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Sam Abrams, Student Unrest, and a Teachable Moment at Sarah Lawrence College

HXA Executive Team December 11, 2018

About a month ago, Heterodox Academy member Sam Abrams —  a professor of politics and American government at Sarah Lawrence College — published a brief essay in the New York Times summarizing results from a survey he conducted on roughly 900 “student facing” college and university administrators.  He found that liberal staff members outnumbered conservatives by a ratio of 12-to-one, with 71% of administrators self-identifying as “liberal,” while only 6% self-identified as “conservative.” He continued:

“The 12-to-one ratio of liberal to conservative college administrators makes them the most left-leaning group on campus. In previous research, I found that academic faculty report a six-to-one ratio of liberal to conservative professors. Incoming first-year students, by contrast, reported less than a two-to-one ratio of liberals to conservatives, according to a 2016 finding by the Higher Education Research Institute. It appears that a fairly liberal student body is being taught by a very liberal professoriate — and socialized by an incredibly liberal group of administrators.”

Abrams also noted that this difference was more pronounced in New England, and at private universities — findings consistent with his previous work on the ideological leanings of faculty members (e.g. here, here).

Abrams prefaced these results by relating that, at his own elite, east-coast private university, administrators routinely plan, support and promote events and programming oriented towards progressive activism and identity politics. As far as he could tell, these productions offered no indication that there may be other reasonable or legitimate ways of understanding or addressing the issues in question (let alone exploring those alternatives in any meaningful way).  He described this state of affairs as a “problem.” Yet Abrams also insisted that his college was not extraordinary in this regard: his observations at Sarah Lawrence seemed typical of broader trends in higher education, especially for schools along the Northeast Corridor (running from Boston through D.C.).

Nonetheless, following the publication of this essay, Dr. Abrams had his office door vandalized with intimidating messages, demands for apologies, and calls for his firing. As reported by Reason, Sarah Lawrence president Cristle Judd insinuated to professor Abrams that he brought these attacks upon himself — alleging that his op-ed created a “hostile work environment” — and implied that the tenured professor should consider going “on the market” for a new job. According to National Review, Judd went so far as to suggest that Abrams should have asked for her permission before publishing his editorial.

The initial public responses from President Judd did not even mention, let alone condemn, the vandalism or attempted intimidation. Instead, she issued a generic call for all parties to respect academic freedom, and then reaffirmed her own commitment that “Black Lives Matter LGBTQ+ lives matter, and that Women’s Justice matters.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, attacks on Dr. Abrams continued despite these remarks — with vulgar and potentially defamatory allegations written on a campus free speech board. To this, President Judd responded that it is “unacceptable” to make anonymous accusations without substantiation, and reminded students about the proper way to report alleged violations by university personnel.

As described by Abrams in The Spectatorit took nearly three weeks of advocacy by himself, FIRE, PEN America and others for President Judd to directly condemn the vandalization, slander, and attempted intimidation — and affirm Dr. Abrams’ right to “pursue and publish his work.”  Yet even here, President Judd aligned herself in opposition to Abrams, claiming that many on the campus “understandably” found the essay “not only controversial, but insulting, and even personally intimidating”:


Notice, there was no insinuation that Abrams may have been “understandably” concerned about the deep ideological imbalances at institutions of higher learning (including his own), and the ways this ideological homogeneity influences campus culture. Yet the reaction to Abrams’ essay, both by the students and the administration, underscore the validity of those concerns.

Indeed, no one at Sarah Lawrence has claimed that they do meaningfully and charitably engage with non-progressive perspectives in the events Abrams described; no one challenged the veracity of the research itself, nor the accuracy of his central claim that administrators skew overwhelmingly left.  Few of the responses — for instance deriding Dr. Abrams as a racist, a right-wing conspiracy theorist, or someone who denies LGBTQ students ‘right to exist’ — seemed to directly engaged with the actual content of his New York Times essay (or indeed, any of his work) at all.

It is troubling that some responded to Professor Abrams’ essay with vandalism, harassment, intimidation attempts and calls for termination. Worse, his university president initially failed to condemn these acts. Instead, President Judd uncritically validated the narratives of those who carried them out — even to the point of implying that Abrams’ essay did, in fact, constitute an attack on their community (Abrams created a “hostile environment” by publishing the piece; students “understandably” felt offended, insulted and even personally intimidated by it).

This sequence of events is inconsistent  with the norms and values that should define an institution of higher learning. Here are the standards Heterodox Academy believes should prevail in situations like these (click to expand).

It is their role and responsibility to promote the will and interests of all students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and other university stakeholders — irrespective of how closely (or not) their demographic or ideological characteristics align with one’s own.

We believe that college administrators are uniquely positioned — and uniquely responsible — to articulate the critical importance of academic freedom to the pursuits of research and education. We understand that situations like these can provoke anxiety for administrators as they try to respond swiftly with uncertain and developing information, balancing the needs and interests of their students, faculty, staff, trustees, and donors. Articulating in advance the campus’ values — and the relationship between those values and open inquiry — offers a framework for responding to challenges in a principled fashion.

Note that the executive and advisory teams do not speak for the entire membership of Heterodox Academy. We did not consult the membership in drafting this statement, and we have no mechanism for expressing the collective will of our politically diverse membership.

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