A kerfuffle about diversity and inclusion at the University of Chicago

November 29, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Actually, the word “kerfuffle” may not be appropriate here, as this is a pretty serious conflict between, on the one hand, a professor who takes issue with his department’s policies about diversity and inclusion, and, on the other, students and alumni, who, outraged by the professor’s opinion, have taken steps, in a letter/petition, to get the professor severely punished for expressing his views on YouTube.

The whole issue is concisely summarized by my law-school colleague Brian Leiter on his website Leiter Reports (click on the screenshot):

The (associate) professor is Dr. Dorian Abbot in our Department of Geophysical Sciences, who posted four YouTube videos, with slides, taking issue with some initiatives about diversity and inclusion. His talks emphasized the need for a meritocracy rather than “quotas” of minority applicants, and as well as asserting that it’s not the business of universities to promote social justice. Unfortunately, although I watched the videos earlier, Abbot has taken them down, though his slides are still online (see the first sentence of Leiter’s excerpt below). Here’s one slide that was guaranteed to cause problems for him:

Here’s another of Abbot’s slides. (The “Holdomor” refers to the Soviet genocide by famine of the kulaks (rich peasants) in 1932-1933 in Ukraine.

This stuff is guaranteed to anger those who see social-justice work, at present, as one of the most pressings things a university can do in its official capacity. Further, criticizing identity politics, when they’re the predominant kinds of politics on campus, is just not on. The backlash against Abbot was strong and severe (and probably predictable), and is summarized by Leiter below.

Have a look especially at the letter to Abbot’s department from 162 people affiliated with the University of Chicago and Geophysical Sciences (their names are unfortunately blacked out, though I think signers should make their names public). The letter demands all kinds of accounting and punishments for what Abbot did.  These including giving Abbot’s graduate and undergraduate students a way to opt out of his mentorship and teaching, making a departmental statement that Abbot’s videos were “unsubstantiated, inappropriate, and harmful to department members and climate” (the exact “harm” that occurred isn’t specified), and measures like this:

[The department should] Implement accountability measures to address patterns of bigoted behaviour in both the department’s hiring/promotion/tenure process and teaching opportunities. For example, faculty who persistently engage in bigoted behaviour should be prevented from taking on teaching roles, new graduate students/post-docs/staff, and committee responsibilities.

Below is part of Leiter’s post about the issue, and I have to say that I agree with much of it. I don’t agree with everything Abbot said on his videos or in his slides (as I’ve repeatedly said, I favor some form of affirmative action in hiring professors or accepting graduate students), but neither do I agree that Abbot, for exercising his free speech as a professor, and raising issues that do deserve some discussion, should be demonized and punished in this way.

My preferred response, were I a student or faculty member who took issue with Abbot’s claims, would be counterspeech: rebutting them. The anger evinced in the letter to his department seems to me a huge overreaction, but in line with many responses to “anti-woke” stuff on college campuses. But of course the letter-writers have every right to say what they want about Abbot and demand that he be punished. I don’t think he should suffer demonization in this way, as it represents a chilling of speech: if you oppose the au courant ideology, you will be attacked big time, and who wants to undergo that?

I recommend you look at the links. From Leiter, and  note that there’s a petition supporting Abbot’s freedom of speech that you can sign:

You can see the slides that formed the basis for his presentations to his colleagues here,  herehere, and here; his own account of events is here.  I agree with some of what he has to say, and disagree with other parts.  But his views are not “hateful,” “harmful” or out of place in a university that values free discussion on important issues.

For dissenting from “diversity” orthodoxy, Professor Abbot has now been subjected to a disgraceful public denunciation by postdocs and graduate students in Geology (and other UChicago science departments (complete with fictitious claims about “aggression” and “safety”).  The public version of the letter omits the names of the benighted grad students and postdocs.  But some faculty and postdocs have gone public with their delusional responses:  for example, Assistant Professor Graham Slater’s Twitter thread is here  (do review the actual slides to see how unhinged this take is), and the reaction of a geology postdoc at Chicago, Michael Henson (also here).

There is now a petition in support of Professor Abbott here which I encourage readers to sign.

Leiter adds this:

There’s very little extramural speech that ought to have any bearing on hiring or promotion decisions in universities, but open contempt like that above for academic freedom and lawful expression–which are foundational to the academic enterprise–probably should count against someone.  (We’ve touched on this issue before.)  If people like Slater and Hanson carry on like this now, what kind of damage will they do to their departments and disciplines once they have tenure?

I don’t like anyone being punished or demonized for exercising freedom of speech, but the people who will suffer from this are not those who came out against Abbot, but Abbot himself. Perhaps he didn’t realize what a beehive he was entering with his YouTube videos, for much of the country is simply unaware of social-justice conflicts. But freedom of speech is paramount, and if people don’t like what Abbot said, they can avoid him, leave his mentorship (but not his classes, I think!), or criticize him. And that’s as far as it should go. We needn’t call for his head on a platter.

32 thoughts on “A kerfuffle about diversity and inclusion at the University of Chicago

  1. But of course the letter-writers have every right to say what they want about Abbot and demand that he be punished.

    I’m not fully convinced of that. At least in the UK, what you can say about a colleague at work is generally much more restricted than what you can say about a random other person. Generally, if you harass a work colleague or create a hostile environment, then you’re at fault (though I’m not at all expert in employment law).

    1. I don’t think a letter like this, even though it demands unconscionable acts against freedom of speech, constitutes “harassment”. They’d have to be making his life in the department intolerable, and not simply by snubbing him.

      1. I’m no lawyer either, but I can’t help but think that COEL has a point. Concepts like harassment are continually evolving, and one of the selective pressures is the opinion of the (not so general) public. Inundation of university administrations by complaints from students, alumni, donors, etc. who come from outside the Departments of Silliness might be useful.

    2. Can expressing a public opinion about a colleague be considered harassment or creating a hostile work environment in the UK?

      That would seem to constitute quite a restriction on freedom of expression.

      Dr. Abbott volunteered his opinions on a public platform about a matter of public interest. Anyone so doing should be prepared to engage in the rough-and-tumble of public discourse.

      1. I’m not a Brit, but it sure seems to me that if it weren’t for those and similar designations re speech (and sometimes even thoughts), Spike! magazine would have precious little copy.

      2. Yes, in the UK, public speech about a work colleague can definitely amount to creating a hostile environment (and yes, speech at work is generally much more restricted than speech in general). I’ve seen instances vastly weaker than this one be reported to HR. And, for (especially) universities who seem very keen on policing “micro-aggressions”, this one seems a pretty macro-aggression.

  2. “…counterspeech: rebutting them.” Therein lies the problem. Their arguments look far less convincing than their outraged mob shtick.

  3. Whoa, what a minefield of ‘wrongs’ to sort out. Abbott is going to be seen as very wrong by most people in academics, and then there is the performance theater that follows. One could declare that the professors’ statements caused my d*g to miscarry, and it would likely go unnoticed.

    1. I don’t see a big issue with private citizens calling for blacklists (or boycotts, or whatever one chooses to call them) — just as I don’t see an issue with those opposed telling them to take their damned blacklists and shove ’em where the sun don’t shine.

      Blacklists take on a constitutional dimension, I think, where, as with HUAC, the government sticks its beak in the pie.

  4. I don’t get why the twitter thread by Graham Slater is characterized as “unhinged.” It obviously has a particular point of view, but it is expressed quite calmly and methodically. I don’t think it is the only reasonable view you can have, but it is one of the possible views. Nothing about it suggests “crazy talk” to me.

    1. For example, the idea that, while he wants “everyone to have a voice in the conversation”, for Abbott to express his opinion is “an aggressive act”. And the idea that such views cause “tremendous damage” and that people “have been hurt” by them.

  5. Whatever one thinks of Dorian Abbot’s arguments (and I tend largely to agree with them) by mentioning whatever road to perdition he believes a midwest college campus may be headed in the same breath as the Holodomor genocide, he was plainly looking to ruffle feathers.

    Now, like Antoine Roccamora getting thrown off a fourth story balcony through an atrium for giving Marsellus Wallace’s new bride a foot massage, Abbot may not have been expecting the reaction he got, but he damn well had to expect a reaction.

    1. Holodomor, no. But very reminiscent of the re-education camps of the Cultural Revolution (there is a superb novel by Madeleine Thien, _Do_Not_Say_We_Have_Nothing, a Booker Prize finalist, that lays out the ethic that created those places in the most poignant prose imaginable). That, I think, is a much more realistic comparison. And I think it’s reasonable to suspect that those coming after Abbot’s head would have been very comfortable with the Red Guard’s response to dissent and independent thinking—as long as they themselves were on the comfortable side of the barbed wire.

      I signed the petition supporting Abbott and donated towards its circulation—and I hope like hell Zimmer winds up doing the right thing.

          1. So good to see that *some* university admins have backbones. It would have been a particular disgrace if Zimmer had caved, given UChi’s illustrious history of intellectual rigor and independence. Once upon a time that letter demanding Abbot’s cancellation would have been laughable, especially at a place like Chicago, but these days, you never know.

  6. Professor Abbott’s statements are unexceptionable. If follows that the mob is baying for him to be
    blacklisted, and would demand that he be fired if he didn’t have tenure. This lesson will not be lost on
    junior academics without tenure. As I have commented before, the intimidation generated by our
    present atmosphere of MaoCarthyism is far worse than anything in the supposedly terrifying 1950s,
    when I was an undergraduate and inaugurated my own long and ultimately harmless FBI record.

    It might not escape notice that the milder coercive atmosphere of the 1950s emanated form the Right, whereas the present witch-hunts are created by mobs of people who call themselves “Progressive” and thus decidedly on the Left. The mobs of “Progressives” have evidently not thought about the obvious implication of this comparison—but unaffiliated individuals might draw conclusions from it. Maybe this is
    precisely why the supposed terror of the 1950s has been exaggerated in folklore to a mythic scale.

  7. I am reminded of the Sedition Act of 1798, that aroused the most Republican anger. Made it a crime to write, print, utter or publish false, scandalous, and malicious writings that brought the president or members of either house of congress into contempt or disrepute. So much for the first amendment at least for a time. The attacks filled the newspapers and filled the air with vicious attacks on the president and Federal officeholders. The president (Adams) was singled out for being a mock Monarch who was blind, bald, toothless, and querulous and a ruffian deserving of the curses of mankind. Sounds almost like today.

    1. … the Sedition Act of 1798, that aroused the most Republican anger.

      By which you’re referring, of course, to the Democratic-Republican (or anti-Federalist) party of Jefferson, Madison, et al. The Grand Old Republican Party as we know it today wasn’t founded until the 1850s (although even that party, in its current, Trumpian incarnation, would be unrecognizable to old Honest Abe and its other initial adherents).

  8. Actually, I find the party of Jefferson much more like the republican party of today. They were for minimal government, in fact almost none. They hated the Federalist, the British monarchy and wanted America to stay rural and mostly farmers if possible. Just like the Republicans of today they were backward thinking. At times I think Jefferson was as delusional as Trump.

  9. Holodomor was not the elimination of the kulaks. That started with Lenin, and was pushed hard by Stalin in 1929-30, when they were deported to Kazakhstan (if they were not killed). This was not exclusive to Ukraine either.
    The Holodomor was the famine of ordinary Ukrainian peasants in 1932-33. Maybe 4-6 million. It was the result of excessive requisition of grain for exports to finance industrialization. It had nothing to do with identity or group membership (except living in rural Ukraine).

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