The Bullying and Silencing of Students

Progressive colleges are often the worst offenders in all the ideological bullying that stains our colleges these days. Take my own institution, Sarah Lawrence.  During the 2016 election cycle, a week did not go by on my campus, without a student or a small group of students coming to me and sharing stories where they felt harassed, shamed, ostracized, and physically threatened for supporting a Presidential candidate who was not dominant on campus.

The consequences were deeply upsetting to me: some disengaged from campus and political life, while others hid their beliefs and views entirely. At no point was healthy questioning and debate about candidates and their positions or ideas on the table and democratic discourse around the election. I should note of course, that at a place like Sarah Lawrence, the candidate who triggered the abuse was not Donald Trump, any other Republican or a fringe candidate, but rather Hillary Clinton. Students who supported Clinton over Bernie Sanders were tormented into hiding and bullied into silence.

Three years later the bullying instinct affected me more directly. I published an op-ed in The New York Times suggesting that more balance was needed in the non-academic programming that was omnipresent on the campus. After the piece’s initial publication in October, there was a national media storm in which I was slandered and defamed, my family’s safety was threatened, and my personal property, including pictures of my family, was taken from my office door and destroyed.

Recently, the piece garnered national attention again because a group of unnamed student protesters calling themselves the Diaspora Coalition labeled me a racist misogynist and demanded among many varied items that my ‘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.’

While Coalition’s demand is a direct threat to academic freedom and undercuts the very idea of tenure, it also represents another devastating case of ideological bullying as many students at the College found the demands made of me and the list generally to be absurd but were simply afraid to speak out for fear of reputational consequences.

Since the protest began, I have received some 200 letters from current and former students at Sarah Lawrence who have been horrified by these developments but are simply living in fear of dissenting from the progressive mob. One student wrote that “A lot of students are indeed on your side. A lot of students think this whole situation is preposterous. But I guess we are afraid to stand up and say something to those affected.” Another student stated that “many of my classmates are afraid to play devil’s advocate against leftist rhetoric because of what their classmates will assume about them” noting that when this student waded into a discussion that the “social blowback was insane.”

While Sarah Lawrence students like to think of their experiences as being different, letters that I regularly receive from students around the country and the data make it clear that the ideological bullying leading to being fearful of questioning the prevailing attitudes and ideas is fairly common nationwide.

In 2018, the Buckley Program at Yale asked a national sample of undergraduates, “[Have you felt intimidated in sharing your ideas, opinions or beliefs in class because they were different than those of your classmates or peers?” 54% – a majority of students – stated that they felt intimidated by their peers on campus “often.” Breaking this down further, 62% of those students who identify as conservative “often” feel silenced and this should not be surprising given the progressive impulses on campuses. However, 53% of both moderate and liberal students also report that they felt uncomfortable sharing their ideas as well. So majorities of even those on the left “often feel intimidated” sharing ideas that go against the dominant, habitually liberal, views present on campus.

The narrative here should give all stakeholders in higher education pause – from trustees and parents to faculty and students – because the ability of students to dissent on college and university campuses is disappearing. Open discourse is being replaced by ideological bullying and the quelling of questioning, and this is a threat to a core value of higher education.

While the administration and my faculty colleagues at Sarah Lawrence did not support my right to free speech and academic freedom and the College’s students are understandably afraid to speak when the school threw speech protections under the bus, I hope my narrative can serve as a warning that our institutions of higher education are close to a crisis that we must avoid: viewpoint diversity dies when we cannot challenge others and we are bullied into silence and conformity.

Samuel J. Abrams

Samuel J. Abrams

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

15 thoughts on “The Bullying and Silencing of Students

  1. None of this will change until concerned Alumni take charge. Because they hold the ultimate “power of the purse” in that most colleges like Sarah Lawrence (and to a lesser extent Yale) are heavily dependent on alumni contributions to meet their budget.

    So, BEFORE you send your alma mater any further donations, find out what their policies are on these matters. If they are not acceptable then tell them so, and make it clear you will not donate until meaningful reform takes place.

  2. I am moved by Prof. Abrams remarkable courage and his articulate defense of free speech and thought. I also appreciate most of the thoughtful comments and perspectives above (esp. Dr. Cutting – thanks). It makes the existence of groups like Turning Point (https://www.tpusa.com) crucial. I believe TP specifically offers the most effective way for conservative students on any campus to organize and begin to fight back against the goose-stepping SJW’s. I’m encouraged by what I see being done through this group. That said, there are very few universities left today to which I would even consider sending a loved one. Kyrie eleison.

  3. There’s a remarkable assumption in this essay, that the 62% of conservatives who often feel intimidated all fear leftists, and the 53% of liberals who often feel intimated also only fear leftists. Where, exactly, is the evidence for that claim? Isn’t much more likely that these liberals feel intimidated by those with conservative or moderate views they dislike? And isn’t it possible that some conservatives feel intimidated by other conservatives or moderates?

    1. One, colleges have generally been bastions of liberalism, not conservatism.

      Second, and in support of the first, empirical stories abound of conservatives being intimidated and even barred from campus, by liberals. I have never even HEARD a story of the converse. Coulda happened, but it isn’t prevalent.

      Third, it’s very illogical to think that a conservative would feel intimidated by other conservatives rather than by liberals; and vice versa.

  4. No comments? The silence is deafening.
    I’ve been saying this for years: when people are silenced through fear and intimidation, they may stop speaking. But they don’t stop thinking.
    I think there is an awful lot of silent rage going on out there.

    I believe that many still wind up in college for an education, not an indoctrination.
    That this educational experience, the kind that used to be a foundational setting for an intellectual life of inquiry and illumination has become kidnapped by ideologues, it does not bode well for the future of higher learning.

    1. Unfortunately, students (perhaps because of their youth) can no longer distinguish between education and indoctrination. The lines have become quite blurred.

  5. Easy for me to say, as I am long out of college, but I think that the only way the bullying will stop is the same way that all bullying stops: the bullied will just have to stand up to the bullies. Kids like the guy at Berkeley who got punched will have to stop taking it and punch back. Faculty will have to band together for protection against the diversicrat-enabled children who terrorize them. Non-fanatic students will have to join together and seek strength in numbers. Every account and memoir I have read of someone who lived in a totalitarian state wishes that people had resisted the bullies and thugs early and often instead of by their passivity allowing the bullies and thugs to refine, perfect and entrench their techniques and apparatus of maltreatment. As these are just kids we are talking about, it will take some real adult leadership, faculty willing to imperil themselves, to help them stand up for themselves. Perhaps Abrams can be part of that leadership.

    1. Punch Back?!?!?

      You need to understand that there are two sets of rules on most campi — the left can do anything they damn well please with impunity while the right is crucified for the most minor of infractions. Anyone who dared punch back would be expelled, arrested and charged with an assortment of hate crimes — and everyone amongst the student body knows that….

      I once watched a group of brave undergrads attempt to confront the bullying thugs — they even had them “dead to rights” on embezzling university funds for personal use. (One of them was — and is — a very good investigative journalist.) I watched them have the entire press run of their newspaper stolen with impunity — and then some of it stolen again, physically yanked out of my arms notwithstanding a police officer standing three feet away. Again with total impunity.

      Within that month, their newspaper had been shut down, they had all been purged from the leadership of a second student organization (which was also then shut down), one was arrested on criminal charges so bogus that the quite-upset judge “suggested” that the DA “see the wisdom” of dropping the charges, and two others were unable to return in the fall for quite incoherent academic technicalities that forced them to transfer elsewhere. Another wound up taking an out-of-state internship and used on-line classes to graduate — I believe that was the only one of the group who actually graduated from there as two others wound up eventually dropping out of college entirely.

      I would later learn that this (and more) had all been orchestrated by the university’s Behavioral Intervention Team. That’s what students are dealing with, a secret police (that includes the real police) that silences dissent. In some cases, students literally disappear into the night — never to be seen again as they are expelled on bogus mental health grounds.

      My guess is that’s why it was a non-student who got punched at Berkley — any student who was punched would be in trouble for having been punched — it’s that much of an “Alice in Wonderland” world in academia today. With no shortage of “Sentence Now, Verdict Later”, but I digress.

      Nothing is going to change until these star chamber BITs are abolished, and the rule of law re-established in academia.

      1. Yes, I understand this. Still, are you going to stand up for yourself or cower in your dorm room/faculty office? I’m not suggesting it’s easy, nor even that I myself would or could follow my own advice were I in the situation. But the advice is still sound. Waiting for someone else to stand up for me instead of standing up for myself? Yeah, you are going to have to take abuse, but you already are taking it. At least you’ll have self-respect. Maybe you’ll be the one arrested and prosecuted. Are you so unwilling to risk that when you know you are in the right?

        There’s only one thing I like about Joe Biden, and it’s about his father, not him. Biden told the story of how his father worked for an auto dealership (I think that’s what it was) during the Depression, and the owner paid his staff very little. After closing time, he would gather the staff around and toss out quarters onto the floor, which the various men working for him would desperately dive for, they were so poor. This greatly amused and entertained the owner. Biden said his dad quit rather than abase himself in that way, even though he had a young family and it meant giving up a paying (low-paying, but still) job in a time when jobs were generally not to be had. I’ve always admired that and think of it often.

      2. “are you going to stand up for yourself or cower in your dorm room/faculty office?”

        A solo Banzai charge will accomplish nothing except getting yourself killed.

        As to your story, I am hesitant to believe anything Joe Biden says, but I doubt it happened during the Depression — remember that Joe Jr. was the eldest child and was born in 1942 — I doubt his parents were married before 1940. It was in the 1950’s when cars were being sold and when the economy of coal-based Scranton PA went downhill. (Coal was big during WW-II — it started being replaced by oil & gas in the 1950’s.)

        “Joe Jr. learned a number of lessons during his father’s lean years that he regularly cites in speeches and interviews. In his autobiography, he tells the story of his father quitting a job as sales manager for an auto dealership because the owner, who liked to reward his employees and customers with silver dollars, decided to amuse himself at the dealership’s Christmas party by spilling out a bucket of silver dollars on the dance floor to watch his workers scramble to scoop up the coins. Joe Sr. gathered up his wife and walked out, never to return.”
        https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/24/us/politics/24biden.html

  6. As reprehensible as what is being done to Professor Abrams may be, and it is, a student would fare far worse. Like most institutions today, Sarah Lawrence appears to have a Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT) — it’s outlined on Page 186 of the Student Handbook under the headings of “Threat Assessment” and “Interim Suspension.”

    These BITs originated a decade ago as well-intended efforts to remove crazy and dangerous students from campus — but when those on the BIT consider all conservatives to be crazy in the first place, things can go downhill rather quickly.

    What’s resulted is something essentially identical to the Soviet concept of “Sluggishly Progressing Schizophrenia” — the belief that all sane people hold the views of the radical left and hence those who don’t are inherently mentally ill. It doesn’t help that some 90% of psychologists self-identify as being on the far left on all social issues — to such a cadre, conservatives are inherently abnormal as none of them are….

    As reprehensible as it is to have the campus police and administration nonchalantly ignore threats of violence and damage to personal property (things which are actually crimes in the real world), a student would fare far worse. A student would be ‘Gaslighted” — told that he was imagining things, that it was his fault anyway, and that next time the police will arrest him and not the thugs if he keeps “complaining.”

    I do not say this lightly — the mental health laws are being badly abused in higher education today. It’s not just fear of social ostracism or even physical assault as much as the not-always-articulated knowledge of what it’s like to become a “non-person” and a desire not to become one. And students aren’t stupid.

    Again, what happened to Professor Abrams is reprehensible — but a student likely would find himself being carted off to Bellevue, and no longer a student….

  7. Professor Abrams is to be commended for his defense of intellectual diversity and academic freedom.

    The students at Sarah Lawrence should experiment with showing some courage against the “mob.” They may find that standing up to the bullies is not as frightening as they imagine. Maybe. The only way to find out for sure is to give it a try.

    One thing I will say for the leftist radicals and the mob. They have the courage of their convictions.

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