A group of student activists at Sarah Lawrence College want the tenure of a conservative professor of political science reviewed, and they want to do the reviewing.
The professor, Samuel Abrams, says the college should be doing more to defend him and, more generally, academic freedom and the “viewpoint diversity” that he advocates.
Abrams -- who has identified himself as an anti-Trump, moderate conservative -- has always been a political outlier within the overwhelmingly liberal college. But things have been especially tense for him since he wrote an New York Times op-ed in October, saying that student affairs administrators are even more liberal than faculty members.
Some of Abrams’s research pertains to academics’ politics. His 2016 study, for example, found that conservative professors are actually happier if not more happy working in academe than are their liberal colleagues. And he wrote in another Times op-ed that same year that professors in New England are especially likely to be liberal, and that at Sarah Lawrence, outside New York City, he might as well be "Ted Cruz."
The recent Times op-ed was a bit edgier and began with an anecdote about the college. He said that he received a “disconcerting email this year from a senior staff member in the Office of Diversity and Campus Engagement” about an upcoming event called “Our Liberation Summit.”
The conference, he said, “would touch on such progressive topics as liberation spaces on campus, Black Lives Matter and justice for women as well as for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and allied people.”
As a conservative-leaning professor who has long promoted a diversity of viewpoints among “my (very liberal) faculty colleagues and in my classes,” he wrote, “I was taken aback by the college’s sponsorship of such a politically lopsided event.” Abrams said he soon learned that the Office of Student Affairs on his campus was organizing “many overtly progressive events -- programs with names like ‘Stay Healthy, Stay Woke,’ ‘Microaggressions’ and ‘Understanding White Privilege’ -- without offering any programming that offered a meaningful ideological alternative. These events were conducted outside the classroom, in the students’ social and recreational spaces.”
Abrams’s office door was vandalized soon after. He said immediately after the incident that Cristle Collins Judd, Sarah Lawrence’s president, told him on the phone that he was "attacking" members of the Sarah Lawrence "community." The college said it was dealing with the matter internally. Judd later released a statement affirming academic freedom and Abrams’s “every right” to publish and pursue his work. Several dozen faculty members signed on to that statement. But Abrams still felt the response fell short.
Cut to this week, when a student group called the Diaspora Coalition occupied a campus building and published a list of demands in the students newspaper, The Phoenix. Many of the demands echo those made by other student groups elsewhere during campus protests about diversity: more educational and extracurricular support for first-generation and low-income students, scholarships for students of color, the hiring of more minority faculty members, and more classes with an intersectional approach.
But one demand was more unusual. Referencing Abrams’s Times October op-ed, the group demanded that “Abrams’s position at the college be put up to tenure review to a panel of the Diaspora Coalition and at least three faculty members of color.”
In addition, they said, the college “must issue a statement condemning the harm that Abrams has caused to the college community, specifically queer, black and female students, whilst apologizing for its refusal to protect marginalized students wounded by his op-ed and the ignorant dialogue that followed.”
Abrams must also issue a public apology to the “broader [college] community and cease to target black people, queer people and women,” the coalition said.
While some professors consistently draw the ire of students, it’s highly unusual for students to request -- or in this case demand -- that they review the tenure of any professor, tenure track or tenured. Students’ opinions are typically considered in the personnel review process by way of other kinds of feedback, namely student reviews of teaching. It’s generally held that only those with advanced degrees may review the work of their peers.
Via email Tuesday, Abrams said that he hadn’t been contacted by anyone at the college, and that it had missed a “chance to take the lead and serve as an national example in terms of how to have civil debates and disagreement and discuss facts and how they differ from opinions.”
He added, “Sadly, the school did not come out strongly on academic freedom and free speech, and this behavior runs against the core value of the college itself.”
Later in the day, the college issued a statement from Judd saying that she’d met with coalition members, who were marking the anniversary of sit-ins held at the college in 1969 and 1989, among other student groups.
"The aims of today’s students are not dissimilar to those who made their voices heard 30 and 50 years ago: they seek to ensure a truly inclusive environment of respect and support at Sarah Lawrence, especially for students of color and low-income students," Judd said.
Of the coalition’s demands, Judd said they bring to the "fore many pressing issues that students at Sarah Lawrence face, especially students of color, low-income students, first-generation students, LGBTQ+ students and others, and I am grateful for the willingness of our students to share their concerns with me and the campus community."
Collaboration from "all parties is the best means to move these efforts forward, and this will require us to develop the most effective process for working with students as well as faculty and staff," she added.
While not referencing Abrams by name, Judd also addressed what she called "the inappropriateness of demands related to the work and tenure of one of our faculty members."
Her previous statement still holds, she said.
Abrams, who is currently on preplanned leave, is scheduled to teach a first-year course next year, to which students are randomly assigned. He worries about the kinds of preconceptions those students will have about him due to the protest, and about his safety and ability to work in general.
Still, he said in a follow-up interview to his statement that he hopes he can stay at Sarah Lawrence. He appreciates the creative and intellectual latitude both he and his students have. Instead of teaching a dry, required course on government or something else, he said, he’s free to design and teach a course on, say, executive orders and how U.S. presidential powers have morphed and grown over time.
“The reason I love Sarah Lawrence is I can make a real difference there,” he said. “While many students at Ivy League schools come in the first semester knowing they want to be bankers, doctors, lawyers or engineers, Sarah Lawrence’s students are a bit more scattered than that.” (Some Sarah Lawrence students want to be those things, too, Abrams clarified, noting he’s sometimes consulted by students who want help preparing for law school -- and is happy to oblige them.)
Abrams continued, “What’s so appealing as a professor here is you find these students and help them find out what they want to do and how to make a living at it and make meaningful social change. There’s also an extraordinary amount of creativity and raw intellect and passion for education that you find at a liberal arts college like this.”
Jonathan Friedman, campus free speech director for PEN America, said in statement that while students at Sarah Lawrence are "free to say what they wish, their call for a review of Abrams's tenure file is wrongheaded and reflects an egregious lack of understanding of the principles of academic freedom and free speech."
He added, "The college administration should make clear to the students that they have no intention of acceding to this outlandish demand. Students who want to air their own perspectives through writings, discussions or meetings on campus should always be encouraged. But to call for punishment in response to an op-ed runs roughshod over the principles of free inquiry that should govern any campus."