Bret Stephens on Dorian Abbot and reforming campus dogmatism

October 14, 2021 • 9:15 am

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:

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.

16 thoughts on “Bret Stephens on Dorian Abbot and reforming campus dogmatism

  1. … initiatives to offer poor kids and minority kids equal opportunity to achieve—something that doesn’t exist on average …

    From the point of view of a 10-yr-old (poor, minority) kid, what is it that is hampering them from achieving?

    The standard “left wing” reply would be: underfunding of schools and poor teaching (and possibly teachers who are biased against them).

    But the evidence seems to be (at least in the UK) that what makes a “good” school versus a poorly performing one is predominantly the intake of kids and their peer-group ethos. Thus, as a thought experiment, if you took high-performing and low-performing schools, kept the funding, buildings and teachers the same, but swapped the kids round, then the relative performance would reverse.

    And the evidence seems to be that American schools with a large fraction of minority Asian-American kids from relatively poor families (free school meals) do fine, because such cohorts have a strong pro-education ethos.

    Indeed, saying that “poor kids and minority kids” don’t have equal opportunity while also saying that that “it’s not on to have, say, Harvard populated entirely by white and Asian students” rather gives the game away that neither relative wealth nor being a minority are actually the issue.

    Thus a big factor in all this (not the only one) seems to be where groups have an anti-school peer-group culture and a local-community culture that does not value education as a route to success. I don’t know how to fix that, but affirmative action seems to be mainly a way of papering over the issue.

    1. Agreed. As the much-maligned Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities
      report that came out earlier this year pointed out, Bangladeshi girls in London are performing well at school, but those in the Midlands are not.

    2. Unfortunately, the general attitude of the US seems to be that education is not merely unnecessary but a kind of weakness, a sign of effete sensibilities or something along those lines. And this is part of why we have such a high rate of vaccine resistance and Covid-19 deaths compared to our population.

      1. The attitude to learning at my selective (and nearly all white) grammar school in Kent (one of the few places in the UK to still operate an 11+ system to supposedly send the top 25% of pupils to “more academic” high schools) wasn’t much better back in the ’70s. Knowing stuff and wanting to learn more was the way to attract ridicule and bullying.

        1. “Knowing stuff and wanting to learn more was the way to attract ridicule and bullying.”

          And also occasionally ridicule at home. One of my parents got in a cute little dig at me about “having your nose stuck in a book.” To keep the peace, I resisted replying that it was better than having to endure being involuntarily made privy to the latest tongue-wagging about the sexual activities of various souls in the local Philistine Peyton Place hamlet.

      1. A Columbia University sociologist makes a related argument, that the liberal dominance in academic faculty contributes to the alienation of poor and minority students who are on average more socially conservative than the average white Republican Party supporter. So the results of DEI programs are to discourage poor and minority people from applying and increase the likelihood they will drop out if they do matriculate. Further, conservative state governments use such programs to justify reduced funding to state supported schools which is where most of the minority hiring occurs. He makes the argument that not only are DEI initiatives most harmful to the the very people they claim to help, but are the most beneficial to white, urban, liberal elites. They are therefor, ultimately self serving to those benefitting the most from the status quo (I have left out a lot and he makes the argument better than I do). Would be interested in hearing other opinions on his article.

        Apologies if I have posted this before.

  2. It sure is a complex issue.
    I don’t know how we ever got so mired into legacy admissions, but I’ve thought that legacy admissions was a pretty significant factor in tying alumni to their university, thereby leading to more monetary gifts from them. That surely is a very important revenue stream that universities need.

    1. I don’t know how we ever got so mired into legacy admissions,

      As you say, it’s almost certainly to do with wealthy alumni seeing donations as a means of giving their ‘legacy’ children and edge in admissions.

      In terms of Universities needing this revenue, well you’re probably right that their current budget planning factors such donations into future year planning. But ethically, linking legacy admissions to donation is a pretty clear pay-to-play scheme.

  3. Actually there are many reasons why poverty prevents intelligent children from achieving at the level they could. Unfortunately with the debate stuck on ‘stoopid’ on both sides this is something that is never given any real attention.

    1. That is the problem, with both sides locked into tribalism and sticking to their respective scripts, no resources are being put into actually studying how disadvantage really works and how best to overcome it.

  4. From the point of view of a society, rather than an individual, what is the purpose of education? Is it not to exploit our brains to the fullest for the benefit of that society? Ordinary brains are common, and ought not be wasted, but the best brains are the ones that offer the greatest potential. Any society that admits some of its members to an elite institute of education and does not ensure the brightest are nurtured carefully is denying itself maximal exploitation of a valuable resource. Maybe unfair admission policies based on factors other than merit have already prevented the mind that would have solved climate change, nuclear fusion, space travel – pick your favourite topic – from doing so. That’s a thought that should keep us awake at night.

    1. I think this is a great and very interesting point, not least because it allows us to take this argument a few levels deeper. It allows us to reach into the belly, to understand why affirmative action might be profitable for a society.

      Why stop at unfair admissions policies? What of unfair societal practices that nurtured and strengthened certain groups, while depriving others of opportunities? Aren’t these also mechanisms that prevent the brightest-in-potential from reaching the highest stages?

      By this same logic, and without any data that you also did not provide, isn’t poverty and racial discrimination also depriving us of the best talent at the best institutions? That is, the problem that affirmative action endeavors to solve is two-fold: one of injustice and one of latent potential.

      Speaking of only the latter as the former is a matter of preference – haven’t poverty, racism, discrimination, marginalization and oppression also prevented the minds that would have solved climate change, nuclear fusion, space travel? Isn’t affirmative action attempting to address this suboptimal equilibrium, if imperfectly?

  5. Merit *must* be the primary consideration in university admissions, even as other considerations are necessary to help bring historically disadvantaged students into the system. Why? William Shatner’s amazing journey on Blue Origin is a good example. Logic, reason, and good thinking were needed to get that rocket off the ground and return it safely to Earth. “Lived experience” (the new watchword of the woke) wouldn’t have been able to do the job. One could only imagine what would have happened if merit were not a requirement for membership on the Blue Origin team. I don’t even want to think of what might have happened.

    The same applies to most of the critical problems facing humanity today. Climate change, hunger, the empowerment of women… . All demand the hard work of people of accomplishment and merit. Let’s not dilute our best hopes with people who can’t do the job.

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