We recently discussed the cancelling of Dorian Abbot, an associate professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, who was prevented from speaking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The reason was not the merits of his scientific work but his opposition to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs. Now, a climate physicist at Berkeley has resigned in protest of his colleagues also blocking Abbot from speaking. Professor David Romps said in a Twitter thread that he resigned as director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center rather than participate in such censorship of a fellow academic. With many academics fearful of the backlash over supporting free speech or academic freedom, Romps’ resignation was an increasingly rare profile in courage.
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.
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.”
None of this, of course, has to do with Abbot’s scientific research. However, his MIT address was cancelled and some other academics heralded the decision to bar him due to his views on DEI. (Abbot later spoke at Princeton to a large gathering).
That brings us to Berkeley. Romps was shocked when his colleagues also blocked Abbot. In his posting, Romps stated
“I hold BASC and its faculty – my friends and colleagues – in the highest regard, and so it has been a great honor to serve as BASC’s director these past five years. But it was never my intention to lead an organization that is political or even ambiguously so.
…I was hoping we could agree that BASC does not consider an individual’s political or social opinions when selecting speakers for its events, except for cases in which the opinions give a reasonable expectation that members of our community would be treated with disrespect … Excluding people because of their political and social views diminishes the pool of scientists with which members of BASC can interact and reduces the opportunities for learning and collaboration…More broadly, such exclusion signals that some opinions – even well-intentioned ones – are forbidden, thereby increasing self-censorship, degrading public discourse, and contributing to our nation’s political balkanization.”
There was a time when such a public declaration would have received widespread, if not universal support from any faculty. There was a time when free speech and academic freedom were the touchstones of higher education. This is not that time.
Academics today work in an atmosphere of intolerance for any opposing or dissenting views on subjects ranging from DEI to police abuse to social justice campaigns. Those who speak out are often targeted by cancel campaigns. The threat is that dissenter will lose everything that academics need to be active intellectuals.
We recently passed the one-year anniversary of the move to force a criminology professor named Mike Adams off the faculty of the University of North Carolina (Wilmington). Adams was a conservative faculty member with controversial writings who had to go to court to stop prior efforts to remove him. He then tweeted a condemnation of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper for his pandemic rules, tweeting that he had dined with six men at a six-seat table and “felt like a free man who was not living in the slave state of North Carolina” before adding: “Massa Cooper, let my people go.” It was a stupid and offensive tweet. However, we have seen extreme comments on the left — including calls to gas or kill or torture conservatives — be tolerated or even celebrated at universities.
Celebrities, faculty and students demanded that Adams be fired. After weeks of public pummeling, Adams relented and took a settlement to resign. He then killed himself a few days before his final day as a professor.
I have taught for decades and I have never witnessed the level of fear and intimidation among faculty in speaking out on controversial issues or even in support the free speech rights of embattled colleagues. There is a conscious effort by many to maintain a level of constant threat that dissenting views on subjects like DEI will be met with the loss of academic privileges, opportunity, and even employment. The Romps resignation is an example of defiance to that rising orthodoxy on our campuses.
There is an effort by alumni to support professors who are fighting for free speech and academic freedom. As discussed in a recent Wall Street Journal column, five alumni groups (at Cornell University, Davidson College, Princeton University, the University of Virginia, and Washington and Lee University) have announced the creation of an organization to stand up for open inquiry. They are the Alumni Free Speech Alliance.
Alumni can play a critical role in filling the void left by university administrators and faculty in the defense of free speech. They supply the critical funds needed by these schools. More importantly, they are organizing to counter the anti-free speech movement on our campuses and across our country.
In the meantime, increasingly isolated figures like Romps remind us of what was once a common article of faith in higher education: academic freedom.