Sarah Lawrence College has struggled with questions of free speech and genuine intellectual and ideological diversity over the past year.
In the fall of 2018, I published an op-ed in the New York Times which argued that the extracurricular programming and the ever-growing group of college administrators at Sarah Lawrence College was ideologically lopsided to the left and that more viewpoint diversity was needed on our campus. Some in the Sarah Lawrence College community felt that those opinions put them in danger and caused them real harm. In response, I have been repeatedly harassed and defamed — with my qualifications to serve as a tenured professor being constantly questioned.
The College has ostensibly affirmed my right and “full support of the College, to pursue and publish” my work. Yet, whenever members of the alumni community hear about a new set of comments or research that I have published that relates to the College and my concerns about its teaching, the cycle starts up again.
Last week I sat down with FIRE President Greg Lukianoff on the So to Speak podcast to discuss the Sarah Lawrence case and my research on the larger state of free speech in higher education. After the podcast was released, various alumni circulated the episode on social media and the usual attacks resumed. However, a new and troubling sentiment also emerged – one which has been around quietly for a while but was now made explicit. Namely, my views – which are right of center and free-market focused – are not welcome or appropriate at Sarah Lawrence.
In the view of these alumni, the College itself is progressive to its core — a known truth which has been the case for many years. Consequently, my desire for a less ideologically lopsided institution is misplaced: I should know and accept the fact of the College’s liberal nature; if I want meaningful ideological diversity, I should simply look elsewhere. Right-leaning views should not be expected to be accommodated at Sarah Lawrence, nor are they wanted.
Now, I completely understand that there are some organizations and institutions that have reputations for being somewhat exclusive – for catering to particular preferences or tastes. It would be obnoxious to agree to meet up with someone for a drink at a cigar bar, for instance, and then complain that there is too much smoke in the venue. However, bars are not institutions of higher education (although they can be wonderful places to learn about the world).
In the university context, advocating for deliberate exclusion is dangerous and runs against the school’s stated mission to, “graduate world citizens who are diverse in every definition of the word” and principles of respect which claim to not only “embrace our diversity in all its dimensions” but also demands that the school “foster honest inquiry, free speech and open discourse.” Learning and progress comes from the collision of ideas, not deliberate exclusion of particular views one may find objectionable.
Sarah Lawrence may be traditionally progressive just as Hillsdale College is conservative. The zeitgeist of the culture can reflect those preferences. But they absolutely cannot exclude teaching and exemplifying real viewpoint diversity — in and outside the classroom, and for all members of their respective communities.
It is absolutely unacceptable for a school like Sarah Lawrence, or any school for that matter, to eschew efforts at ideological balance or inclusion. I am truly disappointed that anyone affiliated with my own institution — which prides itself on providing a deep and rigorous liberal arts education — would not only fail to see the true value of viewpoint diversity, but go further and explicitly suggest that Sarah Lawrence has a reputation and a particular set of people and values and that one who does not agree with those values is not welcome.
To reiterate, this most recent claim about who is welcome at Sarah Lawrence does not mark the first time that I have been told to leave and that my views are not welcome at Sarah Lawrence College. However, this latest incident crosses into new rhetorical territory among the College community, and lays bare a new threat to academic freedom, diversity, and the mission of higher education: deliberate exclusion based on one’s ideology and views.
If College President Cristle Judd and the Trustees are true to their word that SLC has a deep “commitment to building a genuinely inclusive community” and actually believes in its core mission, then the school will make it clear – through its statements, but also its programming and actions — that the school is open to all, that it explicitly rejects exclusion based on ideology or any other category for that matter. Sarah Lawrence needs to demonstrate beyond a doubt that it understands ideological diversity as essential to its intellectual and social health, and that its calls and initiatives to improve diversity are genuine and truly acted upon.
Regrettably, I have not seen this to date and, based on these remarks by SLC alumni, I have to question how well my colleagues and administrators are faring in terms of truly offering a humanistic and balanced educations to our students. But I believe we can do better. We must.
Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.