UC Prof Dorian Abbot canceled for a prestigious lecture at MIT after criticizing diversity initiatives

October 5, 2021 • 9:30 am

I’ve written about Dorian Abbot—an associate professor in our Geophysical Sciences Department—twice before. The first time was in November of last year when Abbot came under fire for posting YouTube videos that weren’t in line with the Zeitgeist. As I said at the time:

The (associate) professor is Dr. Dorian Abbot in our Department of Geophysical Sciences 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.

. . . 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).

This being the University of Chicago, and the matter being one of free speech and academic freedom, Abbot wasn’t punished, though many people still wanted to silence him.

On July 8 of this year, Abbot was confirmed as the prestigious Carlson Lecturer in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (DEAPS) at MIT, scheduled for October 21.

My second post on Abbot appeared after he and Ivan Marinovic published an op-ed in Newsweek, “The Diversity Problem on Campus“, in the August 12 issue of Newsweek. It was also an attack on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Unfortunately, the pair ended their piece with a comparison of these initiatives to conditions in Nazi Germany:

Ninety years ago Germany had the best universities in the world. Then an ideological regime obsessed with race came to power and drove many of the best scholars out, gutting the faculties and leading to sustained decay that German universities never fully recovered from. We should view this as a warning of the consequences of viewing group membership as more important than merit, and correct our course before it is too late.

As I remarked about that:

Sadly, at the end, Abbot and Marinkovic sabotage their entire program by comparing American DEI initiatives and their “obsession with race” with another regime, also “obsessed with race”, whose obsession destroyed academia in that country. Yes, it was the Nazis. The authors play the Hitler card! That is a really bad move, and one that undercuts their thesis, since the comparison is not at all valid, if for no other reason that the “obsession with race” went in the opposite direction in Germany: they wanted less diversity. By getting rid of a previously oppressed group (Jewish professors), they lost a huge amount of talent. But DEI initiatives in the U.S. are not trying to get rid of oppressed groups; they’re trying to include them. Whether that will affect academic quality is debatable, but the histories are not at all comparable.

In my view, the Newsweek paragraph, which I see as really unwise and inimical to their point, scuppered their entire editorial.

Regardless, it led to Abbot being the target of two Twitter mobs a month apart, apparently involving many members of MIT’s DEAPS, with participants demanding that Abbot be disinvited as the Carlson lecturer. Here are a few tweets (click to enlarge) expressing outrage at Abbot’s invitation; these are from a post by Chris at Karlstack:

And that’s what happened. On September 28 the chair of DEAPS, bowing to the mob, asked to speak to Abbot on the phone (the chair clearly didn’t want to leave a paper trail). When they spoke two days later, Abbot was informed that his lecture would be canceled this year, and he got nothing further in writing.  Importantly, as Abbot notes in his account on Bari Weiss’s site (below), Abbot’s proposed lecture had nothing to do with DEI: the topic was  “climate and the potential for life on other planets.” But it didn’t matter; the man had rendered himself toxic and had to be canceled.

You can read other accounts of the fracas in Newsweek, Legal Insurrection, Leiter Reports, and an account by Abbot himself on Bari Weiss’s site (click on screenshot below):

My feelings about this cancellation should already be clear from what I’ve written on this site. Canceling the man for exercising his freedom of speech and his academic freedom, after already having invited him to talk on a topic not dealing with controversial DEI matters, is reprehensible. MIT should be deeply ashamed of itself. If the university had any spine, it would re-invite Abbot. But of course it won’t.

Abbot’s been very magnanimous—too much so, I think—about his critics, even tweeting this:

But as you’ll see in his article, he pulls no punches about “cancel culture” demonstrated by his disinvitation.  Here’s the ending of his piece on Weiss’s site.

Do we want a culture of fear and repression in which a small number of ideologues exert their power and cultural dominance to silence anyone who disagrees with them? Or do we want our children to enjoy truth-seeking discourse consisting of good-natured exchanges that are ultimately grounded in a spirit of epistemic humility?

If you want the latter, it’s time to stand up and so say. It’s time to say no to the mob, no to the cancellations. And it’s time to be forthright about your true opinions.

This is not a partisan issue. Anyone who is interested in the pursuit of truth and in promoting a healthy and functioning society has a stake in this debate. Speaking out now may seem risky. But the cost of remaining silent is far steeper.

************************************

Note: Weiss adds this at the end:

Thanks to Princeton Professor (and friend of Common Sense) Robby George, Dorian Abbot’s cancelled lecture will be hosted by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions on the day it was scheduled to be given at MIT: October 21 at 4:30 PM EST.

It will be free to the public via Zoom and you can register at this link.

We hope you’ll tune in.

h/t: Mark

46 thoughts on “UC Prof Dorian Abbot canceled for a prestigious lecture at MIT after criticizing diversity initiatives

  1. Although the Abbot/Marinovic piece’s reference to the Nazis was clearly a poor choice, their point that the preeminence of America’s universities is at stake here is a good one. It feels like it’s at a tipping point right now. There’s still time to recover but, if it goes much further, it won’t come back at all.

    The bipartisan battle against immigration also plays a role in the ongoing diminution of our universities. Bringing smart immigrants into the US to go to college is one of the best things we can do for our economy over the long haul. Many want to stay after college and start companies. Those that don’t go back to their homeland and increase the US’s global soft power. Neither political party seems to realize that or, if they do, are willing to ignore it to pander to the public’s perception that they are coming to take our jobs.

    1. Careful what you wish for. King Hussein of Jordan has a couple of those kids attending school in the Washington DC area. That’s why he purchased some high end real estate there so the kids have a nice place to live. Probably not the smart immigrants you are referring to.

      1. Sure, there are many cases where immigrant college students have gone back to their home countries and done bad things. I suspect that the balance still favors letting foreign students go to school in the US. As Bill Maher says, I can’t prove it but I know it’s true.

        1. Oh we WANT smart students from abroad to better the US or spread our soft power if they go back. People like ME! I came here in 1992 and after staying on now nearly 30 years I’m STILL annoying the hell out of people!

          D.A.
          NYC

    2. Smart immigrants are good, sure. But I think the main battle is over the millions of illegal immigrants coming up from Mexico, South America, Haiti, etc. with no filtering for being smart (and, I suspect, not likely to be of above-average smartness). I’m not aware of much Republican opposition to legal immigration.

      1. Both parties have flirted with being against legal immigration. Here’s a Pew poll from 2018:

        “Still, about twice as many Republicans (33%) as Democrats (16%) support cutting legal immigration into the U.S.”
        https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/06/28/shifting-public-views-on-legal-immigration-into-the-u-s/

        Trump certainly took steps against legal immigration while sometimes pretending he was for it in order to show that he was really, really against illegal immigration. Biden isn’t much better, IMHO, though I suspect he’s not doing much to favor immigration because it would give the GOP an easy target with their “replacement” theories.

        I’m not in favor of illegal immigration but I suspect that those that make it here through adversity are a pretty capable bunch. It must take a lot to uproot their family and leave the culture in which they were born.

      2. I’m not aware of much Republican opposition to legal immigration.

        In that case, I guess you didn’t follow very closely the fate of the comprehensive immigration reform bill of 2013, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support, only to get scuttled in the House by the hardest of hard right Republicans — the same group of recalcitrant reactionaries who drove Republican House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan into premature retirement.

        Guess you also missed how our last Republican president similarly scuttled the compromise he had personally asked Republican senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic senator Dick Durbin to propose because he didn’t want legal immigration from “shithole countries.”

      3. I agree. Trump is an oddity in modern US political history; prior to him, the GOP was definitely in favor of more H-1 B visas, and the arguments were really about how many not whether…with IIRC Dems wanting less than the GOP wanted.

      4. Poor doesn’t mean stupid. People willing to risk everything for a chance to work hard and provide a better future for their children are Americans, even if they weren’t born here.

        1. Yes, back in the 1800s when so many were coming here from Europe and Ellis Island was operating full time I don’t remember any IQ test or intelligence test requirements. Much of the problem now is the color of those coming to America. They are not from Scandinavia as say Trump would have liked.

  2. It’s sad to watch US society unravel at both ends. On the Right, tens of millions are prepared to overthrow the government and install a white supremacist dictatorship, and on the Left probably equal numbers demand such ideological purity that they scuttle any chance of gaining political power, opening paths for the fascists to seize control. Things look dire.

    1. Here’s the polling data that verifies the unbridgeable chasm between Trump and Biden supporters. And you are right – we are on the road to fascism. This is because the Republicans, although a numerical minority, control most state legislatures, the Supreme Court, and possibly Congress after the 2022 election. What we are witnessing is not unique to this country. Relatively small, fanatical, and unrelenting people gain power (sometime through the electoral process) and never willingly let it go.

      https://centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/new-initiative-explores-deep-persistent-divides-between-biden-and-trump-voters/

      1. It’s particularly sad what the average Republican voter believes right now. Sarah Longwell of The Bulwark has a podcast featuring excerpts from her running of focus groups. This one is particularly interesting:

        https://share.fireside.fm/episode/JIKKdTW_+LR-FhheS

        The biggest problem is where they get their information. They really don’t understand how Fox News, etc. is lying to them. It bothers me that the Biden Administration and the Democratic Party does virtually nothing to counter this misinformation. While I accept a certain amount of bias in the mainstream media, they have nothing compared to Fox. It’s as if Biden and the Dems think that “good governance” alone will win the day. These voters won’t ever even hear of it. Perhaps it is time to start packing our bags.

        1. What do you propose they do?
          There are countless fact-checking services, websites, etc. If people want to understand how FOX is lying, the info is out there. Short of violating the 1st amendment freedom of the press and shutting them down, I’m not sure exactly what you expect the federal government to do about it.

          1. Sure, what you say is true of course. However, the reality is that they live in a world in which Fox News is the accepted truth and they think that liberals who say it is lying are themselves lying. This is our reality. They largely don’t perceive that there’s an issue with Fox News. They may acknowledge to friends that it is biased to the Right like MSNBC and CNN are biased to the Left but they don’t realize how unequal this is. Subtle favoritism is different than outright lying about reality. CNN and other non-Fox news outlets strive for the truth. Fox doesn’t.

    2. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear a claim about this white supremacist dictatorship waiting in the wings, or similar. If the term has any meaning, surely it means a belief that whites are superior to all other races and/or that whites should rule over other races. If there are tens of millions of such people, where are they? Who are they?

      Despite media claims that, for example, the January 6th riot was all about white supremacy (as opposed to a belief that the election was stolen), there seems to be approximately zero evidence for that. Which rioters expressed white supremacist views? None that I can see. Out of all those people, they found one guy with a Confederate battle flag and one guy with a Team Auschwitz t-shirt. In neither case did they express white supremacist views, nor did social media searches turn any up; it was just inferred from their attire. But the Confederate flag can have a variety of meanings, such as “rebellion”, that have nothing to do with a belief in the superiority of the white race. Similarly, people wear obnoxious t-shirts for all kinds of reasons other for reasons other than making sincere statements about their political beliefs, and that’s assuming you’re smart enough to divine the actual philosophy behind it. And even if they did find a few actual white supremacists, how can you take the beliefs of a fraction of a percent of a group to be representative of the group as a whole?

      Opposition to mass illegal immigration, or even to all mass immigration, is not inherently supremacist either. (It’s more akin to a desire to be left alone.) Nor is wanting government policies that benefit one’s race or opposing policies that harm it supremacy; that’s just normal identity politics of the kind practiced by the Congressional Black Caucus and various other race-based political groups. (Not that you can actually find prominent people in power calling for policies that benefit whites as a race, like you can for other races…)

      1. White supremacy is a red herring here. Not many explicitly believe “whites are superior to all other races and/or that whites should rule over other races.” Instead, they worry that their way of living is the only real one and that the others are alien usurpers whose goal is to undermine it. It practically amounts to the same thing but calling it white supremacy allows some people to pretend it is a much less prevalent attitude.

        1. I think a more accurate term would be White Nationalists — the rightwingers who’ve now come out of the closet to embrace The Great Replacement. This certainly fits the bill for the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, the Three-percenters, and the other far-right militia groups that played a prominent role in the January 6th insurrection.

          What’s completely lacking in evidence is Donald Trump’s claim that he won a yoooge, landslide election victory that was stolen from him by massive voter fraud. No rational person could believe this Big Lie, just as no rational person could have believed that there was any lawful way to reverse the election results on January 6, 2021 — the date on which the vice-president of the United States was scheduled to perform the purely ministerial task of opening the envelopes and tallying the electoral votes certified by the states in mid-December 2020. (If Trump had succeeded in his efforts to direct Mike Pence to do other than accept those electoral votes on December 6th, it would have constituted a coup against the legitimate executive branch of the United States government.)

          1. Listen to the interviews with right-leaning people. They just don’t look too deeply. If they hear facts that disagree with what they’ve heard repeated from every direction, they look at the source as just the liberals lying as they always do. It’s going to be very hard to break through to them. Trump realized that if you portray everything as us and them then you control the “us” narrative.

      2. Sure, and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, just the South wanting to be left alone. To argue that the Trump insurrectionists don’t include a white supremacist facet is to ignore a lot of what they’re doing and saying. They want a return to pre-civil rights days, really a return to pre-FDR days, because that was when Whites had all the power. That’s the very definition of racism.

        1. Thank you for that perfect reply. When it looks like a duck, and I have nothing against ducks. Saying the republican cult is not racist is like saying Hitler really had nothing against Jews. All the big steal was about was an opening to insurrection and big changes in the states voter laws to insure they win no matter what. Trump knows he cannot win if he does not have control of the vote. It is not how many people vote it is who gets to count the vote.

          1. Exactly, and the voter restriction laws are blatantly designed to make it harder to vote in districts with large numbers of minorities. Which not coincidentally are where all the “recounts” are taking place.

            I live in a red state, and can personally attest to the presence of racist attitudes. It’s true that not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist, but if you’re a racist he got your vote, and that’s probably a good portion of his base.

            A recent survey – I have to look it up – similar to the link above provided by Historian revealed about 20 million Americans were in favor of overthrowing the government and installing Trump, and a larger number believed that the election was stolen and had sympathy with the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt. This gets back to my original point.

        2. Okay, well I’d be interested to see links to statements from January 6th rioters calling for a return to pre-civil rights days or calling for whites to have all the power.

          1. Do you deny that groups such as the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and the Three-Percenters — groups that led the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2001, many of them outfitted in tactical gear and communicating by walkie-talkie (and many of whom have be indicted for the most egregious Jan. 6th felonies) — are White Nationalist in orientation (viz., that their goal is to keep what they deem “white culture” dominant in the USA)?

            Do you believe there was any credible evidence for the Jan. 6th insurrectionists to believe Donald Trump’s lie that his huge, landslide victory in the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from him by massive voting fraud, or that there was any rational basis to believe there were lawful means by which to prevent the 2020 election election results from been made final on Jan. 6, 2021?

          2. I always understood the “Make America Great Again” as a longing for pre-civil rights days. Is there another interpretation?

          3. Did you miss the bit where quite a few well known white supremacists (e.g., Baked Alaska) were filmed participating in the insurrection? There’s a pretty big overlap in the Venn diagram.

  3. It might well have been inadvisable to ‘play the Hitler card’ but calling the other side fascists (left or right) has already passed into modern usage as a commonplace insult.

      1. There was talk about suspending Godwin’s Law during Trump’s presidency. As you are implying, I think we should still adhere to it.

        1. You both make good points about Godwin’s Law but to call it a law is misleading. It is perhaps an aphorism – a pithy observation which contains a general truth. Rather like Pareto’s Law or Sturgeon’s Law. General truths may or may not be true in specific circumstances.

          1. My issue isn’t that. It’s whenever somebody brings up the Nazis, somebody else will claim (incorrectly) that Godwin’s law means their whole argument is invalidated. For this reason, it’s best to avoid comparisons to the Nazis unless it is directly relevant.

  4. “A culture of fear and repression in which a small number of ideologues exert their power and cultural dominance to silence anyone who disagrees with them” is demonstrably already here in academia, and more severe, as I have recalled before, than in the supposedly terrifying 1950s. As other posters have implied, this fact brings up an analogy with the Nazi experience different from the one used by Abbott and Marinkovic. Suppose that German universities in 1933 had been dominated by KPD ideologues like our present DEI authoritarians: the Nazis would not have needed the excuse of a Reichstag fire in order to establish their dictatorship, as the universities’ behavior would present a clearer excuse.

  5. “Canceling the man for exercising his freedom of speech and his academic freedom, after already having invited him to talk on a topic not dealing with controversial DEI matters, is reprehensible. MIT should be deeply ashamed of itself. If the university had any spine, it would re-invite Abbot. But of course it won’t.” – Absolutely spot on.

  6. Yes, their comparison to Nazis was unwise and inaccurate. But being able to say that is the appropriate response–not voting him out of public discourse. Thus, I agree with Ceiling Cat. However, I think he’d have been canceled even without mentioning Nazis.

    MIT’s Chair made an error that scares me. I get frequent emails about DEI from my department. And I have no doubt that I’d not land a faculty job if the right people even found out I opposed canceling Dorian. My school is now requiring unconscious bias training (UBT) through our online portal for all faculty involved in hiring and (I think) mentoring.

    I’m reminded that what distinguishes science from pseudoscience is the willingness to have one’s hypotheses refuted–to hold them up to scrutiny and accept evidence for them only if they survive the cauldron. Activists who push DEI and UBT are pseudoscientists when they ignore ideas they don’t like and smear those who hold them.

    1. DEI training and UBT are reputed to be counterproductive, if indeed so, I have some hope for the not too distant future

  7. We’re deep in the Culture Wars. Sometimes you want to make a point and speak your mind, but be mindful that we really are in a war. This doesn’t mean “keep your head down” at all times, but pick your battles and choice of weapons (in this case, words) carefully. As Jerry has pointed out, better comparisons could have been made at the end of that Newsweek article. From a public relations point of view, was Prof. Abbot really trying to change people’s minds, or just wave a flag, perhaps his own virtue signaling? It’s his right, but it’s not smart if he’s really trying to change opinion, at least among people in the middle, as it were.

  8. I realize that it’s fashionable to denounce FOX whenever any discussion addresses biased news but in my personal experience the most insane and insular opinions I’ve seen come from self identified liberals who loudly proclaim their own informational purity.

    If it doesn’t come from an approved source it’s disregarded and if a source doesn’t stay in the proper lane it’ll be denounced as “alt-right” at the very least

  9. Playing the Hitler card is something that has always struck me as hopelessly stupid. I find my view of this coloured by the fact that he thought that playing the Hitler card was somehow an intelligent thing to do.

    Nevertheless, he should not have been disinvited, even though he said that hopelessly stupid thing and thought that it was intelligent.

  10. I am glad that his lecture will be going ahead but I will not be tuning in because expecting any clear thinking from someone who apparently regards Hitler comparisons as the height of intellectual rigour is like expecting good building tips from someone you have seen trying to loosen a screw with a chisel.

    1. I feel the same. And really, did they not *edit* their piece before it went to publish in Newsweek, perhaps reconsidering their Nazi Germany comparison? I therefore conclude they really *do* think their comparison is appropriate.

  11. Good post! I’m sick of cancel culture. You would think with all of the academics who’ve been cancelled, they could start several universities themselves which Protect free speech

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