The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was set to hold a faculty forum on Wednesday in an effort to resolve an intense dispute over academic freedom after the cancellation of a speech by a prominent scientist over his political views.
Dorian Abbot, an associate professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, had been invited to give the prestigious Carlton Lecture, sponsored by MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and open to the general public. Abbot was slated to speak about the prospects of finding life on other planets.
But Abbot’s selection drew intense opposition from other scholars because of his outspoken opposition to policies aimed at increasing racial and gender diversity at universities. In August, Abbot co-authored an article in Newsweek in which he wrote that the diversity and equity movement “violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment.”
In late September, EAPS announced that it had canceled this year’s Carlton Lecture, but invited Abbot to deliver his talk to MIT faculty and students.
The cancellation has stoked a national debate over academic freedom that has spread well beyond the MIT campus. In a recent letter to the MIT community, President L. Rafael Reif said that students, faculty, and staff “have suffered a tide of online targeting and hate mail from outside MIT. This conduct is reprehensible and utterly unacceptable.”
Some academics have praised the decision to cancel the lecture. Brad Rosenheim, associate professor of oceanography at the University of South Florida, said EAPS did the right thing because Abbot’s opinionsconflict with the department’s official stand on diversity, equity, and inclusion. “It’s almost schizophrenic, in a way, to have a diversity statement and to invite somebody who espouses these views,” Rosenheim said.
The problem wasn’t Abbot’s political opinions, Rosenheim said. Rather, it’s the fact that he has so openly expressed them. “I could invite somebody else who has the same views as Dorian Abbot, but hasn’t written a Newsweek piece and hasn’t promulgated videos of it on the Internet,” Rosenheim said.
The views Abbot expressed in the Newsweek essay “is very harmful to a lot of people who are interested in becoming scientists,” said Dawn Sumner, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Davis. “Students from underrepresented races and ethnicities experience exclusion from what he said,” said Sumner, who holds an doctorate in geology from MIT.
But about 70 MIT faculty members signed a letter saying that the cancellation “casts a shadow on MIT’s commitment to free and open speech, to the diversity of viewpoints and to tolerance.”
Hal Abelson, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science who signed the letter, said he had assumed that the university tolerated strong disagreement. “I thought that’s the way MIT operates,” Abelson said, “so I was really surprised at this.”
Abelson called the cancellation “an insult” and said the university should apologize to Abbot.
“To me it offends any sense of academia, freedom of speech,” said engineering professor Yossi Sheffi, who also signed the letter.
Yoel Fink, professor of materials science at MIT and a drafter of the letter, said that a number of faculty members declined to sign it out of concern that taking a stand might damage their careers. “I think there’s a sense of fear on campus,” Fink said. “I now have to think very carefully about expressing myself.”
The faculty letter called for the university to issue a statement clarifying its policies on “viewpoint diversity, tolerance, and the sanctity of freedom of speech.” In 2015, the University of Chicago issued an official statement promising virtually unlimited freedom of speech on campus. That statement has since been adopted by dozens of other US colleges and universities, including Purdue and Princeton.
But Reif said that a unilateral declaration of university policy wouldn’t be the best way to avoid future controversies. Instead, he proposed the upcoming forum for faculty members to work out a common position on campus free speech.
Reif also asked the university’s chancellor, Melissa Nobles to seek input from graduate and undergraduate students and called for a new working group “to consider the insights and lessons we should take away from this situation.”
The James Madison Program in the Department of Politics at Princeton University sponsored Abbot’s speech, via Zoom teleconference. According to Madison Program director Robert George, several thousand people tuned in to the conference on Oct. 21. Abbot delivered his original lecture and did not discuss the MIT controversy.
“We were honored to be able to uphold core principles of academic freedom and integrity by providing a forum for the lecture,” George said. “We’ve been flooded with messages from people praising the lecture and thanking us, not only for striking a blow for academic freedom and integrity, but also for allowing them to hear a fascinating presentation.”