Elliot Abrams Talk Elicits Debate on Campus

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A man once embroiled in the 1980s Iran-Contra affair took to the lectern in Persson Hall last week to deliver a speech titled, “The Middle East in 2023: Challenges and Opportunities.”

Elliot Abrams, who is now a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke to a packed Persson Auditorium, where students filled the room to standing capacity. 

Some in attendance held signs in protest of Abram’s involvement with the war in Iraq, his conviction for lying to congress during the Iran-Contra scandal, and for his support of coup attempts in South America. 

Associate Professor of Political Science Bruce Rutherford addressed the crowded room to share that Abrams was invited to campus to provide insight and expertise on the latest developments within the Middle East, and he welcomed all student questions in the open question and response portion of the lecture. 

“Mr. Abrams is very well qualified to talk about the Middle East,” Rutherford said of the event co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science Kulla Fund and the Lampert Institute for Civic and Global Affairs.

While national news outlets have placed a spotlight on college campuses when controversial speakers are shouted down or disrupted during planned lectures, students at Colgate intentionally designed their engagement with the speaker to ensure the kind of dialogue that allowed the community to ask challenging and well-informed questions. Abrams was never interrupted during his talk.

Once the question and answer portion of the lecture began, several students asked pointed questions about Abrams’ human rights record, accusing him of sponsoring brutal paramilitary organizations in South America and diminishing genocide in El Salvador. 

Abrams responded to most questions, and often with some historical insight into the decisions that were made. At other times he pushed back on assertions that his actions led to deadly outcomes. 

Colgate publicly committed to open debate on campus in 2018. At that time, the University faculty, the Board of Trustees, and the Student Government Association voted unanimously to embrace a statement on academic freedom and freedom of expression as a standard in support of open and honest dialogue on campus.