CHICAGO – MIT has invited geophysicist Dorian Abbott to deliver a prestigious public lecture this fall. He seemed like a natural choice, a star in the science of climate change and the question of whether planets in distant solar systems could have an atmosphere conducive to life.
Then there was a wave of angry resistance. Several faculty and graduate students argued that Dr. Abbott, a professor at the University of Chicago, did harm by speaking out against aspects of affirmative action and diversity programs. In videos and copyright material, White Dr. Abbott argued that such programs view “people as members of a group and not as individuals, repeating the mistake that made the atrocities of the 20th century possible.” He said he prefers a wide range of merit-based candidates.
He said that his planned lecture at MIT would not mention his views on affirmative action. But his opponents in science argued that he represented an “infuriating”, “inappropriate” and depressing choice.
On September 30, MIT changed course. The head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences canceled Dr. Abbott’s lecture to read to professors, graduate students and the public, including some of the best black and Hispanic high school students.
“In addition to freedom of speech, we have the freedom to choose the speaker that best suits our needs,” said Robert van der Hilst, head of department at MIT. “Words have meaning and consequences.”
An increasingly fierce debate over free speech and academic freedom on American university campuses has flooded into science. Biology, physics, mathematics: all have witnessed fierce debates over courses, hiring, and objectivity, and some on the left in academia have tried to silence those who disagree on certain issues.
Scientific terms and names that some find offensive have been eliminated in some areas, and there is a growing call for “quotation fairness,” arguing that professors and graduate students should strive to cite more blacks, Hispanics, Asian and Native Americans, and in some cases they refuse to be quoted in the footnotes study those with negative views. Nevertheless, the decision of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, considered the highest citadel of science in the United States, puzzled some prominent scientists. According to them, disputes and disputes, ardent and even violent, are the mother’s milk of science.
“I thought scientists would not support the movement to deny free speech,” said Jerry Coyne, emeritus professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago. “I was absolutely wrong, one hundred percent.”
Dr. Abbott, 40, spoke of his shock when told that his performance was canceled. “I really didn’t know what to say,” he said in an interview at his Chicago apartment. “We are not going to do science as best we can if we are ideologically constrained.”
This is a discussion in which academics are actively involved. No sooner had MIT canceled his talk than Robert P. George, director of James Madison’s Princeton Program on American Ideals and Institutions, invited him to speak there on Thursday, the day of the canceled lecture. Dr. George is a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance, which promotes academic debate.
“Massachusetts Institute of Technology has disgracefully surrendered to a politically motivated campaign,” said Dr. George. “This is part of a broader trend of politicizing science.”
The story took another turn this week when David Romps, professor of climate physics at the University of California, Berkeley, announced that he was stepping down as director of the Berkeley Center for Atmospheric Sciences. He said he was trying to convince his fellow scientists and professors to invite Dr. Abbott to speak and thus reaffirm the importance of separating science from politics.
“In my opinion, there are some institutional principles that we must sacredly honor,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.
The history of science is no less marked than other fields of science by hideous chapters of suppression and prejudice. The Nazi and communist regimes distorted science to their advantage, and scientists retreated, fled, or suffered dangerous consequences. Several professors point to certain aspects of this story as a warning to American science. In the United States, so-called racial science – including the measurement of skulls to determine intelligence – has been used to justify the subjugation of blacks, Chinese, Italians, Jews, and others. Experiments were carried out on humans without their consent.
The worst thing in this story is decades ago. However, the geosciences departments in the United States have more white professors than some other sciences. Recently, departments have attracted more female professors, but are struggling to find candidates from among blacks and Hispanics. The number of Asian Americans with degrees in geosciences has declined since the mid-1990s.
The controversy surrounding the cancellation of Dr. Abbott’s speech also highlights tensions in progressive circles between social justice and free speech. Some educators have concluded that identity and racial inequality are more relevant than questions of silence.
Phoebe A. Cohen is professor of earth sciences and chair of department at Williams College and one of many who have expressed anger on Twitter over MIT’s decision to invite Dr. Abbott to speak, given his past opposition to affirmative action.
Dr. Cohen agreed that Dr. Abbott’s views mirrored those widely held in American society. Ideally, a university should not invite speakers who do not share its values for diversity and affirmative action, she said. She was not happy with the offer from MIT to let him later speak to MIT professors. “To be honest, I don’t know if I agree with this choice,” she said. “For me, the professional consequences are extremely minimal.”
She was asked how this affects academic debate? Should the academy serve as a bulwark for unimpeded speech?
“This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism came from a world dominated by white people,” she replied.
Stephon Alexander, professor of theoretical physics at Brown University and author of Fear of the Black Universe: An Outsider’s Guide to the Future of Physics, said he was not familiar with the intricacies of the story, but noted that we live in a highly polarized world. “The question,” he said, “is whether we play with this culture or find constructive dialogue and perhaps show a little compassion.
“Space for discussion and nuance is what a university is.”
This struggle did not surprise Dr. Abbott, who described his policies as centrist. Born in Maine, he attended Harvard, entered the University of Chicago on a fellowship, and became a tenured professor. He said he found a university in Chicago that remains a leader in upholding the values of free speech, even though he noticed that colleagues and students often fell silent when certain problems arose.
Dr. Abbott said his department talked about limiting the search for teachers to female candidates and “under-represented minorities” – with the exception of Asians. He opposed this.
“Asians are not a privileged group,” he said. “It reminded me of the quotas that were used to restrict Jewish students decades ago.”
He also spoke about the lack of ideological diversity, noting that the conservative Christian student was persecuted and made to feel out of place in a harsh ideological atmosphere. Last year, he outlined his thoughts in videos and posted them on YouTube.
Loud complaints followed: about 150 graduate students, most of whom were from the University of Chicago, and several professors from other countries signed a letter to the Geophysics Department of the University of Chicago. They wrote that Dr. Abbott’s videos “threaten the safety and identity of all underrepresented groups in the ward.” The letter said the university should make it clear that its videos were “inappropriate and harmful to faculty and climate staff.”
Dr. Abbott has since removed the footage.
Robert Zimmer, then president of the University of Chicago, issued a statement strongly reaffirming the university’s commitment to free speech. Dr. Abbott’s popular course on climate change is still fully signed. The storm has died down.
Dr. Abbott said he offered to show his videos to some of the activist graduate students and discuss it, but not apologize. The graduate students said they had turned down his offer. Dr. Abbott said, “I realized that if I offered an apology, there would just be blood in the water.”
In August, Newsweek published a column by Dr. Abbott and Ivan Marinovich, professor of accounting at Stanford University, calling for an overhaul of affirmative action and equity programs.
They also supported the rejection of admission by inheritance – which gives preference for admission to children of graduates – and sports scholarships. Both programs disproportionately benefit wealthy white students.
In the last three sentences of this column, the professors drew an analogy between today’s climate on campus and the Germany of the 1930s and warned about what happened when an ideological regime possessed by race came to power and what it did with free thought.
These remarks rekindled the anger of people who had previously clashed with Dr. Abbott over affirmative action. Even advocates of Dr. Abbott’s right to free speech considered the comparison to Nazi Germany exaggerated. But they added that it was not unusual for scholars to make rhetorical comparisons with the rise of fascism and communism.
“Can we be honest here? This is not happening because Dr. Abbott used very vivid language, said Dr. George. “It’s a legitimate subject of controversy, and the argument that it makes students unsafe is laughable.”
Dr. van der Hilst of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology expressed respect for Dr. Abbott’s scientific work, but delved deeper into the Newsweek essay. “Drawing analogies with genocide is entirely in his right,” he said. But, he added, it is “inflammatory and suppressive, very respectful discourse that we need.”
He stressed that he spoke with senior MIT officials before deciding to cancel the lecture. “It was not the one who shouted the loudest,” said Dr. van der Hilst. “I listened very carefully.”
Dr. van der Hilst suggested that black students might well be kicked off if they learned about Dr. Abbott’s views on positive action. This lecture program was founded to explore new discoveries in climatology, and MIT hoped to attract such students to the school. He acknowledged that these same students may well meet professors in the coming years, even mentors, whose political views are at odds with their own.
“These are good questions, but somewhat hypothetical,” said Dr. van der Hilst. “Freedom of speech goes very far, but politeness is difficult.”
Dr. van der Hilst added that he invited Dr. Abbott to a private meeting with faculty members to discuss his research.
Dr. Abbott, for his part, said he had an internship at a major university that values free speech and, with luck, has 30 years of teaching and research ahead. And yet canceled speech carries with it pain.
“There is no doubt that these controversies will have a negative impact on my scientific career,” he said. “But I don’t want to live in a country where, instead of discussing something complicated, we go and keep quiet about the debate.”