Academic Freedom Alliance calls out MIT for canceling Dorian Abbot lecture (and a poll)

October 6, 2021 • 9:30 am

Yesterday I reported on the unconscionable deplatforming of University of Chicago professor Dorian Abbot, who was scheduled to give a prestigious invited lecture at MIT on October 21. The topic of his lecture was to be  “climate and the potential for life on other planets”. Abbot was to be the Carlson Lecturer in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (DEAPS).

But Abbot’s lecture was canceled by DEAPS (they had to do it over the phone, not wanting to put it in writing) because Abbot had not only criticized Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives here at the U of C (this caused an uproar), but co-wrote an op-ed in Newsweek making similar points—but also, unwisely, comparing DEI initiatives to Nazi policy on race.  This caused the expected social-media storm, largely fueled by people in DEAPS. The cowardly department then canceled Abbot’s talk.

Nevertheless, though I don’t agree fully with Abbot’s views, he has freedom of speech and academic freedom (this is, after all, the University of Chicago), and it’s an abrogation of those values to disinvite him from giving a lecture that has absolutely nothing to do with what people are complaining about. It’s a blot on MIT, for many academics, both liberal and conservative, have criticized MIT’s actions. What is MIT afraid of? Free thought?

Fortunately, the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), which I’ve described here, has come forward to defend Abbot. The AFA is one of those non-partisan groups, like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, that defends free speech on campus. Their mission statement includes this:

The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) is a non-profit organization whose members are dedicated to protecting the rights of faculty members at colleges and universities to speak, instruct, and publish without fear of sanction or punishment. We uphold the principles that are required if scholars are to fulfill their vocation as truth-seekers and colleges and universities are to be faithful to their mission as truth-seeking institutions.

Importantly, they have a number of big names on their board and a stable of powerful legal advisors that will enable the AFA to bring a lawsuit if necessary. (I’m not sure if it’s warranted in this case.)

At any rate, the AFA sent out an announcement to its members, which include me, describing a letter it wrote to MIT. Here’s part of the announcement:

PRINCETON, NJ – Today, the Academic Freedom Alliance sent a letter to the president of MIT and the head of the university’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences regarding the disinvitation of University of Chicago professor Dorian Abbot to deliver a prestigious annual lecture on climate science. After publicly announcing that Professor Abbot would be delivering this year’s John Carlson Lecture, the university rescinded the invitation and cancelled the event over controversy surrounding his positions on diversity initiatives at universities.

“I write on behalf of the Academic Freedom Alliance to express our firm view that this disinvitation represents an egregious violation of the principles of academic freedom and an abnegation of MIT’s own stated commitment to freedom of thought,” wrote Keith E. Whittington, chair of the AFA’s academic committee, in the letter to MIT President L. Rafael Reif and Professor Robert van der Hilst.  “The Academic Freedom Alliance stands firmly behind Professor Abbot in this matter and calls on MIT to adhere to its academic freedom principles and allow the Carlson Lecture to go forward without interruption.”

. . . Professor Abbot’s disinvitation has attracted attention across the scientific community. Anna Krylov, a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California who has published an academic paper on the perils of politicizing science, said of MIT’s decision, “This is an alarming case of scholarship suppression and censorship in STEM. This cancellation was facilitated by Twitter vigilantes and enabled by the complacency of the leadership of our institutions. Suppression of scientific communications in response to the demands of activists offended by the political views of a scientist threatens academic freedom, undermines the core values of  science, and subverts the scientific enterprise. It also threatens our future. How are we to solve today’s societal challenges if we silence scientists because of politically non-conforming views?”

The AFA’s three-page letter can be read and downloaded by clicking on the first page below. The letter ends by asking MIT to reinstate Abbot as the Carlson lecture. Note the last paragraph on the first page, asserting that Abbot’s disinvitation violates MIT’s own principles of freedom of expression. The letter is signed by Keith Whittington, Chair of the AFA’s Academic Committee as well as a Professor of Politics at Princeton. It also refers to the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report about avoiding chilling of speech, a report I’ve often discussed.

For a school with such a high reputation, and based so much on science, MIT is getting unaccountably woke. They’re at the point where they need to hear a three-page lecture on how a good school should comport itself with respect to freedom of speech a thought, a lecture that includes this paragraph:

When universities extend invitations to speakers, it is imperative that they stand behind those invitations and not rescind them under political pressure. Caving in to disinvitation campaigns emboldens those who would seek to suppress the expression of dissenting views and sends a message that universities will not stand up for their own principles and will not protect the campus as a place where ideas can be freely debated. If threatened protests can force universities to cancel events, then vocal agitators across the ideological spectrum will be incentivized to organize themselves to shut down any speech or speaker with which they disagree. This threat is particularly grave when it interferes with activities that are at the very center of a university’s academic enterprise. If the faculty cannot gather to listen to the presentation of scholarly arguments out of fear that some might object to giving a fellow scholar an audience, then the university can no longer fulfill its most basic functions. Universities have a particular responsibility to stand up to such threats.

Such disinvitations would never happen at the University of Chicago (faculty and students here tried but failed to prevent Steve Bannon from being invited to speak, but he never scheduled an appearance). MIT surely realizes that they’re simply encouraging the “heckler’s veto” by caving in to the pressure of Twitter and Facebook.

Let’s have a poll:

Do you think MIT will restore Dorian Abbot's invitation to give the Carlson lecture?

View Results

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14 thoughts on “Academic Freedom Alliance calls out MIT for canceling Dorian Abbot lecture (and a poll)

  1. Having signalled a virtue (or being willing to accept the signalling of others) there is no upside to reversing your decision. It’s asymmetric social warfare, the ratchet only works one way. For now.

  2. MIT is not “unaccountably” woke. Purdue University, another top STEM university, had to make a conspricuousl change in its hiring practices nearly 20 years ago to accommodate a diversity push (this was before the kind of punishments for violating leading ideology that we see today, however). This was because STEM universities almost always lag behind liberal arts colleges in diversity (today, DEI, which has superseded diversity, which itself had superseded Affirmative Action). It’s pretty clear to me that MIT also does not have enough diversity, either in faculty or enrollment, to match the population at large (which is always the default standard) so they have to be extra careful, not less careful. The big push in STEM today is to use proportionality as proof, in and of itself, as evidence of racism and sexism, but racism is the critical issue. This is how it’s done everywhere else and it’s come to STEM in a big way now. But using proportionality is risky; the real racists and neo-Nazis use the same data but draw different conclusions, as we know.

  3. The existence of the AFA, which was launched in March of this year, is very encouraging. Once upon a time, the American Association of University Professors could be counted on for this mission, but AAUP’s virtually complete abdication of this role is what made the formation of the AFA essential. The AFA’s website notes that initial membership has been by invitation, but applications for membership will be accepted sometime in the near future. I expect to apply the minute that happens.

  4. My reading of this is very simple. Much of pressure to disinvite Prof. Abbot clearly came from (some of) the graduate students in the department. The department chair was terrified of his own students labeling the department a place unsympathetic to minority groups, and so he gave way. And for the same reason, no amount of outside pressure is likely to make him relent – he fears open revolt in his own department.

    1. The key group identifier here is “some of”. My impression is that a small number of stirrers and exhibitionists in any graduate program will use woke activism of this sort to gain attention, and to fill up their time—evidently not fully occupied by work in the field in which they are supposedly doing graduate study. Local student politics, and of course the now ubiquitous DEI committees, are catnip for this group.

    2. How things change. When I was in grad school (not MIT) the undergrads were always pushing some social activist cause (some of which I agreed with, some of which I didn’t), having gatherings and marches etc., while the grad students were largely indifferent. Not much time for social activism when the prof expects to see you in the lab when they show up, and the lights still on in the lab when they’re leaving campus.

  5. We need to stage a competition between college administrators and the former Afghani Army to see who can surrender faster. How is it possible to walk without any spine?

  6. I voted yes accidentally, due to reading the poll question too quickly. I thought it was *should* MIT invite Abbot back. They should, but I don’t think they will. They won’t want to admit they were wrong.

  7. “I believe that good philosophers fly alone like eagles and not in flocks like starlings. It is true that because eagles are rare birds they are little seen and less heard. While birds like starlings fill the skies with shrieks and cries and wherever they settle they fowl the earth beneath them”
    Galileo, 1623

  8. MIT will ‘get’ a change of heart, seeing how they f**ked up and under pressure of reason (and the AFA) of cowardice (for a powerhouse of knowledge) issue another letter signed off by reasoned faculty members declare they were wrong in the first instance and will adhere to the true principles of free speech and expression. Yeah right… like Ken I voted YES for optimism, I don’t want the buggers dragging me down.

  9. The paragraph that our host cites beginning “When universities extend invitations to speakers …” was the one that struck me the most from the letter – along with the quotes from Kalven. Like Ken at #3, I voted Yes (although I’m not holding my breath).

    1. With respect to that paragraph, something that is rarely talked about.

      those who would seek to suppress the expression of dissenting views

      In this case, it is not about suppressing dissenting views, it is about suppressing somebody who has expressed a dissenting view in the past. Judging by the topic, the lecture was going to be all about exobiology and not at all to do with diversity initiatives in universities. It’s the person that is being censored here, not the view. The intent is to make the punishment for disagreeing with the groupthink so egregious that people are afraid of expressing any kind of disagreement.

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