Over at Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham, WA, 19th-century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley is poised for cancellation in December, for the administration has contemplated (and will surely enact) changing the name of its well known Huxley College of the Environment, listed as one of the Unversity’s “notable degree programs“. In an ill-conceived, erroneous, and poorly written critique of Huxley as a racist, a document on the website of the President of WWU made the case to rename the college. (A better case for renaming was that Huxley really didn’t have anything to do with WWU, but if the name’s there, presumably there was a reason—possibly to honor the man.)
The case for cancelling Huxley is weak, and vanishes when you take into account the good he did. Later in his life he was an abolitionist, reformer of education, and a lecturer on science to working people, as well as a crack scientist. You can read my pieces pieces on Huxley and WWU here, here, here and especially here, which links to Nick Matzke’s terrific defense of Huxley and critique of WWU’s shameful and ignorant cancellation.
Now I’ve learned, from Titania via reader Coel, that a place that was closer to Thomas Henry Huxley—Imperial College London—is also poised to cancel him, according to the Times and Torygraph (articles below tweet).
Thrilled to see that Thomas Henry Huxley has been cancelled.
As a white man, his campaign to abolish slavery was clearly a cynical ploy to disguise his inherent racism.
Huxley is part of a group of biologists who, according to an investigation by Imperial’s “independent history group”, should have buildings, rooms, statues, and academic positions named after them cancelled and renamed. Not only T. H. Huxley has his head on the chopping block, but also W. D. Hamilton, Ronald Fisher, and J. B. S. Haldane, three of the finest evolutionary biologists of the last century. From the Torygraph:
Imperial College London has been told to remove a bust of slavery abolitionist Thomas Henry Huxley because he “might now be called racist”, following a review into colonial links.
An independent history group for the Russell Group university has recommended that a bust of the renowned 19th century biologist, dubbed “Darwin’s bulldog”, be taken down and the Huxley Building on campus renamed.
The group of 21 academics was launched in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests last year to address Imperial’s “links to the British Empire” and build a “fully inclusive organisation”.
Imperial’s links to the British Empire? Imperial WAS PART OF the British Empire! But wait! There’s more!
Its final report, published on Tuesday, said that three buildings and lecture rooms named after influential figures should be changed, along with the removal or redesign of two statues.
One is the Huxley building and a sculpture honouring the anthropologist Huxley, who helped form Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and first suggested that birds may be closely related to dinosaurs.
Huxley was a vocal slave abolitionist, but the Imperial report said his paper, Emancipation – Black and White, “espouses a racial hierarchy of intelligence” which helped feed ideas around eugenics, which “falls far short of Imperial’s modern values”.
Yes, anybody who falls short of Imperial’s modern values (do they accept all the tenets of Black Lives Matter?) must be removed forthwith and their memory effaced. And remember, British ideas on eugenics went nowhere: the UK never practiced eugenics.
There are others to be expunged:
Lecture theatres in the Hamilton Building at Silwood Park named after prominent geneticists such as William Donald Hamilton, Ronald Fisher and John Burdon Sanderson Haldane are also recommended for renaming because of links to eugenics.
The report said that if a building or room is renamed then the reason should be publicly explained via a plaque or a QR code, which can be scanned on a mobile phone.
It said the process of renaming buildings should be seen not as extraordinary but a periodic event that carefully considers “concerns associated with the namesake’s teachings, views, behaviour, etc”.
The group of academics also backed the idea of creating a new museum or “interpretation space” to house subjects and objects removed from other sites on campus with organised tours to discuss the related historical issues.
Here’s the inevitable lie about free speech:
Alice Gast, Imperial’s president, said: “While we cannot change history, we can find ways to clarify what it means, learn lessons from it, and ensure that we are not perpetuating legacies that we find abhorrent.
“We stand for openness, transparency and freedom of speech – and that will define this dialogue.”
No, President Gast, you will define the dialogue, and are doing so by removing those who should be the subjects of that dialogue. As for standing for freedom of speech, well, that’s just a lie, though an obligatory lie.
The saga of Dorian Abbot began quietly on my campus, and when it was resolved at the University of Chicago, I thought that was the end of it. But then, because Abbot had written and made videos criticizing affirmative action and DEI initiatives, he was disinvited from the prestigious Carlson lectures at MIT, where he was supposed to speak on global warming (they later offered him a smaller technical lecture on his work). This deplatforming was picked up by several venues in the conservative media, including the conservative columnist Bret Stephens at the NYT, but I was frustrated that the non-conservative press ignored such an egregious incident of cancellation.
It was especially egregious because Abbot wasn’t going to talk at MIT about DEI or the like, but about global warming and other planets. In other words, he was being punished for saying things in other venues that offended people. More than that: there is a valid debate about the methods of DEI initiatives, though their intent is admirable. I accept the need for some affirmative action as a means of reparation, but others don’t, and none of us should be punished or cancelled for our views.
Now both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have published new pieces on Abbotgate, which you can access by clicking below. The NYT piece is an article by Michael Powell, and seems to me pretty favorable by way of making Abbot seem unfairly treated by MIT. (He’s not biased, but the facts do indict MIT.) The op-ed in the WSJ is by Lawrence Krauss, and also deals with Abbot, further describing how DEI initiatives are stifling science and swallowing up academia. There’s also a piece in Quillette (third screenshot below) that is largely about Abbot.
All in all, MIT has not come out of this looking good. And although the MIT President, Provost, and head of the department that invited Abbot, Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (DEAPS) originally affirmed that yes, the school was strongly in favor free speech, and that Abbot had not really been canceled, but offered another (far inferior!) lecture, now they’re getting more defensive and hostile. Such is the Streisand effect.
I’ll give just the new information from the NYT piece. First, some anti-free-speech sentiments from the head of EAPS, much stronger than we’ve heard previously:
On Sept. 30, M.I.T. reversed course. The head of its earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences department called off Dr. Abbot’s lecture, to be delivered to professors, graduate students and the public, including some top Black and Latino high school students.
“Besides freedom of speech, we have the freedom to pick the speaker who best fits our needs,” said Robert van der Hilst, the head of the department at M.I.T. “Words matter and have consequences.”
The consequences are that you don’t get to talk about something irrelevant to words you’ve said before. And, as I emphasized, though Abbot and a colleague went a bit too far at the end of their Newsweek editorial on free speech, why should criticism of DEI, a perfectly valid philosophical and ethical debate, have such dire consequences? (Abbot notes correctly at the end that “these controversies will have a negative impact on my scientific career”.)
I’m quoted as well after a long interview with Powell, expressing surprise that scientists would get just as wokified as humanities people:
“I thought scientists would not get on board with the denial-of-free-speech movement,” said Jerry Coyne, an emeritus professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago. “I was absolutely wrong, 100 percent so.”
My point was that freedom of speech is taken for granted in science: each of us has the right—nay, duty—to criticize others whose work we think is wrong. I assumed (wrongly) that that scientists’ emphasis on free speech would carry over into politics. Well, I’m neither a politician nor a pundit.
A professor at Princeton asked Abbot to give his Carlson lecture at his school, and that will happen today. But there were other consequences:
The story took another turn this week, as David Romps, a professor of climate physics at the University of California, Berkeley, announced that he would resign as director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center. He said he had tried to persuade his fellow scientists and professors to invite Dr. Abbot to speak and so reaffirm the importance of separating science from politics.
“In my view, there are some institutional principles that we have to hold sacred,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.
His colleagues weren’t persuaded, so Romps resigned.
Now the NYT piece isn’t perfect, for in the two paragraphs below I see reporter Powell trying to imply that science is guilty of present-day as well as past racism:
The history of science is no less marked than other fields of learning by abhorrent chapters of suppression and prejudice. Nazi and Communist regimes twisted science to their own end, and scientists buckled, fled or suffered perilous consequences. Some professors point to aspects of that history as a cautionary tale for American science. In the United States, so-called race science — including the measurement of skulls with the intent to determine intelligence — was used to justify the subordination of Black people, Chinese, Italians, Jews and others. Experiments were carried out on people without their consent.
The worst of that history lies decades past. That said, the faculty at geoscience departments in the United States has more white faculty than some other sciences. Departments have attracted more female professors of late but struggle to recruit Black and Latino candidates. The number of Asian Americans earning geoscience degrees has decreased since the mid-1990s.
Indeed, the worst of that history lies decades past; at present, science departments are lining up in droves to hire good minority candidates. But the second paragraph, at least to me, is a Kendi-an implication that inequities in geoscience departments still reflect racism in those departments. That’s simply not true. It is a “pipeline problem” whose rectification requires a huge and necessary societal effort well beyond DEI efforts on the college and grad-school level.
There were professors who supported Abbot’s cancellation, of course. One is Phoebe Cohen, a geoscience professor at Williams College, who makes an unbelievably dumb statement that I’ve put in bold below:
Phoebe A. Cohen is a geosciences professor and department chair at Williams College and one of many who expressed anger on Twitter at M.I.T.’s decision to invite Dr. Abbot to speak, given that he has spoken against affirmative action in the past.
Dr. Cohen agreed that Dr. Abbot’s views reflect a broad current in American society. Ideally, she said, a university should not invite speakers who do not share its values on diversity and affirmative action. Nor was she enamored of M.I.T.’s offer to let him speak at a later date to the M.I.T. professors. “Honestly, I don’t know that I agree with that choice,” she said. “To me, the professional consequences are extremely minimal.”
What, she was asked, of the effect on academic debate? Should the academy serve as a bastion of unfettered speech?
“This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated,” she replied.
What? Intellectual debate and rigor are signs of toxic male white supremacy? What an outrageously stupid statement! Intellectual debate and rigor are de rigueur not just in science, but in academia as a whole. I mourn for Dr. Cohen’s geoscience students at Williams: are they taught to go with their feelings and emotions instead of “intellectual rigor” when they take her classes?
Finally, we return to the chair of MIT’s EAPS defending the cancelation. I’d be surprised if Abbot takes up the invitation to address his department (my emphasis):
Dr. van der Hilst speculated that Black students might well have been repelled if they learned of Dr. Abbot’s views on affirmative action. This lecture program was founded to explore new findings on climate science and M.I.T. has hoped to attract such students to the school. He acknowledged that these same students might well in years to come encounter professors, mentors even, who hold political views at odds with their own.
“Those are good questions but somewhat hypothetical,” Dr. van der Hilst said. “Freedom of speech goes very far but it makes civility difficult.”
Dr. van der Hilst added that he invited Dr. Abbot to meet privately with faculty there to discuss his research.
What happened to the departmental lecture? Has it been replaced by “private meetings with faculty”? At any rate, yes, students might have been repelled or offended by what Abbot said outside MIT, but they have plenty of recourse. They don’t have to go to Abbot’s lecture, they could picket it outside quietly, or they could use counterspeech. But Hilst even admits that the world is full of encounters with speech you don’t like, so why is Abbot being deplatformed? This is not “somewhat hypothetical”—those are weasel words—but real. So why can’t MIT use the Carlson Lecture as an example?
As for his last sentence, “Freedom of speech makes civility difficult,” yes, it’s partly true but not inevitable, and so what? Violation of civility is not protected by the Constitution, but freedom of speech is.
All in all, I’m pleased that the NYT not only covered Abbot’s disinvitation, but, in describing it objectively, still makes MIT look pretty bad. (I am of course biased, but I am not alone in my feelings.)
Here’s Lawrence Krauss’s short piece in the Wall Street Journal. He’s careful not to go after DEI initiatives in the way Abbot did, but still calls them out for injuring science and causing academic bloat. Click on screenshot:
Just two short from Krauss:
Several years ago, one began to see an additional criterion in advertisements for faculty openings. As a recent Cornell ad puts it: “Also required is a statement of diversity, equity and inclusion describing the applicant’s efforts and aspirations to promote equity, inclusion and diversity through teaching, research and service.” This sort of requirement became more common and is now virtually ubiquitous. Of the 25 most recent advertisements for junior faculty that appeared in Physics Today online listings as of Oct. 15—from research institutions like Caltech to liberal-arts colleges like Bryn Mawr, and even in areas as esoteric as quantum engineering and theoretical astrophysics—24 require applicants to demonstrate an explicit, active commitment to the DEI agenda.
This isn’t merely pro forma; it’s a real barrier to employment. The life-sciences department at the University of California, Berkeley reports that it rejected 76% of applicants in 2018-19 based on their diversity statements without looking at their research records. A colleague at a major research institution, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her students, wrote to me: “I have a student on the market this year, agonizing more on the diversity statement than on the research proposal. He even took training where they taught them how to write one. It breaks my heart to see this.” Other colleagues relate that their white male postdocs aren’t getting interviews or have chosen to seek jobs outside academia.
This is happening not only in universities. Last week the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a biomedical research charity, announced a $2.2 billion initiative aimed at reducing racial disparity, made possible by a contraction in its funding of significant research for senior investigators. The initiative includes $1.2 billion in grants for early-career researchers. Science magazine reports that because antidiscrimination law prohibits disqualifying applicants on the basis of race and sex, the recipients will be chosen based on their “commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” in the words of the institute’s president, Erin O’Shea. How? “Diversity statements,” she says, are “a very promising approach.”
In other words, diversity statements are a surrogate for the candidate’s race, and you can do an end run around illegal race-based hiring by ranking diversity statements. We’ve known this for a while, though.
Beyond these fearful faculty members, and talented would-be scientists who will be dissuaded or excluded from academic research, DEI offices are working to indoctrinate incoming students. This year at Princeton, the New York Post reports, freshmen were required to watch a video promoting “social justice” and describing dissenting debate as “masculine-ized bravado.” If such efforts succeed, a new generation of students won’t have the opportunity to subject their own viewpoints to challenge—surely one of the benefits of higher education.
Critics have likened DEI statements to the loyalty oaths of the Red Scare. In 1950 the University of California fired 31 faculty members for refusing to sign a statement disavowing any party advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. That violated their freedom of speech and conscience, but this is worse. Whereas a loyalty oath compels assent to authority, a DEI statement demands active ideological engagement. It’s less like the excesses of anticommunism than like communism itself.
And now I’ve run out of space (and steam), so I’ll refer you to the article in Quillette (click on screenshot below) by Peter Schuck, the Simeon E. Baldwin Professor Emeritus of Law at Yale Law school. It ends like this:
The MIT fiasco should remind us how much cancel culture has to answer for. Although this culture’s activists are relatively few and its rhetoric is often risible in its hyperbole, its militants on college campuses sometimes have an outsize effect on others: cruelly blighted reputations, perverse policy agendas, stigmatization of moderate Democrats, and much more. But Princeton’s swift response to Abbot’s cancellation by providing an alternative, honored forum also suggests a hopeful, low-cost remedy, consistent with free speech and liberal academic values. MIT should be ashamed of its craven support for bullying—and perhaps other more principled institutions will heed this simple exemplary lesson.
Here we see two college administrators trying to pretend that they were not committing an act of speech suppression when they disinvited a speaker, Dorian Abbot, who had made ideologically incorrect statements before he was invited to speak.
An anonymous comment gave me the link to the public statement below by MIT’s President L. Rafael Reif. Reif was apparently badly burned and defensive after his University disinvited University of Chicago Professor Dorian Abbot from giving the prestigious Carlson Lecture, with his topic being global warming. The disinvitation had nothing to do with Abbot’s talk itself; it came after people on social-media besieged MIT upon finding out that Abbot had made videos and written articles questioning diversity, equity, and inclusion principles (DEI). When it go into the mainstream press, MIT decided it had to respond. You can see Abbot’s account of the fracas here.
See the President’s “explanation” by clicking on the screenshot below, but his letter also links to a related “explanation” by MIT’s Provost, which you can see by clicking on the second screenshot:
The related response from Provost Martin A. Schmidt. My guess is that MIT found it necessary to issue both statements because the disinvitation of Abbot violated the University’s own principles of free speech, got national publicity, including the piece on Bari Weiss’s site but, importantly, in an op-ed in the New York Times by Bret Stephens calling out MIT. (“EAPS” is MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary sciences.)
What is amusing about these “explanations” is their attempt to claim that MIT still retains its principles of free speech. After all, after Abbot’s big and prestigious public lecture was canceled. Instead, the department invited him to give a smaller lecture to the EAPS department: a smaller technical lecture that doesn’t involve the public and is much less prestigious.
What’s equally amusing (actually sad), is that both the President and Provost spend a lot of time apologizing to the MIT students for being on the receiving end of “online targeting and hate mail from outside MIT”, none of which is specified. It’s certain that some MIT students got flak for Abbot’s disinvitation, but most of it must have been directed at the President and the chair of EAPS. If you read both letters, you will find no apology to Abbot himself, but will see plenty of apologies to MIT students and faculty who supposedly got criticized on social media. It is they, not Abbot, claim the administrators, who have been grievously injured. That’s ludicrous. Their explanation is actually an apology to people at MIT who suffered because of the University’s disinvitation.
I’ll give a few quotes from both letters.
First, an apology to the MIT community—not because the school acted badly, but for the “harm” the students suffered:
The controversy around this situation has caused great distress for many members of our community, in many quarters. It has also uncovered significant differences within the Institute on several issues.
I would like to reflect on what happened and set us on a path forward. But let me address the human questions first.
To the members of the EAPS community: I am deeply disturbed that as a direct result of this situation, many of you – students, postdocs, faculty and young alumni – have suffered a tide of online targeting and hate mail from outside MIT. This conduct is reprehensible and utterly unacceptable. For members of the MIT community, where we value treating one another with decency and respect, this feels especially jarring.
Then a lame and unconvincing defense of free speech at MIT:
Let me say clearly what I have observed through more than 40 years at MIT:
Freedom of expression is a fundamental value of the Institute.
I believe that, as an institution of higher learning, we must ensure that different points of view – even views that some or all of us may reject – are allowed to be heard and debated at MIT. Open dialogue is how we make each other wiser and smarter.
This commitment to free expression can carry a human cost. The speech of those we strongly disagree with can anger us. It can disgust us. It can even make members of our own community feel unwelcome and illegitimate on our campus or in their field of study.
I am convinced that, as an institution, we must be prepared to endure such painful outcomes as the price of protecting free expression – the principle is that important.
If they’re prepared to allow free speech that can make members of their own community feel “unwelcome and illegitimate”, why did they cancel Abbot’s public talk? After all, he wasn’t going to say anything that made students feel that way: he was going to talk about global warming! What upset the students was Abbot’s writing and videos on DEI before he was supposed to arrive at MIT.
Then the caveat, “free speech. . . but”. What the following means, as clarified below, is the admission that free speech can offend people, and it’s up to MIT’s administration to soothe the offended:
I am convinced that, as an institution, we must be prepared to endure such painful outcomes as the price of protecting free expression – the principle is that important.
I am equally certain, however, that when members of our community must bear the cost of other people’s free expression, they deserve our understanding and support. We need to ensure that they, too, have the opportunity to express their own views.
They already do, President Reif! They have social media access, a student newspaper, and can give their own talks. No, as you see below the President is calling for more “dialogue” in the wake of this incident, but you can bet your sweet bippy that this will be scripted dialogue that attacks Abbot’s views on DEI. For Abbot’s views are taboo, so I suspect MIT plans a one-sided discussion—in other words, an indoctrination session. Or so I predict, for students on Abbot’s side will be too cowed to express their views.
The “open discussion”:
I believe it is vital now that we engage in serious, open discussion together.
As the provost’s letter described, we will begin with a faculty forum, being planned for the last week of October. Discussion in this working session might address questions like these: Given our shared commitment to open inquiry and free expression, are there further steps we should take to practice it consistently? Should we develop guidelines to help groups in their own decision making? Does the concept need more prominence in our curriculum? How should we respond when members of our community bear the disproportionate cost of other people’s speech?
It will be essential in this overall process to include the perspective and experience of graduate and undergraduate students; I have asked Chancellor Melissa Nobles to work with student leaders to decide the best way to do so.
I have also asked Provost Marty Schmidt, Chancellor Nobles and Chair of the Faculty Lily Tsai to begin immediately assembling a special ad hoc working group to consider the insights and lessons we should take away from this situation. I believe this extremely important topic deserves and will benefit from this kind of thoughtful, deliberative, nuanced approach, perhaps including experts from outside MIT. The themes that emerge from the initial faculty forum will help inform the working group’s charge.
You know, about seven or eight years ago I would have believed this palaver. But now, turned cynical by history and campus culture, I’m pretty sure that the forum will concentrate on the question, “How should we respond when members of our community bear the disproportionate cost of other people’s speech?” And what does it even mean to claim that MIT suffered a “disproportionate cost of other people’s speech”? Whose speech are they talking about—Abbot’s or those who targeted MIT? I doubt that they’ll even discuss how to make speech at MIT more free.
Finally, a few words from Provost Schmidt:
Schmidt explains in more detail why Abbot was disinvited. I’ve put in bold the most important part:
The Carlson Lecture is not a standard scientific talk for fellow scientists. It is an outreach event, open to the public, with a speaker who is an outstanding scientist and role model. Typically held at a major venue away from campus, it is geared to build public understanding of and appreciation for climate science, and to inspire young people to consider careers in STEM. Each year students from local high schools are invited.
The speaker invited in early 2020 was Professor Abbot, an expert in mathematical and computational approaches to planetary sciences.
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.
In a phone call with Professor Abbot last Thursday, Professor van der Hilst conveyed both the decision about the Carlson Lecture and the new invitation. Professor Abbot welcomed the offer to speak, and the department is in ongoing conversation with him to set a date.
It’s important to emphasize that both the department and the Institute respect and support Professor Abbot’s freedom to express his views, as well as the freedom of those who disagree to do the same.
To translate: “Professor Abbot has the freedom to speak about whatever he wants, but his views on DEI expressed elsewhere might cause trouble like shouting and disruption at the Carlson Lecture. So, rather than deal with that, which is our responsibility to prevent, we prefer to let Abbot give a smaller and less prestigious lecture where the possibility of bad publicity is minimized.” And make no mistake about it, Abbot is not happy at the alternative offered him. He is gracious about it, but he’s plenty upset at being disinvited for the Carlson lecture. As he should be! (Read Abbot’s piece on Bari Weiss’s site.)
The last sentence in the quote above is, of course, a lie. Abbot will not even be talking about what he was going to discuss in his Carlson lecture (global warming and other worlds); rather, he’ll be giving a narrower technical talk. This means that he’s effectively been told what to talk about.
Provost Schmidt’s final statement echoes that of the President, apologizing to MIT’s faculty and students rather than Abbot. Get a load of this:
Finally, this situation has been very hard on everyone involved, especially faculty, researchers, students and young alumni of EAPS, many of whom have been subjected to online targeting and hate mail. As a community built on foundational principles of respect and openness, we are horrified by this mistreatment and reject it in the strongest possible terms.
Again we get the trope of online targeting without any examples. “Targeting” (whatever that means) and “hate mail” (whatever that means) are, of course, not reasoned discourse, and may be illegal, but MIT has to realize that to the extent that these issues arose because of MIT’s cancelation policy, they initiated it.
It’s time that MIT learn what freedom of speech really means. In this case, it means not disinviting someone who’s already been invited—especially because it’s certain that the invitee wasn’t going to talk about the DEI stuff that riled people up in advance. It is MIT’s responsibility to monitor such talks so they are not disruptive.
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):
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.
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
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.
So what if the Times of London is a Tory paper? Gender-critical feminist Professor Kathleen Stock of Sussex needs a stalwart defense and they gave it to her. There was NO defense from the Guardian, of course, just a new article about how Stock’s own union (the University and College Union) is investigating her for transphobia, and that Stock feels that her teaching career is “effectively ended”. The Guardian loves that, and they would get rid of Stock if they had the power. They are reprehensible, especially on issues of freedom of speech.
On October 10, in the Hili News, I summarized the campaign against Stock:
Kathleen Stock, a feminist professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, is the subject of a cancellation campaign over her views on gender. Wikipedia has characterized her views thusly:
Stock has expressed gender critical views on proposed reforms to the UK Gender Recognition Act and trans self-identification. She has called for trans women who have male genitalia to be excluded from women’s changing rooms, characterising them as “still males” who may be sexually attracted to women. She has denied opposing trans rights, saying, “I gladly and vocally assert the rights of trans people to live their lives free from fear, violence, harassment or any discrimination” and “I think that discussing female rights is compatible with defending these trans rights”.
For this some of her colleagues and students have started a campaign to get her fired, hyperbolically characterizing her as a transphobe whose views cause “harm”:
In January, hundreds of academics criticised the decision to give Stock an OBE for services to higher education in the New Year honours list.
In an open letter, they condemned academics who use their status to “further gender oppression” and said they denounced “transphobia in all its forms”.
The letter said: “Trans people are already deeply marginalised in society, facing well-documented discrimination, ranging from government policy to physical violence. Discourse like that Stock is producing and amplifying contributes to these harms, serving to restrict trans people’s access to life-saving medical treatments, encourage the harassment of gender-non-conforming people, and otherwise reinforce the patriarchal status quo. We are dismayed that the British government has chosen to honour her for this harmful rhetoric.”
This is what happens when you try to philosophically discuss the issues of rights when people are changing genders. The Guardian article reports that Stock is subject to concerted intimidation and harassment. To its credit, the University of Sussex is defending stock’s right to say what she wants, saying it won’t tolerate “threats to academic freedom.” The discourse on gender has gotten so polarized that even talking about it is taboo unless you agree with the most extreme construal of gender rights.
This article from Today’s Times (I have to use a screenshot because it’s paywalled, but click to enlarge) says what I would say: her views are “hardly inflammatory” and “even if Professor Stock held opinions that were less obviously defensible, she would have an unqualified right to express them.” But you can read it for yourself:
There is of course no constitutional principle in the UK like our First Amendment, but that is no excuse to promulgate censorship in a university. All universities should, I think, abide by the tenets of free expression that the University of Chicago (a private university not required to adhere to the First Amendment) holds as one of its foundational principles.
The Times also recounts the harassment Stock has endured, including threats of violence. She has been advised not to go to campus and to install closed-circuit television in her home. The University of Sussex is still defending her, though hedging it a bit (from the Guardian):
A University of Sussex spokesperson said: “We have acted – and will continue to act – firmly and promptly to tackle bullying and harassment, to defend the fundamental principle of academic freedom, to support our community and continue to progress our work on equality, diversity and inclusion. We care deeply about getting this balance right.
“There are a range of very strong views and opinions held across the university on a whole variety of issues and topics, including how we support our trans and non-binary community particularly at this time.
“As a community, we need to come together and talk about what is happening at the moment and to look at the way forward.
“We will be doing this in the coming weeks and this will be led by our newly appointed pro-vice-chancellor for culture, equality and inclusion.”
Given that Stock is not a transphobe, they should have stopped the statement after the first paragraph.
The Guardian has not and will not defend Stock; they censored one of their columnists for expressing similar views, forcing her to resign. The important thing to remember is that Stock is by no means a transphobe; her views are expressed above and in her Wikipedia article. But because she questions the complete equivalence of transwomen and biological women (ditto for transmen and biological men), she’s being mercilessly hounded. Every university, much less Stock’s own union, should be united in defending her right to express opinions on this matter.
The discussion (or rather, lack thereof) about trans issues has gotten completely out of hand. And so it is up to us to defend whatever views we hold with reason, not with threats, but also to defend the right of our opponents to express their views openly and without fear and intimidation. We should all be behind Stock’s freedom of expression.
I’ve written a few posts about my Chicago colleague Dorian Abbot, who got in trouble here on campus for making YouTube videos criticizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. College members demanded punishment, but that didn’t occur because the University of Chicago considers Abbot’s videos free speech, and we don’t punish that. Abbot continued his attacks on DEI; as I wrote before:
[Abbot] and Ivan Marinovic published an op-ed, “The Diversity Problem on Campus“, in the August 12 issue of Newsweek. It was also an attack on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Unfortunately, the pair ended their piece with a comparison of these initiatives to conditions in Nazi Germany:
Saying that was a mistake, of course, for playing the Hitler card when you’re discussing American DEI is unproductive and invidious. More important, the comparison was inapt, for the Nazis were trying to reduce diversity by getting rid of Jews, while in the U.S. we’re trying to increase diversity.
While I disagree with Abbot on the need to get rid of affirmative action (I favor some of it), I will strenuously defend his right to criticize DEI, which in principle should (but doesn’t) lead to productive discussion, and I oppose any punishment he gets for his views.
One such punishment was the cancellation of Abbot as the presenter of this year’s prestigious Carlson Lecture in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (DEAPS) at MIT, scheduled for October 21. The lecture, as Yascha Mounk’s new Atlantic article notes (click on screenshot below), is intended to “communicate exciting new results in climate science to the general public.” And indeed, that’s what Abbot was going to do: his topic was going to be ““climate and the potential for life on other planets.” But MIT canceled the lecture (by phone) after its students and staff protested Abbot’s views on DEI. Note that his lecture, as I pointed out earlier, had nothing to do with the reason for the social-media campaign.
The disconnect between why Abbot was demonized and the topic of his MIT talk is one reason why Mounk sees this cancellation as different from previous ones—and more dangerous. (He also reports that “in a belated attempt to save face, MIT invited him to give a scientific presentation to a much smaller audience of EAPS professors and graduate students”.) I’m not sure I agree with Mounk’s conclusion, which seems a bit hyperbolic, but I’ll give his reasons briefly below.
Mounk first notes, perhaps by way of lightening some of the opprobrium leveled at Abbot, that most Americans agree with Abbot’s views on DEI:
. . . Abbot’s beliefs about affirmative action, right or wrong, are similar to those held by the majority of the American population. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, for example, 74 percent of Americans believe that, in making hiring decisions, companies and organizations should “only take qualifications into account, even if it results in less diversity”; just 24 percent agreed that they should “also take race and ethnicity into account in order to increase diversity.” Similarly, in a 2020 referendum on affirmative action, 57 percent of voters in California—a very liberal state that also happens to be majority minority—voted to uphold a ban on the practice.
I’m not sure why this is relevant; as Mounk says, “right or wrong.” If you’re an ardent proponent of DEI, then they’re wrong, and what most of America thinks is also wrong. Remember, most Americans once thought segregated schools were okay, but they were wrong, too. Whether Abbot’s views on DEI comport with those of most Americans is interesting, but irrelevant to why he was canceled and why he should not have been canceled. Those who got him canceled are of course holders of minority views.
Mounk eventually gets to the real reason why Abbot’s cancellation was “different”. First, though, he also defends others who have been invited to speak on topics that are related to the lecture, and here I agree with the view that once you’ve been invited, and the inviters have an idea what the person will say, it’s wrong to disinvite them. (Not inviting them in the first place, however, is okay.)
Campaigns to cancel public appearances by controversial figures are in many cases motivated by the expectation that they will express some of their offending views at the event. When violent protests stopped far-right polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at UC Berkeley in 2017, for example, the organizers had every reason to believe that he would repeat his most inflammatory claims.
Even when protesters oppose appearances by controversial public figures who are set to speak on topics that are not in themselves controversial, they normally object to them because there is some connection between a speaker’s controversial views and their general area of professional expertise. Those who oppose talks by Charles Murray about topics that are unrelated to race, for example, argue that his writings on the supposed differences in average IQ between racial groups call his expertise as a social scientist into doubt.
Even though I strongly disagree with Murray’s views on race and find Yiannopoulos to be a trollish provocateur, I have also disagreed with attempts to stop either of them from going through with their talks. As the Yale professor Nicholas Christakis succinctly put it, “There is no right to be invited to speak at a college. But, once a person is invited, a college should never yield to demands to withdraw an invitation.”
Why is that? Largely because it gives the mob the right of censorship over the university folks who asked for the talk, and presumably asking for a good reason. This is an abrogation of free speech. Though the censors are not the government (the First Amendment stricture), they are disaffected people who want to silence a speaker—in this case for his “extracurricular” views. If you don’t want to hear someone who’s been invited to speak, you have better recourses than cancellation: don’t go to the talk, picket it peacefully outside, or organize counter-talks (that would have been hard given that Abbot was speaking on climate change!). Colleges, which should be bastions of free speech, should never suppress invited speech when the social-media mob comes to town.
As for Murray, well, he’s cancelled everywhere because of The Bell Curve, regardless of his topic. I hadn’t heard of people object to him speaking because his views render him incompetent as a social scientist. What I heard is that he gets canceled (and roughed up at Middlebury College) because he has racist views which, say the protestors, are expressed in The Bell Curve. Thus, when Mounk reveals the real reason why Abbot’s cancellation is different and more dangerous, I see a complete analogy to Charles Murray.
Mounk (bolding is mine, as it’s the main reason Mounk sees a difference in this cancellation):
But Abbot’s case is far more shocking than that of either Murray or Yiannopoulos. That’s partly because his opinions are much less extreme. It is also because the views that provoked such controversy are completely unrelated to the subject on which he was invited to lecture. “Omg how did *anyone* in @eapsMIT think this was ok?” read one tweet calling for the cancellation of Abbot’s lecture, referring to MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “As an alum, I’m asking you to fix this—now. Totally unacceptable and sends a message to any student that isn’t a white man that they don’t matter and that EAPS isn’t serious about (and is actively hostile towards) DEI.”
MIT did not rescind its invitation to Abbot in the expectation that he would repeat his views about affirmative action. Rather, he was disinvited from one of the most important research universities in the world because it could not tolerate that a scientist be permitted to speak about his uncontroversial research after daring to express unrelated views that, although controversial, happen to be held by a majority of the American public.
As I said, I think that whether Abbot’s extracurricular views on DEI are held by most Americans is irrelevant. He should have been allowed to speak even if most people didn’t share those views. The only thing that’s relevant is that he was going to talk about what he was supposed to—climate change. It may be relevant that his extracurricular views are a matter of debate—after all, the man is not a Nazi—and that’s even less reason to cancel him. But the sole issue here is inviting someone to give a relevant talk, and then disinviting him as a way of suppressing views he wasn’t going to express in that talk.
Abbot’s cancellation seems to me of a piece with the kind of cancellations going on everywhere. If you’ve expressed unwoke views on anything, you’ll be widely demonized, even if you’re talking about something else, as Murray was going to do at Middlebury. When Steve Bannon was invited to the University of Chicago, people objected violently even though they had no idea what he was going to talk about. (Bannon was not disinvited, but never came to campus.) So I don’t think something new happened with Abbot; it’s a slight escalation of what’s happening everywhere. However, Mounck is absolutely right about the consequences if this kind of behavior continues:
. . . the principle that MIT has effectively established is deeply worrying. For it would, if other institutions should follow the university’s example, amount to a severe restriction on the ability of Americans to disagree with a specific set of beliefs about how to remedy injustice without raising the risk that they might no longer be able to carry on their work, even if it is completely unrelated to politics. In effect, this would create a prohibition on controversial political speech for all academics—and eventually, perhaps, professionals in other highly visible domains.
MIT’s decision is not just another in a long series of campus controversies, then. It sets a precedent that will, unless it is forcefully resisted, pose a serious threat to the maintenance of a free society.
Yesterday I reported on the unconscionable deplatforming of University of Chicago professor Dorian Abbot, who was scheduled to give a prestigious invited lecture at MIT on October 21. The topic of his lecture was to be “climate and the potential for life on other planets”. Abbot was to be the Carlson Lecturer in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (DEAPS).
But Abbot’s lecture was canceled by DEAPS (they had to do it over the phone, not wanting to put it in writing) because Abbot had not only criticized Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives here at the U of C (this caused an uproar), but co-wrote an op-ed in Newsweek making similar points—but also, unwisely, comparing DEI initiatives to Nazi policy on race. This caused the expected social-media storm, largely fueled by people in DEAPS. The cowardly department then canceled Abbot’s talk.
Nevertheless, though I don’t agree fully with Abbot’s views, he has freedom of speech and academic freedom (this is, after all, the University of Chicago), and it’s an abrogation of those values to disinvite him from giving a lecture that has absolutely nothing to do with what people are complaining about. It’s a blot on MIT, for many academics, both liberal and conservative, have criticized MIT’s actions. What is MIT afraid of? Free thought?
The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) is a non-profit organization whose members are dedicated to protecting the rights of faculty members at colleges and universities to speak, instruct, and publish without fear of sanction or punishment. We uphold the principles that are required if scholars are to fulfill their vocation as truth-seekers and colleges and universities are to be faithful to their mission as truth-seeking institutions.
At any rate, the AFA sent out an announcement to its members, which include me, describing a letter it wrote to MIT. Here’s part of the announcement:
PRINCETON, NJ – Today, the Academic Freedom Alliance sent a letter to the president of MIT and the head of the university’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences regarding the disinvitation of University of Chicago professor Dorian Abbot to deliver a prestigious annual lecture on climate science. After publicly announcing that Professor Abbot would be delivering this year’s John Carlson Lecture, the university rescinded the invitation and cancelled the event over controversy surrounding his positions on diversity initiatives at universities.
“I write on behalf of the Academic Freedom Alliance to express our firm view that this disinvitation represents an egregious violation of the principles of academic freedom and an abnegation of MIT’s own stated commitment to freedom of thought,” wrote Keith E. Whittington, chair of the AFA’s academic committee, in the letter to MIT President L. Rafael Reif and Professor Robert van der Hilst. “The Academic Freedom Alliance stands firmly behind Professor Abbot in this matter and calls on MIT to adhere to its academic freedom principles and allow the Carlson Lecture to go forward without interruption.”
. . . Professor Abbot’s disinvitation has attracted attention across the scientific community. Anna Krylov, a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California who has published an academic paper on the perils of politicizing science, said of MIT’s decision, “This is an alarming case of scholarship suppression and censorship in STEM. This cancellation was facilitated by Twitter vigilantes and enabled by the complacency of the leadership of our institutions. Suppression of scientific communications in response to the demands of activists offended by the political views of a scientist threatens academic freedom, undermines the core values of science, and subverts the scientific enterprise. It also threatens our future. How are we to solve today’s societal challenges if we silence scientists because of politically non-conforming views?”
The AFA’s three-page letter can be read and downloaded by clicking on the first page below. The letter ends by asking MIT to reinstate Abbot as the Carlson lecture. Note the last paragraph on the first page, asserting that Abbot’s disinvitation violates MIT’s own principles of freedom of expression. The letter is signed by Keith Whittington, Chair of the AFA’s Academic Committee as well as a Professor of Politics at Princeton. It also refers to the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report about avoiding chilling of speech, a report I’ve often discussed.
For a school with such a high reputation, and based so much on science, MIT is getting unaccountably woke. They’re at the point where they need to hear a three-page lecture on how a good school should comport itself with respect to freedom of speech a thought, a lecture that includes this paragraph:
When universities extend invitations to speakers, it is imperative that they stand behind those invitations and not rescind them under political pressure. Caving in to disinvitation campaigns emboldens those who would seek to suppress the expression of dissenting views and sends a message that universities will not stand up for their own principles and will not protect the campus as a place where ideas can be freely debated. If threatened protests can force universities to cancel events, then vocal agitators across the ideological spectrum will be incentivized to organize themselves to shut down any speech or speaker with which they disagree. This threat is particularly grave when it interferes with activities that are at the very center of a university’s academic enterprise. If the faculty cannot gather to listen to the presentation of scholarly arguments out of fear that some might object to giving a fellow scholar an audience, then the university can no longer fulfill its most basic functions. Universities have a particular responsibility to stand up to such threats.
Such disinvitations would never happen at the University of Chicago (faculty and students here tried but failed to prevent Steve Bannon from being invited to speak, but he never scheduled an appearance). MIT surely realizes that they’re simply encouraging the “heckler’s veto” by caving in to the pressure of Twitter and Facebook.
The University of St Andrews loves Big Brother, for the school is enforcing an invidious form of mind control on entering students. You have to take a “bias test”, and if you don’t conform by answering questions correctly in a test of Wokeness, you don’t get to take classes. Read on.
I got two tweets this morning (below) about what’s going on at the school in the eponymous and historic Scottish town. The first tweet showed a woke phrase underlined, while the second gives most of the full article, which came from The Times of London (it’s paywalled for me, but the link is at the screenshot below.) You can also find the story at GB News or The Daily Fail, which don’t add much information. But good luck trying to find it at the Guardian!
At any rate, you can read most of the story from The Times at the enlarged photo below (click on it twice to read) or a shorter version at The Fail.
Full story here. If the word ‘equality’ no longer means treating people equally what word can we use to mean treating people equally? Or is speaking the concept banned? pic.twitter.com/6iu90zURxm
One student blasted the move, saying it forces them to agree with claims that contradict academic free speech.
She told the Times: ‘I wasn’t happy with it, effectively you had to agree with what they’re saying and these statements weren’t factual things, these were opinions.’
She said it was putting freshers between a rock and a hard place because they did not want to start at the university by complaining.
She added: ‘It seems like they [the university] are pushing an agenda and it appears performative and contrary to academic freedom and freedom of thought.’
I’ll assume that the questions asked of the students are true, although The Fail says that the Uni says the Times report is “inaccurate and misleading”. But the content seems to be correct. Here’s what the Fail says about the University’s response.
A spokesmen for St Andrews University said: ‘The Times report is inaccurate and misleading. These modules have been in place at St Andrews for several years.
‘With exception of the good academic practice training, all of these modules were introduced at St Andrews in response to clearly expressed student demand.
‘Our students pushed for the mandatory consent module, wrote the sustainability module, and were central members of the EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) group which brought in the mandatory diversity module.
‘The modules were developed to align with St Andrews’ strategic priorities (diversity, inclusion, social responsibility, good academic practice, and zero tolerance for GBV) and help develop skills and awareness valuable to life at university, and beyond.
‘In our experience, students recognise the value of these courses, and we have encountered only one complainer in the past five years.’
Note there is no denial by the University of the content of the modules as reported by the Times.
Of course the issue here is not student pushback (what student would object to this?; most are probably self-censoring), and one beefing student may not express general sentiment. Nor is the issue who designed the modules, for in Nineteen Eighty-Four the populace is enlisted in its own oppression.
The issue is freedom of speech and thought, and that is what these modules are squelching. They are enforcing a conformity of thought to which you must adhere before you can even start your studies! You can see what the students are supposed to think: they must acknowledge their “guilt” (inquiries suggest this is “white guilt”). As for “we should treat everyone the same”, in some respect that is true—for moral equality and, with respect to civility, in personal interactions.. But every professor knows that students are unequal in their abilities and some may need extra tutoring or office hours. No professor (this test is for students only) would say that “all students should be treated equally,” as that doesn’t even ensure equality of opportunity. You can see how a question like this is ambiguous and could confuse the students.
And you have to agree with the notion that everyone has (unconscious?) biases and stereotypes. I have no idea what the Dundee and biodiversity questions are about.
Regardless of this parsing, though, having this test administered before starting school, being required to pass it and mouth certain answers, is St Andrews forcing ideology down the throats of its students. The quoted student is much wiser than the University when she says, “It seems like they [the university] are pushing an agenda and it appears performative and contrary to academic freedom and freedom of thought.”
She’s wrong only when saying “it seems like”. No, that is exactly what they are doing. As you see, the creeping rot is on both sides of the Atlantic.
In December of last year I reported (see also here) about how Cambridge University tried to pass a resolution mandating respect for differing views and “diverse identities” (bolding below is mine). This is just one of three resolutions that were similar:
The University of Cambridge, as a world-leading education and research institution, is fully committed to the principle, and to the promotion, of freedom of speech and expression. The University’s core values are ‘freedom of thought and expression’ and ‘freedom from discrimination’. The University fosters an environment in which all of its staff and students can participate fully in University life, and feel able to question and test received wisdom, and to express new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions within the law, without fear of disrespect or discrimination. In exercising their right to freedom of expression, the University expects its staff, students and visitors to be respectful of the differing opinions of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom of expression. The University also expects its staff, students and visitors to be respectful of the diverse identities of others, in line with the University’s core value of freedom from discrimination. While debate and discussion may be robust and challenging, all speakers have a right to be heard when exercising their right to free speech within the law.
As I wrote, I was in good company opposing this resolution (I opposed not the identity part but the opinion part):
Similar restrictions appeared in two other paragraphs of the speech code, and irked writers like Stephen Fry and Nick Cohen, both of whom wrote editorials arguing that “respect” wasn’t the right word. For while one can respect an opponent as a human being to be treated civilly, there is no good reason to be respectful of opinions. Both Fry and Cohen emphasized that the operative word was “tolerance”: one can tolerate both opponents and their opinions—and argue with them if you don’t like the opinions—but you don’t have to give them respect.
And, as I reported, the resolutions were voted down by the University—by margins of between 4:1 and 7:1. This was a victory for tolerance and a defeat for “we must respect all views.” Now Arif Ahmed, a reader in philosophy at Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge, gives a bit of the backstory in a short piece on Spiked (click on screenshot below). And he gives two lessons that are worth trumpeting to all who fight for free speech and against creeping wokeness on campus.
Apparently, the three amendments mandating “respect for others’ opinions” were passed by the College Council, who dismissed the objections of some dons and other university members. This would have become University policy, then, had this not happened:
Many Cambridge dons were concerned about the policy and the threat it posed to academic freedom, though few were willing to say so in public. In any case, the council dismissed the few concerns that were raised in September 2020, without consultation. Rebel academics then had to campaign to force a vote of the whole university.
When that vote finally happened, by secret ballot, the result was a huge defeat for the university authorities: the vast majority voted against the council in the biggest turnout for decades.
The result was in itself evidence of the vast scale of self-censorship on campus. Clearly, concerns about the threats to our freedoms are widely felt, even if they are not widely voiced. And it’s not just a problem in Cambridge. A recent, large survey carried out by the University and College Union found that 35.5 per cent of academics are self-censoring.
I believe the proportion of American students who self-censor is much higher. A 2019 survey by the Heterodox Academy showed that “58.5% of students were somewhat or very reluctant to give their views on at least one of the five controversial topics.”
Self-censorship doesn’t apply with a secret ballot, giving rise to Ahmed’s first lesson. I can’t emphasize how important this is (emphasis is mine):
First, the Cambridge vote illustrated the power of anonymous voting. Academics who wouldn’t publicly voice support for liberal, pro-freedom policies at decision-making meetings might still support them in a secret ballot. If – as the figures suggest – a small and vociferous minority has cowed a liberal but risk-averse majority out of speaking its mind, secret ballots may break this minority’s power. Activist bullies might monopolise what is said out loud at a meeting, but if they can’t see how members vote, they can’t control what members decide. Every time a faculty votes on a change to the syllabus, every time a college votes on whether to invite a speaker, every time a students’ union chooses whether to affiliate to this or that political cause – these questions should be settled not by a show of hands, but by a secret ballot.
This doesn’t apply, however, to the running of student governments, as the students need to know how their representatives vote. That’s why no Congressional votes are secret.
And the second lesson, which we’ve seen at my own University:
Second, it is clear that the senior academics and administrators running most universities are faced with conflicting pressures from students, staff, funding bodies and central government. It is not surprising that in trying to balance these demands, even the most well-meaning vice-chancellors sometimes forget that free speech must be non-negotiable. One possible remedy would be for each university to appoint someone whose job it is never to forget the importance of free speech. Universities should each have their own free-speech officer, whose sole duty is to enforce compliance with the statutory duties on universities to promote free speech. If we cannot stop bureaucracy from growing, we can at least channel its energy in a benign direction.
One example I’ve used on my campus is ex-President Zimmer’s declaration that both the University itself and its academic units, like departments, are prohibited by the University’s Kalven Report from making official political, ideological, or moral statements. The reason is that an official statement in these areas will chill the ability of people like graduate students or untenured professors to oppose its views, much less discuss them. (This policy is of course rare in American colleges—it may be unique!)
Yet, many departments put up those statements on their websites, explicitly violating our own foundational free-speech principles. Despite efforts to have the statements removed (even though I agree with some of them!), they remain up, because, I suppose, there is also pressure on college administrators to not enforce university free-speech policy. I can imagine department heads saying to administrators: “Who are you to tell us what we can and cannot put on our department websites?” Well, the administrators should do exactly that with respect to anything that could chill speech. Conflicting pressures allows the university to explicitly declare these statements inappropriate, but then render the enforcement of that principle toothless. The result is that free speech has waned. No wonder we’ve fallen to #2 in FIRE’s free-speech rankings when we were #1 for so many years.
As Ahmed says, “free speech must be non-negotiable,” even when some parts of a university want to water it down.
I know there are those who dismiss everything written on Quillette as “alt-right”, and won’t read it, but if you’re one of them, you’re doing yourself no favors. The site is not “alt right,” though it sometimes defends conservative positions. But it also criticizes fulminating wokeness and says things that are correct but taboo to say for “progressive liberals.” And it has some good articles. I glance at it about every ten days, though I don’t often highlight it.
This week they’ve made a list of the “best on campus crises,” many of which you’ve read about here. I’ll just list the crises and give the links, which go to the relevant Quillette description, but you may want to weigh in below about which “crisis” is the most egregious. Click on the screenshot below to read the piece. I will make a few comments, and those will be flush left.
Smith College was accused of racism after the police accosted a black student/worker resting in a closed-off lounge (they didn’t know she was black when they were called). Smith’s own investigation showed that no racism was involved, but Smith refuses to admit this repugnant conclusion. Kay also talks about the well known situation of Oberlin College versus Gibson’s Bakery (see below).
I wasn’t familiar with this case, which took place at Brock University in Ontario. This is a mess, involving “indigenization and colonization” efforts, Vice-Provost for Indigenous Engagement Robyn Bourgeois, criticism of her statements, and her attempts to suppress that criticism while portraying herself as a victim.
Haverford is loosely affiliated with Bryn Mawr, and, like Bryn Mawr above, the school melted down after the police shooting in Philly. And Haverford’s President Wendy Raymond not only gave in to some ludicrous student demands, but abased herself with some self-flagellating statements.
A professor was caught on video bemoaning the low performance of black students in her class, which the students and many faculty chose to interpret as a racist statement rather than a statement of frustration about the performance differential between races. (We don’t know what was in the professor’s mind.) The professor, an adjunct, was forced to resign.
The author, Abu-Odeh, is a professor of law at Georgetown, and he follows the incident with a long (and a bit tedious) discussion of the clashes of ideology on campus and throughout the U.S.
Katz is a professor of classics at Princeton, and this article, criticizing a faculty letter, was his “declaration of independence.”
A large group of Princeton professors signed a group letter accusing the school of structural racism and demanding more equity. To me, some of their demands for change are reasonable, but this demand for a Star Chamber to police speech, behavior, and even research and publication wasn’t:
Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.
(There are other demands that seem invidious as well.) The students followed with supporting letters demanding that the Princeton campus police be defunded.
We all know about the dissolution of dignity and liberal humanism at Evergreen State, the worst case I now of in recent years. The article above was written in 2017, and you can read my many posts on Evergreen State here. It’s too familiar to many of us to go into detail; read the piece if you’re unfamiliar with this odious college.
Finally, there’s a summing-up essay by an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Los Angeles.
This describes the “victimhood culture” involved in so many of the incidents above. And remember, don’t think these incidents are limited to campus. We already know they’ve spread widely: into the media, into entertainment, and into politics. As Andrew Sullivan said, “We’re all on campus now.”