(Credit: Saidie Lou / Wikicommons)

Sarah Lawrence’s shame: Professor who wrote op-ed urging greater viewpoint diversity finds himself the target of vandalism, anonymous accusations

By November 6, 2018

Professor Sam Abrams, who teaches politics at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, values things that are woefully lacking in today’s climate: civil discourse and meaningful engagement with people of differing views. In a recent faculty profile in Sarah Lawrence Magazine, Abrams had this to say about the particular importance of viewpoint diversity in higher education:

To get to the truth we have to have disagreement, and we’re not doing that now. The role of education is to elevate us, not necessarily to have solutions but to know how to think, to know how to have discourse, and to know how to debate. That’s why I’m so preoccupied with making sure students get a rounded experience.

Given his belief in the importance of exposure to a wide range of views, one of the things that has most concerned Abrams in recent years has been the increasing ideological homogeneity of college faculty and administrators. He studies these trends professionally; his profile in Sarah Lawrence Magazine notes that he has done groundbreaking research on “the leftward ideological shift in academia over the last quarter century.”

In mid-October, Abrams penned an op-ed for The New York Times entitled “Think Professors Are Liberal? Try School Administrators.” In it, he shared new research of his that surveyed 900 “student-facing” administrators (defined as “those whose work concerns the quality and character of a student’s experience on campus”) and found that on average, “liberal staff members outnumber their conservative counterparts by the astonishing ratio of 12-to-one.” He also related his concern that on his own campus, the Office of Student Affairs “was organizing many overtly progressive events . . . without offering any programming that offered a meaningful ideological alternative.”

This ideological imbalance among the administrators developing student programming, Abrams argued, “threatens the free and open exchange of ideas, which is precisely what we need to protect in higher education in these politically polarized times.”

At Sarah Lawrence, the backlash to his conclusion was fast and furious. By the evening of the day his op-ed was published, his door had been plastered with signs saying things like “QUIT” and “Go teach somewhere else you racist asshat (maybe Charlottesville?).” Personal items that Abrams had posted on his door, including a photo of his newborn son, had been stolen.

The following day, Sarah Lawrence President Cristle Judd sent an email to the campus community about the controversy over Abrams’ op-ed, affirming the college’s “commitment to diversity and inclusive excellence.” Although Abrams had asked Judd to address the vandalism of his office — he was particularly distraught over the theft of his son’s photo — her email said nothing about the vandalism beyond a vague reference to the need for “mutual respect” on campus.

Meanwhile, anger on campus over Abrams’ op-ed continued to grow. According to the Twitter feed of Sarah Lawrence’s student newspaper, the Student Senate held an “emergency meeting” about the op-ed at which senators called on the administration to condemn it more forcefully and to “give additional funding to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion so that students feel affirmed.” In response, the morning after that meeting, Judd sent another email to the campus community, this time “to publicly affirm that Black Lives Matter, that LGBTQ+ lives matter, and that Women’s Justice matters.” Still no mention of the vandalism.

The situation continued to escalate from there when someone scrawled vulgar and potentially defamatory allegations about Abrams on a campus “free speech board.” At this point, the president finally did come to Abrams’ defense, writing in yet another campuswide email that the postings — because they contained “serious allegations put forward without substantiation” — were unacceptable and were being investigated as a violation of college policy.

In the weeks following the publication of his op-ed, Abrams was deeply concerned by the depth of the vitriol directed towards him, by the calls for his resignation, and by what he perceived as a lack of support from the college administration for his exercise of free speech. As is all too common in situations like this, while the administration stopped short of explicitly condemning him, it left him twisting in the wind for engaging in precisely the kind of independent thinking and intellectual risk-taking the college claims to value.

This morning, President Judd finally issued a full-throated defense of Abrams’ expressive rights, writing to the campus community, “[A]cademic freedom is a fundamental principle at Sarah Lawrence College. That means that as a member of our faculty, Professor Abrams has every right, and the full support of the College, to pursue and publish this work.” She also addressed both the vandalism of Abrams’ office door and the “anonymous ad hominem accusations” that were posted on campus, making clear that both would be “subject to consequences.”

President Judd’s latest statement was a good one, and hopefully this marks the close of this matter. However, because FIRE knows that colleges and universities too often try to do in private things they cannot do in public, we will be watching closely to ensure that Professor Abrams is not penalized in any way for his expression of dissenting views.