Many professors who are conservative, libertarian, or who otherwise hold views that challenge the prevailing institutional ethos attempt to conceal their ideological leanings. They often avoid work on controversial topics to minimize the risk of drawing the ire of students or colleagues.
In contrast, Dr. Abrams has virtually always been “out” as a Republican. Rather than avoiding contentious topics, he works in political science – and has been particularly influential in his critiques of orthodoxies surrounding polarization.
He introduces his students to a gamut of political and ideological perspectives in the classroom. A founding member of Heterodox Academy, Dr. Abrams also regularly engages the public on the need for viewpoint diversity, open inquiry and constructive disagreement within institutions of higher learning.
In October 2018, he published an essay in the New York Times about the severe political imbalance among university administrators (which is even larger than the left skew among professors). In order to illustrate how this political homogeneity plays out ‘on the ground,’ Dr. Abrams cited some examples of programming at his own college, Sarah Lawrence.
In response, a contingent of students at his school – egged on by certain faculty and administrators – called for Dr. Abrams to be ousted from his post. In addition to demonstrations, his office was vandalized. There were harassment and intimidation campaigns. University leadership initially neglected to condemn these acts, and instead aligned themselves with the protestors – insinuating that Dr. Abrams had done something wrong in conducting his research or publishing his op-ed. His university president privately suggested to him that he should seek out alternative employment. Responding to these institutional signals, student activists have continued their agitations, recently demanding that Dr. Abrams’ tenure be put up for review.
Regrettably, Dr. Abrams is far from alone in facing retaliation for research or public-facing work that challenges someone’s deeply-held views. What sets Dr. Abrams apart is how he has chosen to respond to his situation. Many who have found themselves in similar circumstances chose to exit the academy. The experience of colleagues, students and university leadership turning against you, or failing to support you, can lead to deep resentment, which can curdle into reactionary politics – leading some who have been on the receiving end of these campaigns to subsequently bash students, professors, administrators, the left, and even the academic enterprise more broadly – and to align themselves with others who do the same.
Dr. Abrams, however, refuses simply disappear, or to cede his institution to opponents of open inquiry and viewpoint diversity. Nor does he allow illiberal actors define the academy – neither for himself nor the public. Instead, Dr. Abrams remains as committed as ever to highlighting positive developments, identifying exemplars, and formulating constructive and data-driven approaches to the challenges universities face. Responding to unjust treatment with this kind of grace requires a level of courage and moral conviction that we desperately need more of within institutions of higher learning – and indeed our society more broadly.
Selected media publications and scholarly essays by Samuel Abrams can be found here.