Friday, March 14, 2008

The Harassment of Professor Thomas Abowd at Wayne State

At Wayne State, of all places, where 20% of the student body is Arab American, another professor gets harassed and accused of anti-semitism.

From friends and colleagues of Professor Thomas Abowd at Wayne State University

Dear colleagues,

I need to write to you about a set of very serious racist and discriminatory attacks against Professor Thomas Abowd in his dispute with the Wayne State University administration and right-wing Zionist elements on campus. These circumstances are but a few of several offensive, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim happenings on this campus over the last few years, coming both before and after the attacks against Law Professor Wadie Said who applied for a job at WSU. The specific attacks against Professor Abowd are particularly troubling because, in this case, a WSU official has used racist and offensive language against Professor Abowd in the course of an official university investigation.

Included below is a short description of the line of questioning engaged in by officials of Wayne State University, particularly one Ms. Amy Stirling during her December 2007 investigation of Professor Thomas Abowd for several baseless and fabricated charges of "anti-semitism." (charges eventually all dropped for lack of evidence). A Union representative was present during this meeting with Ms. Stirling, and witnessed the racist language directed at Abowd. The Union representative took notes during the more than 2 hour conversation. It is clear to many that Stirling's line of questioning (as well as her generally hostile demeanor) was extremely inappropriate and had anti-Arab implications.

Ms. Stirling began her questioning of Abowd in a ridiculous set of false accusations made against him by avowed supporters of the well-known anti-Arab and anit-Mulism racist, Daniel Pipes. Members of this organization have been following Abowd around to talks on this and other campuses for the last few years. Pipes was speaking at Wayne State in October, 2007 and Professor Abowd took part in a non-violent demonstration against the founder of "Campus Watch" one hour before his event. After this demonstration, two right-wing Pipes-apologists who had been video taping and taking pictures of Abowd and who later attended the Pipes lecture, accosted Thomas after his speech and demanded to know why he said "slaughter the Jews." Such words were never uttered, by Abowd or anyone else at the demonstration. Abowd told these individuals that this claim was completely slanderous and to get away from him.

Perhaps anticipating Abowd filing a complaint against them for harassment, the two individuals who accosted him then went and filed bogus charges of "anti-Semitism" against Professor Abowd with the Wayne State Office of Equal Opportunity. The University then decided to launch an investigation into these false accusations, without a shred of evidence that Thomas had engaged in any wrongdoing. The investigation, many on campus believe, was done as part of a disturbing pattern at Wayne State of silencing criticism of Israel and those who fight for Palestinian rights. The university official who investigated these charges (who many familiar with the case believe is anti-Palestinian) questioned Abowd for a few hours and eventually concluded, a few weeks later, that the charges made against Thomas were totally baseless and unsubstantiated.

But, in the course of questioning him, the investigator, Amy Stirling, engaged in hostile and racist language toward Abowd, an Arab-American. Again, this was witnessed by a Union representative who Abowd insisted be present and who took notes during the entire conversation.

Most disturbing were her efforts to badger Professor Abowd to "discover" his ethnic/racial/religious identity and to inject race, ethnicity, and the subject of Islam into her investigation. Stirling repeatedly asked Abowd and demanded answers, on at least 5 occasions, to questions about Thomas' race, ethnicity, and religion. Here are some of the more troubling exchanges during what was at times more a hostile interrogation than a professionally conducted interview.

Stirling began her line of questioning by repeatedly and pointedly demanding an answer to the question: "What is your ethnic or racial identity." This was, in fact, the first question she directed at him. Abowd objected to the query, citing its non-relevance and racist implications. Abowd told Stirling twice that he would not answer the question because it was wholly inappropriate but she persisted in an aggressive way, remarking that the question was relevant, that she did have a right to ask it, that she wanted an answer to it, and then proceeded to ask him the same question two more times. He still refused to answer and told her to move on.

About 45 minutes later, in the course of her questioning, Stirling asked Abowd, very directly 2 or 3 times and in an antagonistic manner: "Are you a Muslim?" Once again, she was told that this was completely inappropriate, as offensive as it was irrelevant to the discussion. Professor Abowd mentioned that he was not only disgusted by this line of questioning but that he considered it a violation of his privacy and the principle of non-discrimination. He and many others familiar with the case believe that this line of questioning was part of an effort to build the case that Abowd was more likely to harass the Jewish individuals in question because he might be a Muslim or Arab: a truly bigoted idea.

In trying to explain why he and the Union representative thought this was an inappropriate set of questions, Abowd began by stating that "If I were white and the person who I was accused of making race-based comments to was white…" Stirling interrupted him and forcefully stated: "You are white." Abowd then responded that she did not have the right to tell him what he was or declare his ethnic or racial assignment, which she could not possibly know and which was none of her business.

Stirling's line of questioning was clearly troubling for a number of reasons. If a member of another community, say a Jew or an African-American, were asked such a question in this context it would, quite rightly, be regarded as being totally inappropriate. How, after all, could anyone make a determination about whether anyone did or did not engage in intimidation based on whether she/he was Arab or Muslim or Jewish or atheist? One can only imagine if the tables were turned, what the response would be if an administrator repeatedly demanded an answer to the question "Are you a Jew? Are you a Jew?" Even after an individual had made clear that she/he would not answer such a question.

As with the problems made for law professor Wadie Said during his job search at Wayne State in 2006 and other Arab faculty and would-be faculty and students on campus by the administration in recent years, Abowd's case is connected to a disturbing sentiment among the Wayne State administration that has become deeply hostile to criticisms of Israeli human rights abuses and military occupation among faculty and students. There are several administrators and Board of Governors on WSU's campus that are avowed apologists for Israeli military occupation and human rights abuses. When you combine these realities with the fact that Wayne State (where 15-20% of the student body is Arab) has done a horrible job of hiring and retaining Arab faculty, one sees a troubling pattern in the abuse leveled at Professor Abowd, an Arab-American, an award-winning teacher, and one of the few Arab/Arab-American faculty in WSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In addition to these acts of racism directed at Abowd, Wayne State University has also violated Thomas' constitutional and contractual rights on several occasions during his four years at the university, most recently around this latest incident of racism. In the case of this investigation, he was told three times in writing by Amy Stirling that he was not permitted to have a Union witness present at the investigation, in direct violation of the law and Supreme Court rulings (in fact, a judge ruled in Abowd and the Union's favor several weeks ago stating clearly that WSU could not deny union members representation in such a context). Despite their violations of the law and the union contract, the University has reprimanded Abowd, as well, without due process. Abowd has also had his lecture on Jimmy Carter's recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid that he was to give to the WSU Alumni Association, cancelled for unexplained reasons and not rescheduled. This decision also came directly from the administration.

Please send emails, letters, and phone calls immediately to the following persons responsible for this campaign against award-winning teacher and community activist, Professor Thomas Abowd. Many of his colleagues and fellow activists are concerned that Wayne State University may try to terminate him for political reasons!

Ms. Amy Stirling, Acting Director of Wayne State University's Office of Equal Opportunity

Phone Number: (313) 577-2280
Address: Attn. Ms. Amy Sirling Office of Equal Opportunity
5700 Cass Ave, Suite 3660 AA Bldg.
Detroit, Michigan 48202

Robert Thomas, Dean of College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Phone Number: (313) 577-2519
Address: Attn: Dean Robert Thomas
Wayne State University
4841 Cass Ave.
2155 Old Main
Detroit, MI 48201

Nancy Barrett, Provost
Phone Number: (313) 577-2200/ 313-577-2433(Diane)
Address: 656 W. Kirby Room #4092, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202

Andrea Dickson, Executive Vice President
Phone Number: (313) 577-2389
656 W. Kirby, Room #4165 FAB Bldg, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202

Professor Andrea Sankar, Chair of the Anthropology Department,
Phone Number: (313) 577-6961
Address: Professor Andrea Sankar
147 Manoogian Hall
906 W. Warren
Detroit, MI 48202


tyrone said...

As a Wayne State alumn I am saddened and shocked and will be writing a letter to the officials listed. Thanks for posting this, Philip.


Anonymous said...

Wayne State is quickly developing a reputation as an ANTI-ARAB university with an administration that is hostile to Arabs and Muslims--faculty and students!

Philip Metres said...

I don't know the details about Wayne State, but it distresses me. In contrast, my university supported my academic freedom, political balance and my ethical integrity quite strongly when I was attacked by someone from the public.

VFPDissident said...

FYI, I just linked to this post on my blog here. There have been similar incidents in Ann Arbor including the targetting of Kathryn Babayan and Catherine Wilkerson, MD.

Anonymous said...

The University hates Abowd for another incident, not involving Israel or Zionists. I hope that comes out soon.

Philip Metres said...
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Philip Metres said...

Who knows what else is happening? But that's not the issue at stake in this handling of his case. The issue at hand is how he was treated in this particular incident (participating in a protest against Daniel Pipes, something that nearly anyone of intellectual weight is almost obligated to do). And I'd be careful about judging on harassment cases before they have been fully investigated. It's far to easy to smear someone with accusations of any sort, to render their arguments unfit.

Anonymous said...

Abowd has a reputation for being hostile to students. I don't believe that all those university employees are out to get him for nothing.

Paul said...

Lots of accusations, always from "Anonymous" voices. You should really stop spreading rumors.

Tom was not removed from his former job, and has no involvement with any sexual harassment claims. These are simply false, malicious accusations, perhaps coming from the very sources who are leading this witch-hunt at Wayne. has been profiling and attacking professor Abowd and anyone else in the Detroit area who mentions the word "Palestine" in public. This Horowitz/Pipes "Campus Watch" stuff is the new breed of McCarthyism in this country, and must be fought. Their site links to this post.

To give some context, Tom has won teaching awards nearly every year of his career at Wayne, and is a first-rate scholar and beloved mentor to many students.

These attacks come from the Zionist fringe, but are backed up by spineless University administrators, who don't like their school to be a place where challenging ideas threaten the smooth functioning of their business enterprise.

It's good to know that there is massive support from faculty, students, and community members who know Tom to be a committed teacher, and who know a witch-hunt when they see one.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, Paul, I couldn't agree more. Insinuations and character smears are part and parcel of the silencing mechanism.

Philip Metres said...

This is the first posting that may lead to my setting up greater controls on posting. If you have something to say, use your name. Stand by your words. Don't hide by anonymity. And don't namecall.

Glenn Bowman said...

I have just posted the following to the chair of the anthropology department at Wayne State:

Professor Andrea Sankar

Dear Professor Sankar,
I know Tom Abowd from conferences in Jerusalem and New Orleans as well as through reading his academic work.
He is a serious scholar who should be praised, not persecuted. His work on Palestine is committed but fair, and any accusation of anti-semitism can only be wielded by those who believe that trying to talk of the situation and rights of Palestinians is by default 'anti-semitic'. Such accusations are racist; Abowd is not. What Wayne State is doing in the Abowd case shames the university, and risks the reputation of our discipline.
Glenn Bowman

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, Glen.

Anonymous said...

The new face of Nazism is Jewish.

Philip Metres said...

Ann, this sort of comment is the equivalent of the rock-thrower at the peaceful demonstration. What's the point of throwing rocks except to destroy the peaceful demonstration?

Philip Metres said...

An unbelievably unnecessary and rude comment, given that this has NOTHING TO DO WITH NAZISM, JEWS, AND THE LIKE. I will now be moderating all comments in advance. People, if you want to serve the cause of peace and justice in the Middle East, it is not by namecalling and demonizing. With friends like these...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting such an article on anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bias. The hypocrisy should stop.

Anonymous said...

If free speech get banned on campuses, it will be the end of the United States as we know it.

What is wrong with questioning how Israel is treating the Palistinians?

When it becomes illegal to question then we have become a totalitarian state where the people have no rights.

Who are the people that are attacking this professor and why are the dong it?

Inquiring minds should want to know. We all need to find the real roots of hatred and bigotry and put and end to their evil ways.

Anonymous said...

This is all about the First Amendment. Let's not follow the gov't down the path of censorship. After all, censorship is becoming America's favorite past-time. The US gov't (and their corporate friends), already detain protesters, ban books like America Deceived (book) from Amazon and shut down Ron Paul. Free Speech forever (especailly for Professors).

Anonymous said...

I am a strong supporter of academic freedom but I am an equally strong supporter of due process and fairness. There are many unknown facts to the case involving Thomas Abowd. For years he has spoken out on matters opposing U.S. and Israeli policy the university responded with awards. (He received a Presidential Award in 2007). I ask that before people jump to conclusions about his circumstances they try not to let their own bias interfere and presume anti-Arab discrimination. Amy Stirling does not answer to the Board of Governors neither is the BOG involved in day to day employment decisions. I do not defend Ms. Stirlings behavior, but it is quite a leap to assume her bad behavior means the university is anti-Arab.

Philip Metres said...


Thank you for your comment; I agree that none of us should jump to hasty conclusions; yet at the same time, we need to be careful about protecting the free speech of Professor Abowd, who clearly felt threatened and attacked. I have asked Professor Abowd for an update, and I hope that more information will become available.

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