MIT faculty worried about chilling of speech

November 8, 2021 • 11:00 am

I wrote yesterday about the Academic Freedom Alliance’s concern with colleges making official statements about ideology, politics or morality. The reason they shouldn’t do this is that such declarations impede free discourse by discouraging those who disagree with the statements from speaking up.  If your department has an official statement about the college or the country being “structurally racist”, for instance, what student or untenured professor would disagree publicly? Why risk your degree or your tenure by going up against an official statement? There are the brave ones, but they’re scarce as hen’s teeth.

This is why the University of Chicago bans such statements, though lately they’ve been going up on departmental websites under the radar of the administration.

The same kind of chilling of speech has apparently been at work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), probably exacerbated by the MIT’s disinviting Dorian Abbot, one of my own University’s geophysical scientists, from giving a prestigious lecture after people discovered that he was questioning the wisdom of many diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives of American colleges. (Abbot’s proposed lecture, by the way, had nothing to do with DEI; they were simply punishing him for his extracurricular and “non-woke” views.)

The MIT Free Speech Alliance now has an entire page about the Abbot affair, which also includes a link to all the press that MIT got for its suppression of speech.  Most of it, I was glad to see, was bad press, which shows that Americans sensed a fundamental unfairness about what happened to Abbot.

And somebody took a survey:

MIT, like many universities, has recently turned hostile to free speech, free expression, open scientific inquiry, and viewpoint diversity.  For example, in October 2021, MIT canceled the speaking invitation of leading geophysicist Dorian Abbot for expressing the view, regarded as simple common sense by most Americans, that personal identity should not supersede merit. The barrage of negative press and public outrage resulting from MIT cancelling Dr. Abbot led MIT faculty chair Lily Tsai in November 2021 to poll the faculty on two questions:

  •  60% responded “Yes” to “Do you feel on an everyday basis that your voice, or the voices of your colleagues are constrained at MIT?”

  •  83% responded “Yes” to “Are you worried given the current atmosphere in society that your voice or your colleagues’ voices are increasingly in jeopardy?”

That a large majority of MIT faculty feels that their voices are constrained at MIT reveals a crisis demanding decisive action. The MIT Free Speech Alliance (MFSA), a chapter of the national Alumni Free Speech Alliance (AFSA), was formed to call for such action, beginning by investigating the current climate on campus, and recommending how MIT can restore free speech, open scientific inquiry, and a tolerance for viewpoint diversity.

I don’t know what “Chair of the Faculty” is or does, but it seems prestigious and part of MIT’s administration, so this is no left-wing initiative to make the University look bad.  And the figures do look bad for MIT. When 60% of the faculty think they can’t speak freely, and 83% are worried about that pressure increasing, something should be done. (Note that no sample size is given for the faculty response.)

One thing the MIT Free Speech Alliance urges you to do is this:

 Sign our petition that enumerates first steps needed to restore the values that made MIT a world-class science and engineering research university.

Here’s what they’re calling for:

If we are to believe that freedom of expression is a “fundamental value” at MIT, MIT needs to:

  1. Clearly and publicly state, without qualification, that cancelling Professor Abbot’s Carlson Lecture was counter to MIT’s values of free speech and expression.
  2. Re-schedule Professor Abbot’s Carlson Lecture for the general public as soon as possible.
  3. Formally adopt the University of Chicago of Principles, as have 87 other colleges and universities, to affirm MIT’s commitment to free speech and expression.
  4. Annually re-affirm in writing to faculty, administrators, staff, and students MIT’s commitment to freedom of speech and expression and open inquiry, its importance for any educational and research enterprise, and especially MIT, which aspires to the highest standards of academic excellence.

That seems reasonable to me, although annual affirmation may be asking a bit too much. We don’t do that at Chicago, as we have a permanent page that affirms our “Foundational Principles,” all connected with free speech and academic freedom.

Now I don’t have a lot of faith in petitions to effect change, but I signed it anyway, and if you agree with it, I urge you to sign, too. There are only 100 signatures over there with a target of 200, and that is WAY too few.  So go here and sign on if you agree.

20 thoughts on “MIT faculty worried about chilling of speech

  1. /signed

    I think the petition is an interesting contrast to the usual hijinx. No demands, no occupation of the president’s office, no disruption of classes.

  2. Thank you for boosting the signal on this, Prof. Coyne. As an MIT alum, this is the first time I’ve been ashamed of my alma mater. There are a lot of other angry alumni who are withholding donations this year. Hopefully that will make President Reif change his mind, if principles aren’t enough.

    1. Patrick wrote: “*this is the first time I’ve been ashamed of my alma mater. There are a lot of other angry alumni*”
      As a long-time expat, this only reinforces my decision to live abroad. Unfortunately, the US is not unique in this, and it seems like the mindset is widespread in at least a dozen countries. Fascinatingly, there are some places where this mindset is now being used to empower the ethnic/political/religious majority at the expense of the dissenting minority.

  3. Good concept but not a huge fan of their 4 demands. They seem a bit ‘closing the barn door after the horse has left.’

    How about something along the lines of:
    1. The university will not cancel speakers due to their political positions on race, social justice, discrimination, gender, ethnicity, and the like.
    2. The university will not cancel speakers merely because students say the speech makes them feel unsafe. Dedication to free speech requires permitting opinions that make us feel uncomfortable
    3. The university may still cancel speakers if they expect a speaker to use their platform to incite violent or illegal acts.
    4. The university will not not cancel speakers, however, if students or other potential listeners say that they will commit violence if the speech is permitted. In this case, the University will defend the speakers’ right and ability to speak, and use it’s authority to hold any violent respondents responsible for their own conduct.

  4. Good points Eric. Much better commitments. The University should further resolutely state that the right to free speech includes the right of other audience members to hear the speaker’s arguments and as such, the Univ will not tolerate individuals or groups engaging in the heckler’s veto. Don’t like a speaker? Don’t attend. Anyone actively seeking to disrupt, impede, or halt an invited speaker’s talk (including sabotage of AV, pulling fire alarms, etc.) will be considered enemies of free speech and in violation of their oath accepting the University’s student code of conduct (which include academic freedom and the pursuit of free inquiry) and be disciplined accordingly. Protests of speakers or their speech within planned venues is not allowed and must occur some distance away from a planned speaking event.

  5. I think FIRE should refine this MIT survey and, just like the Univ of Chicago’s principles have been shared and adopted, encourage schools to poll their own faculty to see if they too are experiencing a chilling of free speech. Let the faculties of US higher ed be heard and let all of these spineless college administrators feel the heat by compromising the university’s educational mission by caving to unruly, loud-mouthed, hysterical children who appear unable to formulate a coherent question like an adult.

  6. In complete agreement with Eric and Jimbo above. We should generate a form combining the principles they suggest, and inform every academic institution we are connected with that future donations are conditional on the institution’s adherence to them.

    I think I signed the petition, but after I clicked, the screen changed to something about Facebook and contributing to I now avoid having anything to do with Facebook, despite still having a page in it which I never visit. I created it some years ago, so that the picture I used (one of Arcimboldo’s vegetable faces) would become my official likeness for all other internet sites.

    1. Interesting. I went to St. John’s College in Annapolis, for about two weeks. I had been an exchange student in Germany the year before, so had deferred my spot until a year later, returned as planned, then decided to go back to Europe.

      But that was 1984. My impression: a very cool place by U.S. standards, but I saw no reason to pay the tuition to be with that crowd when I found that people in Europe I had just met by chance were more enlightened.

      What I would really like to see is for everyone on the board of advisors quit their jobs and move to the University of Austin.

      Austin is the capital of Texas, but is rather atypical for Texas, a liberal university town (by Texas standards). But, of course, hopelessly backward compared to Europe.

      1. Hopelessly backward compared to where in Europe? Kathleen Stock has apparently left the University of Sussex because of harassment over her departures from the woke-Trans party line. I spent a sabbatic year at Sussex long ago, and was more impressed by the fish dishes at Wheeler’s restaurant in nearby Brighton than by the enlightened thought at the university, where there were
        patches of both better and worse. As for the continent, consider the Université de Paris VIII, where
        Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze, Irigaray & Co. hatched the melange of Maoism and post-modernism that has done so much in translation (or rather attempted mimicry) for US academic life. [Of course, I understand that things have cooled down a lot at Paris VIII since the heyday of Paris-Vincennes.]

  7. Signed and contributed. I really enjoyed Prof. Abbot’s exoplanet climate lecture given at Princeton, btw.

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