Tepid Response to Attacks on Professor Raise Concerns for Academic Freedom at Sarah Lawrence
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NEW YORK—Recent attacks on Professor Samuel Abrams at Sarah Lawrence College, and the institution’s tepid response to them, raise concerns about the institution’s commitment to defending academic freedom, PEN America said in a statement today.
At issue is the college’s response to two recent incidents which targeted Abrams in the wake of pieces he wrote critical of left-leaning administrators at the institution. On October 16, the day he published an op-ed in the New York Times, photographs and messages on his office door were torn down and replaced by notes urging him to quit and to apologize to the campus community. On November 2, days after Abrams published another op-ed on the website the Daily Caller, flyers were posted around campus alleging impropriety on his part with students. Following each of these incidents, the college president, Cristle Collins Judd, sent emails to the campus community, but it was only on November 6, three weeks after the initial incident and three days after the second, that the president communicated to the campus an explicit rebuke of the attacks against Abrams and a robust defense of his right to free expression.
“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,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America Project Director for Campus Free Speech. “President Judd’s eventual statement hit all the right notes, but it should not have taken so long. 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. Equivocating on these fundamentals does no favors to open discourse, nor to the students and faculty who look to campus leaders for guidance. Especially at a time of heightened polarization, it is vital that college leaders stand firmly in defense of free expression and civic discourse without hesitation.”
PEN America has previously emphasized that the drive toward a more inclusive and equal campus should not be pitted against robust protections for free speech. An official response to inappropriate reprisals for controversial speech that affirms one set of precepts, while eliding the other, will only heighten tensions that need to be reconciled rather than reified.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org
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