Posted on October 21, 2021

M.I.T.’s Choice of Lecturer Ignited Criticism. So Did Its Decision to Cancel.

Michael Powell, New York Times, October 20, 2021

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology invited the geophysicist Dorian Abbot to give a prestigious public lecture this autumn. He seemed a natural choice, a scientific star who studies climate change and whether planets in distant solar systems might harbor atmospheres conducive to life.

Then a swell of angry resistance arose. Some faculty members and graduate students argued that Dr. Abbot, a professor at the University of Chicago, had created harm by speaking out against aspects of affirmative action and diversity programs. In videos and opinion pieces, Dr. Abbot, who is white, has asserted that such programs treat “people as members of a group rather than as individuals, repeating the mistake that made possible the atrocities of the 20th century.” He said that he favored a diverse pool of applicants selected on merit.

He said that his planned lecture at M.I.T. would have made no mention of his views on affirmative action. But his opponents in the sciences argued he represented an “infuriating,” “inappropriate” and oppressive choice.

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.”

Ever more fraught arguments over speech and academic freedom on American campuses have moved as a flood tide into the sciences. Biology, physics, math: All have seen fierce debates over courses, hiring and objectivity, and some on the academic left have moved to silence those who disagree on certain questions.

A few fields have purged scientific terms and names seen by some as offensive, and there is a rising call for “citational justice,” arguing that professors and graduate students should seek to cite more Black, Latino, Asian and Native American scholars and in some cases refuse to acknowledge in footnotes the research of those who hold distasteful views. Still the decision by M.I.T., viewed as a high citadel of science in the United States, took aback some prominent scientists. Debate and argumentation, impassioned, even ferocious, is the mother’s milk of science, they said.

“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.”


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.


The controversy surrounding Dr. Abbot’s canceled talk speaks as well to a tension manifest in progressive circles between social justice and free speech. Some faculty members have come to see identity and racial inequities as more urgent than questions of muzzled speech.

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.


Dr. Abbot said his department had spoken of restricting a faculty search to female applicants and “underrepresented minorities” — except for Asians. He opposed it.


He spoke, too, of a lack of ideological diversity, noting that a conservative Christian student was hectored and made to feel out of place in an unyielding ideological climate. Last year he laid out 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 a few professors from elsewhere signed a letter to the geophysical faculty at the University of Chicago. They wrote that Dr. Abbot’s “videos threaten the safety and the belonging of all underrepresented groups within the department.” The letter said the university should make clear that his videos were “inappropriate and harmful to the department members and climate.”


Dr. Abbot said he offered to show his videos to some graduate student activists and discuss it, but not apologize. Graduate students said they refused his offer. Dr. Abbot said, “I realized if I offered to apologize, there just would be blood in the water.”

In August, Newsweek published a column by Dr. Abbot and Iván Marinovic, an accounting professor at Stanford University, that called for revamping affirmative action and equity programs.