MIT proposes its own free-expression statement

September 20, 2022 • 9:15 am

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has no special reputation as a “free-speech” school—not like the University of Chicago, which may be the only college in America that even has a reputation for open speech and inquiry. FIRE has listed 203 colleges in descending order of free-speech adherence, and though Chicago is #1, I doubt that anybody can name #2, which happens to be Kansas State University. MIT, however, has a pretty sad ranking—#120—and isn’t even one of the 87 colleges and universities in America that have adopted Chicago Statement on Freedom of Expression.

Last year, however, MIT became nationally infamous for an odious and indefensible violation of free expression: the cancellation of a prestigious invited lecture supposed to be given by Dorian Abbot, a professor in our own Department of Geophysical Sciences. (You can see my posts on this incident and its aftermath here.)

Abbot was scheduled to give the Carlson Lecture, an MIT open talk whose topic is climate science.  But then the inviters found out that Abbot had been attacked by faculty, students, and postdocs at the University of Chicago for posting four YouTube videos emphasizing the importance of merit in science and questioning diversity, equity, and inclusion principles (DEI). Such behavior, of course, is poison to equity activists.

The protests began in Chicago. As I wrote earlier:

. . . Have a look especially at the letter to Abbot’s department from 162 people affiliated with the University of Chicago and Geophysical Sciences (their names are unfortunately blacked out, though I think signers should make their names public). The letter demands all kinds of accounting and punishments for what Abbot did.  These including giving Abbot’s graduate and undergraduate students a way to opt out of his mentorship and teaching, making a departmental statement that Abbot’s videos were “unsubstantiated, inappropriate, and harmful to department members and climate” (the exact “harm” that occurred isn’t specified).

The letter is now gone, and of course this being the U of C, Abbot wasn’t punished in the least; in fact, President Zimmer wrote an endorsement of free speech inspired by the incident but not mentioning Abbot by name. That’s class! But MIT punished him by disinviting him from giving the Carlson lecture, even though Abbot’s proposed lecture had nothing to do with DEI or any other “sensitive” topic. His topic was announced as “climate and the potential for life on other planets.”

Then the Provost of MIT made things worse by trying to “explain”:

While all of us can agree that Professor Abbot has the freedom to speak as he chooses on any subject, the department leadership concluded that the debate over both his views on diversity, equity, and inclusion and manner of presenting them were overshadowing the purpose and spirit of the Carlson Lecture. Professor van der Hilst, after broadly consulting his community, decided the public lecture should not go forward and that instead the department should invite Professor Abbot to give a campus lecture where he can present his climate work directly to MIT faculty and students.

And both the MIT Provost and President apologized to the students for causing them harm and “harassment” by tendering such an invitation! (Apparently the public didn’t much like the deplatforming.)

Further, Abbot was punished for views he expressed elsewhere and on his own. MIT then offered him a much less prestigious lecture as a sop. Abbot refused, and the result is that he’s now become not only nationally known for this incident, but also a big free-speech advocate. And MIT got big-time negative publicity nationally, with articles about the incident appearing in national media like the New York Times, Newsweek, Inside Higher Ed, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic—as well other sites like Quillette, Legal Insurrection and Leiter Reports. Abbot wrote his own account of the deplatforming that was published on Bari Weiss’s Substack site.

I’m pretty sure that it’s this negative publicity, combined with the hamhanded statements of MIT’s administration, that only now has forced it to cobble together a free-expression statement for the University. The proposal is outlined in this bit of publicity from three big MIT administrators: Cynthia Barnhart, Provost, Melissa Nobles, Chancellor, and Lily L. Tsai, Chair of the Faculty. Click to read:

 

Of course this should have been part of MIT’s principles for a long time, which makes me think it’s a reaction to the bad publicity attending l’affaire Abbot. This becomes clearer in the statement:

Though ideas like free expression and academic freedom may seem clear enough in theory, experience on our campus and across the country has shown that people of goodwill can have substantial disagreement about how to apply them in practice. We saw this last fall with the wide range of views around the Carlson lecture. The sometimes bitter national debate on these issues continues to underscore the practical value of establishing, for our own community, a clear shared understanding of and commitment to free expression and academic freedom.

Unfortunately, this distorts matters a bit. The Carlson lecture and its topic (global warming and life on other planets), wasn’t up for debate. What was debated was Abbot’s views on DEI, which were completely disconnected from his lecture. The debate was really about Abbot’s “wrongthink”, and whether he should be punished for it by withdrawing an invitation.

Well, at least MIT is trying to rectify the situation, and it has proposed a statement of Freedom of Expression that you can see at the link below (click on the screenshot):

It’s a pretty good statement, putting MIT in line with both the Chicago Principles and the First Amendment—to which it isn’t required to adhere since it’s a private school. Here are a few excerpts:

Free expression is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of a diverse and inclusive community. We cannot have a truly free community of expression if some perspectives can be heard and others cannot. Diversity of thought is an essential ingredient of academic excellence.

. . . . MIT does not protect direct threats, harassment, plagiarism, or other speech that falls outside the boundaries of the First Amendment. Moreover, the time, place, and manner of protected expression, including organized protests, may be restrained so as not to disrupt the essential activities of the Institute.

. . . At the intersection of the ideal of free expression and MIT community values lies the expectation of an affirming, respectful learning and working environment. We cannot prohibit speech that some experience as offensive or injurious. At the same time, MIT deeply values civility, mutual respect, and uninhibited, wide-open debate. Controversies over free expression are opportunities for learning rather than occasions for disciplinary action. This applies broadly. For example, when MIT leaders speak on matters of public interest, whether in their own voice or in the name of MIT, this should always be understood as being open to debate by the broader MIT community.

Of course if MIT was really serious about freedom of speech, the “leaders” should not be speaking out “in the name of MIT” about matters of public interest. That chills speech, and at the University of Chicago is almost always a violation of our Kalven Report.

And here’s where MIT more or less admits they screwed up with the Abbot disinvitation:

A commitment to free expression includes hearing and hosting speakers, including those whose views or opinions may not be shared by many members of the MIT community and may be harmful to some. This commitment includes the freedom to criticize and peacefully protest speakers to whom one may object, but it does not extend to suppressing or restricting such speakers from expressing their views. Debate and deliberation of controversial ideas are hallmarks of the Institute’s educational and research missions and are essential to the pursuit of truth, knowledge, equity, and justice.

(Note the invocation of “harm” here, a word that’s been gutted of all meaning by the woke.)

The proposed statement was publicized on September first, but the faculty hasn’t yet voted on it, so there’s time for you, if you’re an MIT faculty, student, or alum, to make your views known. The Tech, the student newspaper, wrote this:

The working group seeks to create a statement endorsed by the faculty; to that end, two online forums will be hosted on Sept. 8 and Sept. 22 for faculty to share their thoughts. Those who can’t attend the forums are asked to share their thoughts at freexresponses@mit.edu

The second forum is tomorrow, and I presume the faculty will vote on the statement fairly soon. You have the email address.

Oh, and shouldn’t MIT apologize to Abbot after they pass this statement?

10 thoughts on “MIT proposes its own free-expression statement

  1. “Oh, and shouldn’t MIT apologize to Abbot after they pass this statement?”

    Indeed they should. Furthermore, they should re-invite him to talk at the same or greater level of prestige. And if he, (understandably) tells them what they can do with their invitation, they should accept that in good grace too.

    1. Duncan Easton: were MIT to re-invite Dr. Abbott in the wake of this battle, I would hope that he would graciously accept. Good sportsmanship isn’t always about being gracious in defeat; it also requires being magnanimous in victory.

      Or, more succinctly: “take the win.”

  2. “Free expression is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of a diverse and inclusive community.”

    I would have thought that free expression was a necessary condition for the pursuit of knowledge and truth. I think MIT has its priorities wrong, and that’s what got them into trouble in the first place.

    1. That leaves out a fascinating intermediary step, whether a diverse and inclusive community is necessary for the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Free expression is definitely a requirement for the latter. I think I’m agnostic about whether the pursuit of knowledge and truth requires a singular/unitary diverse and inclusive community, or whether a diverse and inclusive federation of not-necessarily-just-as-diverse-and-inclusive communities would also be sufficient.

      All of this, of course, hinges on the unspoken assumptions hidden in the buzzword ‘diverse’; it would be diverse to include flat earthers and anti-evolutionists and cats. Limiting science to humans with a scientific worldview (or even limiting it to humans in the first place) is, by its very definition, not totally diverse or inclusive.

      1. I think diverse and inclusive community is necessary for the pursuit of knowledge and truth only if every member is free to say and show why another member is mistaken. By all means include a flat-earther in the geology community: use their views as the example of discarded theories. As long as inclusion doesn’t turn into “different ways of knowing” and lets wrong be wrong, it’s an aspect of the scientific process.

  3. In related news of the academy, Tablet posted two weeks ago a piece entitled “Higher Ed’s New Woke Loyalty Oaths” by John Sailer, while Jonathan Turley has just written about the use of the “heckler’s veto” to disrupt an event featuring a conservative speaker at the University of New Mexico.

  4. After the Abbot disinvitation, some of us alumni started the MIT Free Speech Alliance to try to counter. We have an extensive website at https://www.mitfreespeech.org/ (we’ll have to add this blog’s post to our collection of Abbot links), 900+ members, and received a $500,000 grant from the Stanton Foundation, with which we’re trying to hire an executive director to take some of the load off of us volunteers. We’re generally pleased with the recommendations of the committee that wrote the Statement discussed in Prof. Coyne’s blogpost. Those recommendations are in the full 56-page report at https://facultygovernance.mit.edu/sites/default/files/reports/2022-09_Final_Report_of_the_Ad_Hoc_Working_Group_on_Free_Expression.pdf . But we need to keep moving and keep watching. Reader, if you’re an MIT alum, student, or faculty, connect with us, and tell your friends, please.

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