On Sunday, Feb. 24, Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate passed a resolution in favor of academic freedom and due process for Professor Thomas Abowd in his contract renewal. The resolution was written by students from Professor Abowd’s fall 2018 Colonizing Palestine class, alongside other activists, to show solidarity with Professor Abowd. Senate passed this resolution with 22 senators in favor, three opposed and six abstaining. We believe Senate made the right decision. Such resolutions are one way students can help protect professors’ jobs and academic freedom. Employment should not be used to punish professors who teach controversial, but academically worthwhile, classes. There is only limited academic freedom without job security.
The danger that Professor Abowd’s contract could lapse spurred his students to write the resolution and a series of testimonials backing it up, published in the Daily on Feb. 22. The resolution highlighted the value of directly addressing politically contentious topics in the classroom. Students cited the harassment that activists and academics have faced at Tufts, like when a hate group put up Islamophobic posters targeting pro-Palestine activists, as reasons necessitating this resolution. The resolution called for a fair and transparent renewal process for Professor Abowd’s contract and was supported by at least 10 student groups.
While senators on all sides of the resolution claimed to support academic freedom and a harassment-free workplace, we feel this goal requires active, democratic participation to defend specifically endangered professors lest we allow student-faculty solidarity to lapse.
Senators opposed to the resolution claimed the TCU Senate could not appropriately vote on Professor Abowd’s contract renewal because they believed the Senate had inadequate information about the course.
Rabiya Ismail, a first-year senator and author of the resolution, stated that she disagreed with this view in an email to the Daily.
Ismail noted the irony in Tufts’ self-perception as a diverse and liberal campus while professors who challenge prevailing sentiments face uncertain employment and racial harassment. She said she feels that Tufts is often inaccessible for students of color.
Senator Sarah Wiener, a sophomore, described Professor Abowd’s contract as a case study in protecting academic freedom.
Senator Shannon Lee, a junior, proposed an amendment which “calls on Tufts to support courses that teach a diverse range of subjects and perspectives.” This amendment connects the controversy over Professor Abowd’s Colonizing Palestine class with the ability of a school to offer insightful classes with unconventional perspectives.
Although TCU Senate has no say in hiring professors or renewing their contracts, it is a forum for students to express their support for professors’ right to job security and their freedom to teach. Student solidarity with professors is vital as students and professors alike suffer when dissent is rewarded with unemployment. When we make our presence known in matters usually reserved for the Tufts administration, we expand the possibilities of student democratic participation while struggling for transparency and accountability in hiring practices. We support the TCU Senate’s stance on Professor Abowd’s class and applaud the students who wrote this resolution.