The problem was created by comments Abbot had recently made on how universities select their staff members and students. In August, Abbot and fellow academic Ivan Marinovic wrote a piece for Newsweek opposing the increasing importance American universities are placing on “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (or DEI).
“Nearly every decision taken on campus, from admissions, to faculty hiring, to course content, to teaching methods, is made through the lens of DEI,” Abbot and Marinovic wrote.
Many American universities use some form of “affirmative action” to boost admissions for students from racial minorities, especially black and Hispanic students.
This focus on racial identity, Abbot and Marinovic wrote, is distorting universities’ focus on academic excellence and individual achievement. Instead, they advocated a regime based on “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”.
They argued that scrapping legacy (family) and athletic admission advantages - which favour white men - would do more for diversity than enforced inclusion.
Abbot’s view clashed with the progressive orthodoxy that universities should take proactive steps to ensure that college campuses are racially diverse. Some were particularly incensed by a reference in his Newsweek article to the purging of academics in Nazi Germany.
Cue the social media storm. Many angry users made sure to tag MIT’S Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) department, which organises the Carlson lecture, in their tweets.
One research scientist, with a PhD from MIT, posted: “omg how did *anyone* in @eapsMIT think this was ok? 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...”
Another MIT alumus wrote: “Imagine being a student/ employee of colour in an environment where someone like this is rewarded w/ one of the most prestigious platforms to speak. The Newsweek article is so disturbing that I had to pause after each sentence. Please fix this @MIT @eapsMIT.”
Abbot knew his lecture was generating heat. But when MIT department chair Rob van der Hilst called him to discuss the matter, he wasn’t worried.
“I thought he was going to say something like, ‘There’s been some silly stuff on Twitter and we’ve informed the students that there are the following penalties for disrupting a lecture’,” he says.
Instead, Van de Hilst told him he was cancelling the lecture because it had become too controversial.
“I was so shocked that I couldn’t speak for a while,” Abbot says. “I had no idea something like that could happen in America ... Apparently, I’m so morally polluted that if anyone hears anything I have to say bad things will happen.”
Six days later, Abbot wrote a piece about the affair for Common Sense, a website run by former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss. The cancellation of his speech, he argued, was “a striking illustration of the threat woke ideology poses to our culture, our institutions and to our freedoms”.
After suffering a backlash for inviting Abbot to talk, MIT was now under fire for disinviting him. “Shame on MIT, once a bastion of free speech,” Stephanie Seneff, a senior MIT research scientist, wrote on Twitter.
In a letter to university staff, MIT Provost Martin Schmidt defended the decision, saying: “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.”
Schmidt said that Abbot was still welcome to come and talk to MIT students - just not to deliver a public lecture.
In a letter to MIT, the Academic Freedom Alliance, a group formed earlier this year to promote free expression on college campuses, said the episode represented an “egregious violation of the principles of academic freedom and an abnegation of MIT’s own stated commitment to freedom of thought”.
Like a mushroom cloud, the fallout from the incident has spread far beyond its original source.
When David Romps, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Centre at the University of California, Berkeley (BASC), read that Abbot’s talk had been cancelled he suggested to his faculty members that they invite Abbot to give his talk at Berkeley instead.
But he faced resistance from his colleagues. When Romps realised that Abbot may never be welcome to speak at the centre, he resigned in protest.
Romps explained on Twitter that excluding academics like Abbot “signals that some opinions - even well-intentioned ones - are forbidden, thereby increasing self-censorship, degrading public discourse, and contributing to our nation’s political balkanisation”.
Keith Whittington, chair of the Academic Freedom Alliance’s academic committee, says the cancellation of Abbot’s lecture has caused such a stir because his controversial views had nothing to do with the subject of his talk.
In fact, outside of academia, the views aren’t controversial at all.
“This is not an instance of someone being exposed as a neo-Nazi,” Whittington says. “He is just a scholar with perfectly normal disagreements about what university admissions policies ought to look like and now there are efforts to silence him as a consequence.”
Abbot points to a 2019 Pew Research poll that found 74 per cent of Americans oppose the consideration of race in academic admissions - the exact view he was excoriated for expressing in Newsweek.
“There’s almost nothing in America that 74 per cent of people can agree on,” he says. “Advocating one of those things was my outrageous offence.”
While some may dismiss a cancelled university speech as a marginal issue, Whittington says it exemplifies an alarming trend that students and academics feel increasingly intimidated to speak their minds.
“This is part of a larger project designed to silence and suppress those who disagree with political activists on college campuses,” he says. “It sends a very chilling message to everybody else.”
Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, says: “If we’ve reached the point where an extremely accomplished scientist cannot speak at a place as supposedly academically serious as MIT because he expressed a political opinion - one that is not even that unpopular on campus and certainly isn’t off campus - then that should be a wake-up call.”
While MIT and Berkeley recoiled at hosting him, Princeton University leapt at the chance to provide Abbot a platform by inviting him to deliver his planned Carlson lecture on Friday (AEST), the day it was originally scheduled at MIT.
Over 8000 people signed up for the virtual event, a huge turnout that Abbot acknowledges was driven largely by anger at his MIT cancellation rather than demand to hear about the potential for life on other planets.
He knows it would be easier for him if he restricted his public comments to geophysics. But he plans to keep speaking out on difficult topics like the role of race in university admissions. “I feel a moral obligation,” he says, “to continue to raise these issues.”
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