After an outcry about an art history class by Muslim students, officials at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, described the incident as Islamophobic. But many scholars say the work is a masterpiece.

Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist, historian and co-author of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.” He is the associate director of undergraduate studies in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

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Well over a decade ago, I found myself teaching about abortion, eugenics, evolution, holy war and the history of the papacy at a Catholic university in the Chicago area. If you’ve been inundated with stories about the threats of campus culture to free speech, you might have expected me to have been worried. But although I had students who opposed my beliefs on every issue, I knew that at Dominican, everyone — from the chair of my department to the president of the university — had my back. If a student felt that my teaching somehow violated their beliefs and complained, I always knew that so long as I performed with integrity and care, I’d be fine. And I was, even when teaching Darwin to a creationist.

David M. Perry

Last fall, Hamline University, a fine liberal arts institution just down the road from where I live in Minnesota, hired Erika López Prater, an art history professor, on an adjunct basis to teach a global art history class.

As reported in The New York Times, she warned students both verbally and in the syllabus that they would be shown sensitive images of holy figures such as the Buddha and Prophet Mohammed. For the class in question, she offered students a chance to leave the room without penalty before displaying and discussing an important image of the prophet made for and by Muslims in the 14th century. In other words, she performed with integrity and care.

A student complained. López Prater shared the student’s complaint with her department head, and they co-wrote an apology to the student. Hamline’s administration informed López Prater that she would not be returning to campus to teach the following semester. The Times reported that David Everett, Hamline’s vice president for inclusive excellence, described what happened in a universitywide email as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic” and that the school’s president, Fayneese S. Miller, co-signed an email saying that respect for Muslim students “should have superseded academic freedom.”

How should we respond to incidents such as this one? There’s a temptation, seen widely throughout commentary on the event over the past few weeks, to graft it onto ongoing disputes about campus culture. I’d suggest that we try not to let those details govern our analysis but instead look at two issues: labor rights and the exercise of power.

It’s not that the details don’t matter. The story broke more widely after art historian Christiane Gruber, one of the foremost experts in pre-modern Islamic book arts, wrote for New Lines Magazine about the painting in question. She called it “an authentic and irreplaceable work of art,” a shining example of a centuries-long “corpus of depictions produced mostly in Persian, Turkish and Indian lands between the 14th and 20th centuries.”

Islam, like all world religions, is complicated and multifaceted, and these depictions are part of its history. It doesn’t mean that a student who finds it blasphemous should be forced to witness it or required to engage it for course credit. But no one has so far disputed the efforts López Prater says she took to allow students to make their own choice, following the best practices we have for teaching controversial material (as I argued for CNN back in 2014 during another campus culture moral panic).

I have yet to locate a scholar of pre-modern Islamic culture who has spoken against the use of the painting in class. In fact, countless Muslim and non-Muslim academics on social media and in essays have voiced their support both for the pedagogical use of the painting and those like it in general and specifically using the approach taken by López Prater. If this story is a sign of “political correctness run amok,” isn’t it odd that all these liberal professors are clearly on the side of the instructor here?

But it’s worth being cautious while trying to understand how these Muslim students felt themselves so unwelcome on their campus. And if the individuals just made a bad choice, were confused, had an ax to grind or conflated this classroom incident with more widespread episodes of Islamophobia and anti-Black racism on campus, in the Twin Cities, or anywhere, that’s OK, too. Students make mistakes. Sometimes I think young people are too focused on the wrong things. Sometimes it turns out that I was wrong, and they were right. That’s all part of the process of academic life.

I don’t know what these students were experiencing, but I know this: Academic freedom encompasses the right to teach controversial material and the right for students to complain about it.

Which brings us back to power and labor rights. Students are going to complain about professors. A classroom is a fraught space where, if the teaching is good and relevant, sometimes we’re going to encounter things that rock our worldview. The question is how the people with power respond in such moments.

In this case, López Prater was an adjunct, a gig worker with no guarantee of future employment. This is a massive problem in academia, of course, where there has been a generational shift from stable, full-time employment to contract work. That’s been bad for those of us who work in higher ed. It’s been bad for students, too.

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    As a full-time professor, I built infrastructure to support student learning year after year after year. A gig worker can’t do that. But it’s been good for the bosses. It saves them money. And it lets them dispose of workers when messy situations — such as a student complaining about blasphemy — arise.

    And if you’re in academia, the reason to worry about this story is not because of cancel culture, trigger warnings, PC run amok, wokeism or whatever other buzzword commentators are using to get you to think that kids these days aren’t resilient enough to learn. (I promise you; young people who have fought through a pandemic to get educated are plenty resilient.) It’s that the power dynamics on college campuses are happening everywhere, throughout our economy, and no one is safe when it’s easier for the bosses to wash their hands instead of getting down into the dirt with the rest of us doing the work.