The case of Dorian Abbot, a University of Chicago associate professor of Geophysical Sciences, would have been a purely local event: he was locally excoriated by his colleagues for making three anti-DEI videos, and people here called for his punishment. This being the U of C, that went nowhere. As Bret Stephens notes in his exegesis of the affair in a NYT op-ed (click on screenshot below):
Last November, Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, posted a series of slide presentations on YouTube making a case against the use of group identity as a primary criterion in selection processes. He was immediately targeted for cancellation.
So Robert Zimmer, Chicago’s magnificent president (now chancellor), stepped in with a clear statement of support for academic freedom. The controversy evaporated.
Zimmer was a great defender of free speech, and his retirement doesn’t bode well for our campus reputation for free expression. We’ll see if our new President, Paul Alivisatos, a chemist and former Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost of the University of California, Berkeley, can keep our school’s reputation for academic freedom and free speech.
Click below to read.
Abbot’s current prevalence in academic news came from two events, one of his own making and the other not. The first was his co-publication of an op-ed in Newsweek with Ivan Marinovich, “The Diversity Problem on Campus“, which objected to affirmative action in favor of their own proposal, which would accept students and hire faculty solely on the basis of merit. There would be no affirmative action for anyone, including athletes and “legacy students” whose parents went to that school:
We propose an alternative framework called Merit, Fairness, and Equality (MFE) whereby university applicants are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone. Crucially, this would mean an end to legacy and athletic admission advantages, which significantly favor white applicants, [JAC: note that the link to “significantly favors white applicants” for athletes and legacy students refers only to the policies of Harvard] in addition to those based on group membership. Simultaneously, MFE would involve universities investing in education projects in neighborhoods where public education is failing to help children from those areas compete. These projects would be evidence-based and non-ideological, testing a variety of different options such as increased public school funding, charter schools and voucher programs.
Viewed objectively, American universities already are incredibly diverse.
While statements like this are kryptonite to the woke, Newsweek is on the Right and Abbot’s and Marinovich’s statement was actually part of a current debate on DEI. Well, it should be a debate, and is if you look at it as Right vs. Left, but it’s not a debate on the Left, where criticizing DEI initiatives has become taboo.
I didn’t agree with the Newsweek piece entirely, as I favor some affirmative action as a form of reparations, but I vehemently defend Abbot and Marinovich’s right to say what they think without harassment or punishment. (They also kind of scuppered their argument at the end of the piece with a ham-hand comparison of the “obsession with race” of current DEI initiatives with the anti-diversity obsession with race of the Nazis, who wanted to decrease diversity (viz., Godwin’s Law). Abbot then wrote another account of his MIT disinvitation on Bari Weiss’s Substack site.
That got Abbot more attention, but when the excrement really hit the fan was when MIT, which had invited Abbot to deliver a prestigious lecture on climate change, rescinded its invitation after a big social-media outcry, mostly on Twitter. Even the mainstream media took notice of MIT’s cowardice; after all, MIT professes adherence to freedom of speech and thought, and, further, Abbot was going to lecture on climate change, not DEI! His disinvitation was purely a punishment for views on DEI that he had expressed elsewhere. (Abbot has since been invited by a professor at Princeton to give that lecture in a week, and the spineless, yellow-bellied, craven cowards at MIT, realizing their misstep, have invited Abbot to give a smaller and different lecture “on his own work.”
Now Abbot is all over the media, not just in Stephens’s column, but many other places (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). And, if I don’t miss my guess, there is more to come. This is all a consequence of the Streisand Effect started by MIT’s cancellation. Business is booming for Abbot’s Oct. 21 lecture at Princeton:
I'm delighted to report that we've expanded the Zoom quota for Dr Dorian Abbot's Princeton lecture–the one shockingly and shamefully canceled by MIT–and literally thousands of people have registered. It's October 21st (the day it had been scheduled at MIT) at 4:30 Eastern time. https://t.co/sFOPTOxDOZ
— Robert P. George (@McCormickProf) October 10, 2021
MIT shot itself in the foot.
At any rate, Stephens uses l’affaire Abbot to riff on how MIT violated what he sees as the core mission of universities, and offers his solutions to the problem of campus dogmatism. I agree with Stephens only in part. Here’s what started Stephens musing:
I’ve been thinking about all this while reading “What Universities Owe Democracy” by Johns Hopkins University’s president, Ronald Daniels. Full disclosure: I’m on the board of overseers of Hopkins’s SNF Agora Institute, and he is a personal friend. Don’t hold it too much against him: This is an exceptionally important, insistently reasonable, delightfully readable book, even if his views sometimes differ from mine.
Daniels’s core point is that, at their best, universities serve as escalators for social mobility, educators for democratic citizenship, stewards of fact and expertise, and forums for “purposeful pluralism” — the expression and contest of ideas. That’s the role higher ed has played for generations, helping to fulfill George Washington’s dream of schooling that would “assemble the youth of every part under such circumstances, as will, by the freedom of intercourse and collision of sentiment, give to their minds the direction of truth, philanthropy and mutual conciliation.”
Yet on each point, Daniels correctly argues, higher education now falls short. Legacy preferences in admissions perpetuate a system of class privilege at the expense of less-pedigreed applicants. Academic specialization has left universities increasingly indifferent to questions of civics. A reproducibility crisis — i.e., an explosion of junk science — has helped produce a crisis of faith in the trustworthiness of scientific experts and their conclusions.
And, perhaps most serious of all, “an unmistakable pulse of dogmatism has surfaced on campus.” Though Daniels doesn’t think there’s a full-blown speech crisis on campus, he recognizes that something is badly amiss when, according to a 2020 Knight Foundation survey, 63 percent of college students feel “the climate on their campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.”
I agree with much of this, though the bit about “an explosion of junk science” is not largely due to things happening on campuses. Although Stephens doesn’t mention race-based affirmative action here, he’s against as, as you’ll see below. On this I disagree, and I also favor class-based affirmative action as well, something that many universities practice.
But it’s certainly true that nearly all campuses that aren’t religious schools do have a chilling of speech of students who disagree with Left-wing ideas, and students with contrasting ideas tend to keep their mouths shut. They may be the Trump voters of the future.
Here’s how Stephens proposes to solve this “crisis”:
It’s hard to argue with Daniels’s solutions. End, once and for all, legacy admissions. Institute a “democracy requirement” in school curriculums. Enhance openness in science and reform the peer-review process. Curb self-segregation in university housing. Create spaces for engagement and foster the practices of reasoned disagreement and energetic debate.
All essential proposals — and all the more necessary in an era of right-wing populism and left-wing illiberalism.
I agree with all of this, though I’m not sure what reforms Stephens envisions in the scientific peer-review process. I oppose segregated housing for college students, and, in addition, I favor some classes or discussions of freedom of speech for entering college students to go along with the usual dose of woke ideology.
Here’s where Stephens and I disagree:
Still, I’d add two items to Daniels’s list of what universities owe democracy.
The first is an undiluted and unapologetic commitment to intellectual excellence. What spurred Dorian Abbot to action was a comment from a colleague that “if you are just hiring the best people, you are part of the problem.” But if universities aren’t putting excellence above every other consideration, they aren’t helping democracy. They are weakening it by contributing to the democratic tendency toward groupthink and the mediocrity that can come from trying to please the majority.
Because I believe in a restricted form of affirmative action for class and race (and perhaps other groups like veterans), I am not an advocate of pure meritocracy. That would eliminate a large number of minority students, and it’s just not on to have, say, Harvard populated entirely by white and Asian students. I believe that you can have affirmative action and excellence too in many places, though there’s some tradeoffs. In my opinion some tradeoff is worth it. This, of course, must be coupled with root-cause initiatives to offer poor kids and minority kids equal opportunity to achieve—something that doesn’t exist on average and will be much harder achieve. But yes, we owe that kind of reparations. And if they succeed, we no longer will need affirmative action. But societal reform offering equal opportunity is a very long way off.
But I wholly agree with Stephens’s second solution:
The second is courage. Most university administrators, I suspect, would happily subscribe on paper to principles like free expression. Their problem, as in Abraham Lincoln’s parable of a runaway soldier, isn’t with their intentions. “I have as brave a heart as Julius Caesar ever had,” says the soldier of Lincoln’s telling, “but, somehow or other, whenever danger approaches, my cowardly legs will run away with it.” Right now, we have an epidemic of cowardly legs.
Courage isn’t a virtue that’s easily taught, especially in universities, but sometimes it can be modeled. After Abbot’s talk was canceled at M.I.T., the conservative Princeton professor Robert George offered to host the lecture instead; it is scheduled for Oct. 21 on Zoom.
Courage begins with de-cancellation. Wisdom, thanks to books like Daniels’s, can then take wing.
My contempt for MIT is boundless, and has only been increased since, badly burned, they invited Abbot back to give a smaller lecture. They care not about freedom of thought, but about the bottom line. Very few universities can stand up to a woke Twitter mob. The University of Chicago is one, and so is Swarthmore, where the University’s black president, Valerie Smith, politely rejected student activists’ unreasonable demands for reform and “further discussion.” Beyond that, no colleges with spine come to mind.