure track account for more than four-fifths of the faculties of two-year public colleges, more than two-thirds of the faculties at private four-year colleges, and more than half of the faculties at public four-year colleges.”
Adjuncts, these professors who do the heavy lifting in American college education, are virtually powerless. They have no job security. They are usually paid less than minimum wage for the hours they work. They often have no benefits. Adjuncts, notoriously, make use of food stamps and Medicaid. Taxpayers foot the tab for college’s insisting on paying tenured faculty outlandish compensation, while hiring adjuncts at pittance wages.
Adjuncts constantly live through the drama Lopez Prater lived through, but without international press coverage and without any hope of a lawsuit. Muslim students are usually not the instigator. A student complains to a dean about a low grade. The adjunct is pilloried. A failing student cooks up a fake accusation of abuse or sexual harassment or incompetence. The adjunct is dragged, again, to the whipping post. I know an adjunct professor who is an expert in her scientific field. Her expertise is all but meaningless. She’s an adjunct. She lives in fear. “When a butler is in a room it should feel even more empty, so they say. The same is true of adjuncts. When I am in a room with tenured professors, I try to disappear. I say nothing. I have no opinions. I need to get hired next semester,” this woman has said to me.
Adjuncts tend to come from populations that are used to deference to more powerful others. In my experience, adjuncts are more likely to be women, more likely to be a bit older, more likely to come from blue collar backgrounds and to have worked their way through state schools rather than breezed through Ivy League institutions on family money and connections. Adjuncts are more likely to hold traditional views, including being more likely to be Christian. My impression is backed up by anecdotal accounts and some research. “Professors who are born-again are extremely rare at elite doctoral institutions, composing only about one percent of professors at such institutions, but they are not uncommon among community college professors.”
Powerful professors and administrators are using American education to push a Woke capture of institutions that serves an anti-Western, Woke agenda. These elites are training students, not to educate them, but to turn them into vigilant victims. In that culture war, adjunct professors are the bullet sponges. They absorb the false accusations students are encouraged to make by elites, elites who are insulated by tenure and their own lack of conscience and integrity. After students, rigorously trained by Woke campuses to regard themselves as victims who cash in on victim status, make inevitable accusations against adjuncts, universities dump those adjuncts, who have no job security, and hire someone else.
What happens to the students extruded from this Woke assembly line, an assembly line that inculcates in them, on an industrial basis, a sense of victimization, paranoia, guilt and shame? Students rapidly learn that identity and victimization, not academic excellence, are the coin of the realm. Woke professors, for ideological reasons, won’t make intellectual demands of students. Adjunct professors, hobbling desperately from insecure teaching gig to insecure teaching gig, fear making academic demands on students. If they do so, students will complain to deans or tenured faculty, and post critical comments online, and the adjunct will have no job next semester. Adjuncts are regularly ordered by their superiors, the elite, tenured faculty, deans, and administrators, to record passing grades for students who sleep in class, who disrupt class, who don’t attend class, and who hand in no work.
The same students who are informed by academia that intellectual competition is a tainted vestige of a dying civilization, and that good grades should be assigned on the basis of being a member of an ever expanding list of victim groups, live in a world where cutthroat competition and the meeting of demands is the order of the day. Students like sports; they see that players who can’t measure up lose and are eliminated. Students like music; they watch television shows where people without adequate musical talent are mocked and eliminated. Students like money; they work jobs where those who work harder earn more. Students like other students; they compete for love and access to sex. The American university system today, unlike sports, employment, entertainment, and romance, insists that competition and rewarding excellent performance is an obscenity. This isn’t just true in the community college classroom, where grade inflation makes failing a student, no matter how lazy the student or abysmal his work, almost impossible. A greater emphasis on identity politics, and disregard for scholarly work is reflected in Harvard University’s 2022 appointment of Claudine Gay as its president. Gay has not produced scholarship worthy of the position of Harvard’s president. She is a black woman. “The President Has No Clothes,” “Harvard’s New President Is Not a Scholar,” “Harvard names Claudine Gay as first Black president in nearly 400-year history” are three headlines that tell the whole story.
Sports matters. That’s why competition in sports is okay. Money matters. That’s why on-the-job competition is okay. The model of car you drive matters. That’s why you can lust after and save up for the wheels of your dreams. Knowledge? Knowledge is so tawdry a product you can short-circuit any attempt by any naïve adjunct professor to teach you something by raising your hand and shouting, “I’m being victimized!”
Contrary to my anti-intellectual friends David and John, the decay of American education is not a remote catastrophe that does not affect them. Knowledge is power. Real scholarship, developed over centuries, culminating in universities, beginning with Catholic monks at the University of Bologna in 1088, are factories of knowledge, and thus factories of power. The standards universities have developed for finding objective truth matter. John, David, and anyone else who sniffs dismissively at the decay of the university does so at his own expense.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.