Letter to Pres. Anthony P. Monaco of Tufts University re curtailing the contract of Professor Thomas Abowd and his academic freedom




September 30, 2018

Anthony P. Monaco

Office of the President

Tufts University

Bailou Hall, 2nd Floor

Medford, MA 02155

Dear President Monaco,

California Scholars for Academic Freedom, a group of over 200 scholars who defend academic freedom, the right of shared governance, and the First Amendment rights of faculty and students in the academy and beyond, wish to express our serious concern at the threat to the full renewal of Professor Thomas Abowd’s contract at Tufts University.  A professor in Tufts American Studies and Colonialism Studies programs for the last two years, Professor Abowd has also taught in the Anthropology and Arabic Culture programs over the last seven years. In June 2018 he was promoted to a Senior (non-tenured) position, a promotion based on review of his record of teaching, publication, and service to the University and its students. A promotion to that rank normally comes with the expectation of several years of security of employment at any institution with which we are familiar.  In Professor Abowd’s case, his contract’s language apparently stipulates a 5-year renewal unless his performance proved not satisfactory. Professor Abowd’s contributions to the institution and the profession have, by Tufts own assessment, proven highly satisfactory. It therefore comes as some surprise to us to learn that Professor Abowd’s position may not be renewed beyond the coming year. 

Whatever other justifications may be invoked for this unexpected curtailing of his contract, we are especially troubled by the evident correlation between this threat to Professor Abowd’s security of employment and the scurrilous attacks that have been aimed at his course, “Colonizing Palestine.” In a manner that has become all too familiar to us, as an organization committed to the protection of academic freedom, this course has been targeted by small, external pressure groups that pretend to represent large communities—such as the Horowitz Freedom Center, the AMCHA Initiative, or Stand With Us—but which lack either legitimacy or intellectual integrity.  The sole purpose for which they exist is to suppress freedom of expression in relation to Palestine and Israel and to prevent any teaching or other form of public engagement that represents fairly and in depth the Palestinian view of the conflict—a view that students at a university like Tufts, with its honorable traditions of engagement with public affairs, surely need to be exposed to.  In order to achieve their aims, such pressure groups resort not to reasoned argument, but to innuendo, defamation and caricature.  Their public statements about the course that we have reviewed are utterly familiar to us, revealing a litany of ignorance, shrill accusations and complete unfamiliarity with the rich intellectual and cultural traditions of Palestine and in particular with the authors and artists that Professor Abowd presents to his students.

That a course on “Colonizing Palestine” may excite controversy is hardly surprising in the present political climate.  Neither its content nor its “argument” are, however, outside the mainstream of contemporary scholarship, whatever assertions may be offered by organizations whose credentials are, to say the least, unscholarly.  Though some may be made uncomfortable by the analysis of Palestine as a colony, the literature on this topic, by Israeli, Palestinian, European and Australian as well as American scholars, is extensive and well documented.  It represents a serious and long-standing intellectual tradition that is reflected in both scholarly and creative work and that bears comparison with the analysis of many situations globally and from which no state, from the United States to Israel or Australia, can claim a priori exemption. It is therefore an entirely appropriate course to offer in the programs for which Professor Abowd has taught. Clearly, this fact has been recognized by the faculty at Tufts who oversee the approval of courses, a matter that remains an issue of faculty governance.

It is extremely troubling to us, therefore, to have indications that, on account of the furor stirred up by outside pressure groups about this course and of the consequent public intrusion on campus affairs, Professor Abowd’s academic career, which has been marked by integrity and dedicated service to the community at Tufts, should now be in jeopardy.  If this is indeed the case, and Professor Abowd’s contract is not renewed for the anticipated period, we fear that Tufts will have succumbed to pressures that are deeply politicized and profoundly opposed to the traditions of faculty governance, academic freedom and untrammeled research and teaching without which the very concept of the university becomes meaningless.  The damage that results from such capitulations to efforts at censorship, politically motivated interference with the curriculum and research agenda of any institution, or the economic leverage of a handful of donors, is destructive not only to the career of individual faculty members but also to the reputation and integrity of the institution as a whole.  The example it gives of an administration’s vulnerability to external pressure leaves the whole faculty and student body exposed to future assaults, not only by pro-Israeli lobby groups but also by any other political faction that happens to enjoy financial and media support.

We therefore urge you to issue a robust and public defense of Professor Abowd’s right to teach and express his views unhindered by politicized censorship, now and in future, and to renew his contract on a long-term basis. Your failure to do so will cast doubt on Tufts’ commitment to genuinely scholarly values and to the traditions of academic freedom that protect them.


California Scholars for Academic Freedom

Contact Persons:

Mark Levine, Professor of History, U.C. Irvine. mlevine@uci.edu

David Lloyd, Distinguished Professor of English, U.C. Riverside.  dclloyd@ucr.edu

Susan Slyomovics, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Near Eastern Languages & Cultures, UCLA.  ssly@anthro.ucla.edu

CC: Dean Barbara Brizuela

Dean James Glaser

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