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.
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 Change.org 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:
- Clearly and publicly state, without qualification, that cancelling Professor Abbot’s Carlson Lecture was counter to MIT’s values of free speech and expression.
- Re-schedule Professor Abbot’s Carlson Lecture for the general public as soon as possible.
- 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.
- 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 Change.org 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.