A University of Chicago geophysics professor who was scheduled to deliver a prestigious lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will instead give his talk online under the auspices of Princeton University after MIT cancelled the lecture following a backlash against his political views.
Dorian Abbot was supposed to talk about whether the climate of planets outside the earth’s solar system could sustain life. But Abbot’s outspoken criticism of colleges’ efforts to increase campus diversity, a movement often called “diversity, equity and inclusion,” has stirred left-wing outrage, and MIT’s decision to scrub the talk has become the latest flashpoint in the debate over free speech.
Abbot sparked an outcry last year after posting a series of slide shows on YouTube in which he criticized policies intended to combat racism and sexism in university admissions and hiring. Abbot said he approved of the goals, but argued the current policies tended to introduce new biases against men and Asian-Americans. Abbot also wrote about a conservative Christian student at the university who, according to Abbot, was routinely mocked and ostracized because of his religious beliefs.
“I was arguing that we need to treat each applicant as an individual,” said Abbot in an interview. “I also argued that we should be open to every point of view on campus...that was a contentious thing to say right now.”
In response to his comments, about 150 students and faculty at the University of Chicago and other schools demanded that students be allowed to opt out of Abbot’s classes. They also urged that the school “reevaluate” whether Abbot should continue to teach a popular undergraduate course on climate change.
But in 2014, the University of Chicago adopted a policy that protects the right of students and faculty to engage in speech deemed “offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed,” without fear of reprisal. In accord with that policy, the school took no action against Abbot.
In early 2020, Abbot was chosen to give the Carlson Lecture at MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). Begun in 2011, the lectures highlight the latest research in climate science and have featured prominent scholars from top universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
But in an August 2021 article for Newsweek, Abbot and coauthor Ivan Marinovic, an associate professor of accounting at Stanford University’s business school, argued that the diversity, equity and Inclusion movement “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.” Abbot and Marinovic also compared the environment in American higher education with that of Germany under the Nazis, when “an ideological regime obsessed with race came to power and drove many of the best scholars out.”
The Newsweek article generated fresh outrage from scientists and graduate students. A number of them took to Twitter to denounce Abbot’s views andquestion why the planetary sciences department would choose him for such a prestigious lecture.
Abbot said he was notified on Sept. 30 that the 2021 Carlson Lecture had been cancelled.
“We felt that with the current distractions we would not be in a position to hold an effective outreach event,” said a statement issued by EAPS department head Robert van der Hilst.
In a letter sent last week to MIT’s faculty, provost Martin Schmidt wrote that “while all of us can agree that Professor Abbot has the freedom to speak as he chooses on any subject, the department leadership concluded that the debate over both his views on diversity, equity, and inclusion and manner of presenting them were overshadowing the purpose and spirit of the Carlson Lecture.”
As an alternative, van der Hilst has invited Abbot to deliver a low-profile lecture on his scientific work, to be attended only by MIT students and faculty.
“I’m going to say yes,” Abbot said. “I want to continue my relationship with the people at MIT.”
Still, he was stung by MIT’s decision to cancel the high-profile lecture.
“I was given this big honor,” Abbot said. “And because of this Twitter mob, that honor was taken away.”
“We can’t have a situation where a small group of political activists can decide who’s going to get recognition and honors in science,” he added.
Alex Morey, program manager at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the cancellation could set a dangerous precedent.
“Here we have the very faculty that are supposed to be promoting free speech on campus shutting it down as soon as a subset of folks say they object to the scholar’s extramural speech,” said Morey, whose Philadelphia-based group monitors threats to free expression in higher education. “If this becomes a standard. .. that could be very chilling to faculty speech.”
But Phoebe Cohen, one of Abbot’s critics, applauded the university’s decision.
“I did not actually call for the cancellation of the lecture, although now that it’s happened I support MIT’s decision to do that,” said Cohen, an associate professor of geosciences at Williams College and a former researcher at EAPS. Cohen said that arguments like Abbot’s discourage greater minority participation in the STEM specialties — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
”Underrepresented faculty and students have spoken out repeatedly about how harmful this kind of language is, and how it makes them feel like they have no place in STEM,” Cohen said. “I have colleagues who are negatively impacted by this language...I chose to believe them.”
Meanwhile, the James Madison Program in the Department of Politics at Princeton University has come to Abbot’s aid. The program has set up a Zoom lecture hall where Abbot will give the same speech he was to deliver at MIT, on the same day, Oct. 21. On Twitter, program director Robert George said that thousands of people have signed up to watch and he has requested additional capacity from Zoom to handle the large audience.