Case Study

Students at Sarah Lawrence College call for professor’s tenure to be reviewed


In October 2018, professor Samuel Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College became a target of criticism by students and faculty after he published an op-ed in The New York Times criticizing the dominance of liberal and progressive ideologies in the college administration. Soon after, Abrams’s office door was vandalized, and flyers alleging impropriety were posted around campus. Following each of these retaliatory incidents, the college president, Cristle Collins Judd, sent emails to the campus community addressing the controversy, but it was only three weeks after the initial incident that she explicitly rebuked the attacks on Abrams and issued a robust defense of his right to free expression. In March 2019, a student group called the Diaspora Coalition occupied a campus building and published a list of demands in the student newspaper, including that “Abrams’s position at the college be put up to tenure review to a panel of the Diaspora Coalition and at least three faculty members of color.”

PEN America Analysis

While students are free to say what they wish, their call for a review of Abrams’s tenure demonstrates a lack of understanding of the principles of academic freedom and free speech. In cases like these, PEN America urges administrators to work with their communications team to make clear their institution’s commitment to academic freedom and assure the public that the professor’s tenure is secure. This does not mean that the administration should not hear students out, or that the students cannot criticize a professor’s position. But the call for tenure review or the discipline of a professor in response to an op-ed runs roughshod over the principles of free inquiry that should govern any campus.

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