The Professor Who Was Harassed for Pointing Out the Truth

That famous line from the movie A Few Good Men—“You can’t handle the truth!”—applies more and more to the world of higher education. If you doubt that, consider the case of professor Samuel Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College.

Abrams, a tenured professor of political science who admits that he “leans conservative” has been studying the political landscape of American higher education. In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, Abrams argued that the heavy imbalance toward leftism that we see among faculty members is even more pronounced with respect to college administrators, especially those who directly interact with students.

He wrote, “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.” (Italics in original.)

It has been known for more than a decade that zealous administrators with an ideological agenda are moving into administrative positions where they attempt to influence student beliefs. The University of Delaware’s blatantly political “Residence Life” program had young administrators pushing students to accept leftist beliefs on politics, race, sexuality, sociology, philosophy, and environmentalism—with sanctions for those who resisted. (The National Association of Scholars exposed the program in 2007 in a series of articles, which eventually led to its suspension by Delaware’s president. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education applauded the apparent end of that “chilling” program in this release.)

But the attraction “progressives” have for positions of influence did not end with their setback at Delaware. Eager administrators across the country continue to use their positions to inculcate their views among students.

Abrams continues,

This warped ideological distribution among college administrators should give our students and their families pause. To students who are in their first semester at school, I urge you not to accept unthinkingly what your campus administrators are telling you. Their ideological imbalance, coupled with their agenda-setting power, threatens the free and open exchange of ideas, which is what we need to protect in these politically polarized times.

That is the exact point that professor Lyell Asher of Lewis & Clark College made at considerable length in a Chronicle of Higher Education article earlier this year entitled “How Education Schools Became a Menace.” (Sadly, Chronicle articles are available only to subscribers so I’ll quote the key passages.)

Why are ed schools a menace? Because, Asher writes, “They trained an army of bureaucrats who are pushing the academy towards ideological fundamentalism.”

He continues,

Everyone knows about the kudzu-like growth of the administrative bureaucracy in higher education over the past three decades. What most don’t know is that at many colleges, the majority of administrators directly involved in the lives of students — in dorms, conduct hearings, bias-response teams, freshmen “orientation” programs, and the like — got their graduate degrees from education schools.

Education schools have become bastions of “progressive” theory about education and everything else. As Heather Mac Donald showed in her 1998 essay “Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach,” what’s mostly taught in education schools is not how best to instruct students, but instead to see the world through leftist grievance lenses. And many of those students find jobs in the burgeoning ranks of college administrators.

Of course, there are ideologues in faculty positions, but Asher notes,

Undergraduates can avoid or drop a course that’s less about inquiry than inquisition, or at least balance it with courses that put ideas above ideology. Students can’t drop their dorm supervisors, though, or escape the long arm of the more than 200 “bias response teams” presuming to micromanage their conversations. Nor can they opt out from the authority of conduct-review boards or evade first-year “orientation” programs — sometimes lasting an entire semester — that too often resemble clinics in ideological groupthink.

Both Abrams and Asher deserve a round of applause for pointing out a serious educational problem—serious at least to those who believe that education should teach people how to think, not tell them what to think. But professor Abrams has been put through a nasty ordeal at Sarah Lawrence for having stated incontrovertible facts and speaking his mind.

His torment began soon after the publication of his New York Times article when “woke” students trashed his office door, not even sparing a photo of his infant son. Then the student senate convened an “emergency” meeting to demand that Abrams be stripped of tenure and fired.

Moreover, posters appeared around campus insisting that Abrams be terminated and made a libelous accusation against him of sexual misconduct with students.

Amid this firestorm, Abrams asked the college’s president, Christie Judd, if she wouldn’t say something in defense of free speech and civility. Her first response, however, was to tell him that his op-ed had “created a hostile work environment” at Sarah Lawrence. That’s the new norm for “hostile work environment”—saying something that campus Social Justice Warriors dislike.

When Judd finally agreed to meet with Abrams, she suggested that he might look for another job, apparently unaware that he held tenure. She also said that he should have cleared his public writings with her first. Academic freedom is obviously a low priority at Sarah Lawrence College.

Weeks after the protests began, Judd finally sent out a campus-wide email that offered only a lukewarm defense of free speech while mainly emphasizing her support for “diversity and inclusion.”

Should Americans worry about this? Quite a few commentators think so.

Writing for Reason magazine, Robby Soave said,

This incident is an example of a concerning phenomenon: college administrators going soft on free speech in an effort to appease a handful of aggressive students. Administrators should take greater care to avoid explicit ideological bias and they must defend free speech rights of professors who speak about against it.

Commenting on the Abrams case, Debra Mashek, executive director of Heterodox Academy, said,

While learning, discovery, and personal growth benefit when students engage with others with varied backgrounds and perspectives, Professor Abrams’ data remind us that curricular and co-curricular spaces can become ideological monocultures in which the benefits of viewpoint diversity cannot be realized. The administrators and faculty charged with fulfilling the missions of our institutions must ask whether such monocultures truly support student learning and development. Evidence suggests they do not.

And Jonathan Friedman of PEN America, a group that defends academic freedom, stated,

Campus leaders may fear that unequivocally defending the right to speak out on controversial topics may be misconstrued or trigger a backlash, but this is precisely what college stewardship demands…Abrams’s op-eds fall squarely under his right to academic freedom and free expression. Students, faculty, and administrators at Sarah Lawrence have every right to disagree with his arguments and counter them with robust debate and peaceful protest, but it is the duty of college leaders to offer swift, public defense of faculty members facing harassment.

If zealous students who think they’re entitled to harass and slander professors (or anyone else) who say or write things they dislike are not rebuked by college officials, our current free speech problem will escalate into a full-blown crisis.

George Leef is the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.