When I went to college at the University of Chicago, we often viewed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as our peer institution on the hard sciences. After all, both schools were composed of socially awkward, clueless geeks. That sense of nerd affinity was lost this week in a controversy over the cancelling of a lecture by Dorian Abbot, an associate professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, after complaints that he has criticized Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs. The cancelling of the event raises many of the concerns that we have previously discussed over the growing intolerance of dissenting views on our campuses — and the retaliation against faculty who challenge a new orthodoxy in our ranks.
Abbot was scheduled to give the John Carlson Lecture in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT on October 21. He received repeated messages from the school that the lecture was going forward even after some objected due to his criticism of DEI policies.
UChicago has always been an island of free speech despite the rising tide of censorship, speech codes, and investigations. It reaffirmed that position with regard to Abbot who faced demands for his termination or punishment for opposing DEI measures and suggesting an alternative. Once again, many faculty and students focused on silencing him rather than responding to his arguments.
Last year, Abbot objected that DEI measures were elevating the race or gender of candidates above their qualifications. He called for the school to reaffirm the long-standing position that academic slots would be filled by the best candidate without consideration to race, gender, or status. The response from “58 students and postdocs of the Department of Geophysical Sciences, and 71 other graduate students and postdocs from other University of Chicago departments” was a letter calling for Abbot to be punished for expressing his views.
Then, to make matters worse in the eyes of the critics, Abbot did not recede into the darkness but continued to state his opinions. In August, Abbot co-authored a column in Newsweek headlined “The Diversity Problem on Campus.” He and his co-author Ivan Marinovic, an associate professor of accounting at Stanford Graduate School of Business, wrote “DEI violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment. It entails treating people as members of a group rather than as individuals, repeating the mistake that made possible the atrocities of the 20th century.”
The two professors instead advocated for an alternative framework called Merit, Fairness and Equality, which would treat applicants “as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.”
That was the final straw. The anti-free speech movement on our campuses seeks to marginalize and silence those with opposing views. They make examples of those who fail to yield and remain silent by taking away conference invitations, publication opportunities, and the other critical elements to a full academic life.
Once the lecture was announced, the same pattern emerged as critics hammered MIT for inviting an academic who holds opposing views. Suddenly the lecture was cancelled and MIT Department Chair Rob van der Hilst reportedly went silent.
The site College Fix detailed academics and fellow scientists calling for Abbot to be canceled or demanding that MIT never again invite an academic with such opposing views. For example, Caroline Morley (@AstroCaroline), Assistant Prof at UT Austin, expressed disgust and told MIT that next time “consider inviting someone who doesn’t hold deeply problematic views on equity in the sciences.” These are intellectuals who are appalled that a professor could still be invited to discuss an entirely separate topic if he holds an opposing view on academic appointments.
The academic flash mob pattern is now all too familiar. Few professors are willing to risk such isolation and shunning. These campaigns take everything of value from an academic if they stand up and express dissenting thoughts. That is why MIT betrayed not just its principles of free speech but academic freedom in cancelling this event. If we allow this mob mentality to take hold, what are we as intellectuals. You do not have to agree with Professor Abbot to oppose such cancellation campaigns.
As free speech advocates, we often support those with whom we disagree. In the past, I have defended extremist views on academic freedom grounds like those of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who has defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence. (Loomis also writes for the site “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.”) I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments “detonating white people,” denouncing police, calling for Republicans to suffer, strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements.
What occurred at MIT this month is a chilling reminder that even a premier institution will yield to anti-free speech campaigns. The problem is that few department heads or administrators want to risk their own careers in standing between a mob and a controversial speaker. The result is cringing obedience to a rising orthodoxy on our campuses.