Professor Samuel J. Abrams on Viewpoint Diversity and Faculty Activism

Samuel Abrams joined Buckley Fellows for dinner on Thursday, February 22nd in New Haven to discuss viewpoint diversity and faculty activism. A fellow spoke with him before the talk, and his thoughts are printed below. 

Samuel J. Abrams has previously worked as a Research Fellow with the Hoover Institution. He is a political scientist with interests in political behavior, socio-political culture, and research methods. He is a Professor of Politics and Social Sciences at Sarah Lawrence College, and a faculty fellow with NYU’s Center for Advanced Social Science Research. He received his B.A. from Stanford University, his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, and he is an alumnus of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Program on Inequality and Social Policy.

By: Esteban Elizondo

28 to 1. That is the ratio of liberal professors to conservative professors on college campuses, according to research done by Professor Samuel J. Abrams. This raises the question of whether this majority is suppressing conservative ideas.

“They are,” Professor Abrams states, answering my question before I even get the chance to finish.

What are the consequences, though? Yale students and faculty, particularly in the humanities, have been complicit in the decline of intellectual diversity on campus for years. However, nothing for students, even conservative students, has really changed all that much. Students get Yale degrees and become employed (usually), so what is the risk?

“There is a huge risk,” the professor explains. “Truth emerges from debate and discourse. Grievances need to be aired. If you are going to drive certain people underground, then you are going to drive them away from the mainstream discourse.”

The issue here is now a question of what people believe the role of the university should be, which has seen a lot of change in recent years. University involvement, especially that of elite institutions, now goes far beyond its traditional role of simply educating students. Particularly at Yale, with the rise of the residential college system, the university often finds itself involved in all facets of everyday life. The consequences of residential colleges and consumer-based education has begun to influence education in a negative way. When pressed on the subject of professors intellectually “coddling” their students by not encouraging debate, which he believes is an extension of the consumer-based education, this was the professor’s response:

“First of all, we have shifted to a consumer based model of higher education. People demand things in a way they had not before. That is why we have seen the growth of residential life here at Yale and all over the country,” explains Professor Abrams.

“Coddling is part of that. People do not want to feel that their buttons are being pushed too hard. When we have a room where we command everyone in such a way that the narrow, liberal perspective is the only one, what happens? It is a lot easier. The class is a lot easier to teach when there is no dissent in the room. People are not angry.”

The problem that these environments create is that they undermine what should be any university’s primary mission—to seek out truth through liberal discourse and debate. As of this publication, Yale’s motto is still “Light and Truth.” Seeking out truth through liberal discourse and debate is, unfortunately, a lot easier said than done, especially in the modern classroom. It seems unwise to abandon our greatest tool in the age-old search for truth in favor of comfort, even if it would be easier.

“Learning is hard. Going back and forth is hard. And it’s painful,” the professor claimed, but he does not believe that should stop us from going through the process. In fact, it is our duty to do so.

“Universities in particular, as opposed to the rest of the world, are supposed to be ‘safe spaces’ where ideas can be vigorously debated. This is where that social progress occurs. This is where the civil rights movement occurred. If you think of all the work done in Alabama and Mississippi, it was students from elite liberal arts colleges primary heading down south to do something about it. By suppressing this here, we are stunting our social progress.”

This statement was particularly bold. It implies that the role of universities like Yale is larger than just educating their students within their walls and preparing them for life outside. It implies that Yale has a responsibility to the rest of the country to facilitate progress. Perhaps at our worst we would be carpetbaggers, but at our best we can be models for social progression.

Unfortunately, Professor Abrams is certainly in the minority. Professors who encourage their students to challenge their ideas and the ideas of other students are part of a depressing minority. Right up to the point where he walked straight from dinner at Union League Cafe down the street to Shake Shack to order cheesy fries and a black and white milkshake, he still took the time to address the questions of Buckley Fellows. He is by every definition a student’s professor. This is the type of person the Buckley Program brings to Yale, and this is why you should consider attending one of the Buckley Program talks. You will not be disappointed.