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Understanding MIT’s Free Speech Crisis
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Understanding MIT’s Free Speech Crisis

What happened when the university canceled a lecture by an outspoken geophysicist who had criticized DEI practices.

For the past decade the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has hosted a public lecture on climate science. To be invited to give “the Carlson Lecture” is an honor, an acknowledgment of the work of top scientists. Past lecturers have spoken on topics ranging from “climate change and deep-sea corals” to “climate change and armadillos.” In October 2020, MIT invited professor Dorian Abbot, a rising star in the field. He was to talk about “Climate and the potential for life on other planets.”

Professors Daniel Rothman and Kerry Emanuel, the co-founders of the Lorenz Center, MIT’s climate research center, had previously invited Abbot, a tenured professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, to speak at MIT. “Dorian had come months earlier to give a department colloquium, and it had been very successful,” Rothman would later recall, “so we thought he’d be a great Carlson Lecture speaker.”  

But then, nearly two years after he’d first accepted MIT’s invitation (the event was delayed by a year due to the pandemic) and about a month before he was scheduled to arrive in Cambridge, Abbot’s name appeared in Newsweek, in a co-authored opinion piece titled “The Diversity Problem on Campus.” Abbot and Stanford professor Ivan Marinovic wrote that they had grown concerned by what they saw as increasing illiberalism on college campuses. Arguing that admission should be based exclusively on merit, they criticized affirmative action and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices that had become common at American universities. They compared such efforts to Nazi Germany:       

Ninety years ago, Germany had the best universities in the world. Then an ideological regime obsessed with race came to power and drove many of the best scholars out, gutting the faculties and leading to sustained decay that German universities never fully recovered from. We should view this as a warning of the consequences of viewing group membership as more important than merit and correct our course before it’s too late.     

Around six weeks later, when the Lorenz Center sent out invitations to the Carlson Lecture, Rothman and Emanuel began receiving angry emails from indignant MIT faculty members and alumni. The anger spread, inevitably, to Twitter. 

“True to form, EAPs MIT has invited Dorian Abbot to give 2021’s prestigious Carlson Lecture,” tweeted one alumnus. “The same Dorian Abbot who likened DEI work to the Nazi regime in Newsweek recently and who posted several YouTube videos expressing similar harmful views. MIT, you going to fix this?”

“Imagine being a student/employee of color where someone like this is awarded one of the most prestigious platforms to speak. The Newsweek article is so disturbing I had to pause after every sentence,” wrote another.

Meanwhile, a small group of faculty members argued that Abbot’s views were offensive and stood in stark opposition to MIT’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. The Carlson Lecture, they asserted, should be canceled. Rothman and Emanuel protested, arguing that Abbot’s views did not warrant canceling his invitation.

Professor Robert van der Hilst, chair of MIT’s Earth and Planetary Sciences department, which oversaw its climate studies work, suddenly found himself facing a quandary. Abbot was no doubt an outstanding scientist. But his views upset faculty members and students alike. Van der Hilst weighed both sides’ arguments and arrived at what appeared to be a compromise: He would cancel the Carlson Lecture but invite Abbot to talk to MIT students in the spring. That way, he wouldn’t be “canceling” Abbot or offending spectators during the Carlson Lecture, which at its heart, was an outreach event. Problem solved. 

Or so he thought. 

Abbot immediately took issue with van der Hilst’s decision. The compromise made no difference. In Abbot’s view, van der Hilst had set a grim precedent for free speech on university campuses. Abbot felt it was his duty to speak out in defense of what he saw as an inalienable human right. If he didn’t, free speech could become a thing of the past. Further, van der Hilst’s thinking was flawed, and Abbot wasn’t one to let flawed thinking stand unchallenged. It just wasn’t in his character. 

“I’m an annoying person,” Abbot says. “That’s just my general personality. I like to pick little holes in arguments and point them out. It should be part of being a good scientist. Demanding rigorous thinking and evidence. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to always work like that as we’ve seen during these DEI debates.”

Dorian Abbot was born and raised in Yarmouth, Maine. His father was a teacher, and his mother was a social worker. But it was his grandfather—an inventor—and his engineer uncle who helped cultivate his aptitude for math and science. He’d hike with his uncle through the local Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park. With his grandfather, who lived on an island in Nova Scotia, he’d go sailing on and fishing in Mahone Bay. Abbot would ask them questions about the clouds, the sky, and everything pertaining to the natural world. 

At school, Abbot was a talented but recalcitrant student. He often read extra books for the sole purpose of challenging teachers in class. 

“I was annoying to a lot of people. I didn’t like being told what to do. I liked doing what I wanted to do,” Abbot once told Eric Cervone, the host of the Honest Offense podcast.  

By age 12, he had achieved a higher level of proficiency in mathematics than both of his parents. By high school, he was studying chaos theory, an advanced scientific theory focused on unpredictable systems. He studied physics and went on to earn a Ph.D. in applied math from Harvard. He arrived at the University of Chicago in 2009 and was a part of the faculty by 2011. 

As Abbot’s scientific career bloomed, he paid little attention to politics. Every year, when it came time to vote, he used to sort out his views and figure out who he should vote for. During the 2020 election, the results showed him to be 55.5 percent for Biden and 49.5 percent for Trump. He was a true centrist. He skewed conservative on social issues and liberal on issues like climate change. (He once wrote an essay outlining the conservative case for fighting climate change.)

“I don’t vote with one party in particular. I don’t think one party’s good and one’s bad,” he said, “When there’s an election, I think they’re all BSing when they say ‘well, if our guy wins, it’s going to be heaven on earth, and if their guy wins, it’s going to be hell.’ But the summer of 2020 woke me up a little bit.” 

During the summer of 2020, Chicago witnessed the depth of the coronavirus pandemic and national unrest following the murder of George Floyd. Abbot’s East Lakeview neighborhood plunged into anarchy. People yelled and fought with one another outside his building, and looters raided local stores. Meanwhile, local government officials instituted a curfew in the city. They shut down the major roads, put up all the major drawbridges, and posted Humvees with two National Guard soldiers at the city’s major intersections. 

“The whole situation was really unsettling, like, you know, an unraveling of society. And then at the same time, you had all these issues of everyone being afraid to speak openly about their opinions, people losing their jobs, for saying the wrong thing. … I just started feeling like this is not my country,” Abbot said. “I don’t know what’s happened. How did we get here? And so I wanted to start speaking a little more positively about a vision of what it means to be a human being and to be an American.”

Abbot noticed that his colleagues were reluctant to discuss the riots, and even more reticent about the diversity and inclusion measures that were increasingly gaining traction on campus. That November, one colleague gave an internal seminar on the faculty hiring process. During the talk, that colleague stated, “If you are just hiring the best people, you are part of the problem.”

Alarmed that a colleague would suggest not hiring the most qualified applicants, Abbot asked to give a seminar in response. When his colleagues refused, he decided to do the seminar on his own and upload it on YouTube. In the video, he argued for the importance of merit-based admissions. 

A group of graduate students noticed the clips, and suddenly, Abbot had enemies. They began posting on Twitter, saying he should be fired. A letter of denunciation followed demanding that Abbot’s teaching and research be severely restricted. In response, University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer sent out a letter refusing the demands and defending freedom of speech. But Abbot continued to speak out and consequently continued to be targeted. 

When he published his Newsweek op-ed, Abbot’s detractors took to Twitter and argued that he should be disinvited from various seminars and speaking events. They even suggested alternative speakers who could replace him. These efforts ultimately failed as well.

Then came the invitation to deliver the Carlson Lecture. When van der Hilst called Abbot to inform him of the Carlson Lecture’s cancellation, Abbot was stunned. 

“I expected the department chair to say something like: ‘We know some people in our department have been behaving badly on Twitter, but I want you to know that we value academic freedom at MIT and we will not be canceling your Lecture. We’ve informed the people involved of the penalties they can expect if they try to disrupt your Lecture in any way,” Abbot said, “Instead he said, ‘We’ve decided to cancel the Carlson Lecture.’”

Though Abbot’s views made him enemies, they also won him many friends. When the Chicago graduate students had first tried to get him fired, he had decided to form a network of like-minded thinkers for support. He’d become acquainted with Robert George, a professor of political science at Princeton University. George and a handful of other academics had recently founded the Academic Freedom Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to protecting the free speech rights of faculty at American universities. 

When Abbot received news of the Carlson Lecture’s cancellation, he immediately contacted George, who thought that the faculty at MIT had failed in their responsibility to uphold academic freedom. 

“MIT’s actions immediately struck me as cowardly and disgraceful. They also struck me as ominous,” George said. “If a cancellation mob could bully the greatest STEM university in the world into canceling a scientific lecture because they didn’t like the lecture’s political opinions, it would set a terrible example and establish an appalling precedent. It would further embolden politically motivated mobs and have a chilling effect on free speech on campuses across the nation.”

George decided that if MIT wouldn’t host the Carlson Lecture, Princeton would in its stead. On October 21, the day the Carlson Lecture was supposed to be hosted by the MIT department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, the James Madison Program—an institute within the political science directed by George—invited Abbot to give the same talk via Zoom. There were more than 4,000 virtual attendees. 

George recalls, “I got nothing but support from the entire Princeton community and from people more broadly. I also received a deluge of messages from people connected to MIT—faculty, alumni, students—who were appalled by MIT’s caving into the mob and grateful to the James Madison Program at Princeton for stepping up to provide Professor Abbot with an alternative venue for his Carlson Lecture. The matter received national and even international attention in the media, and I was pleased by the coverage, virtually all of which got the story right.”

Meanwhile, Abbot also discussed the canceled lecture with the media. He gave interviews to a slew of outlets including the New York Times, Fox News, and NBC. He also wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. On October 5, he wrote a guest post on Common Sense, former New York Times opinion staff editor Bari Weiss’ Substack. In the piece, Abbot told readers the story of the Carlson Lecture’s cancellation and included a collage of various tweets by MIT affiliates who had expressed outrage at his initial invitation to deliver the talk.  

The day that Abbot published his piece, several of the tweets’ authors became the target of conservatives online. They received an email from a sender called “BuckJohnson1993” that read: 

You are part a of long tradition of members of a priestly class canceling heretical scientists. It takes a particularly despicable person, though, to cancel a leading geophysicist because he dared speak out, civilly, against the discrimination and ugly racial essentialism that lies at the heart of DEI dogma. I hope the Twitter clout you gained was worth it.

Professor Abbot, who is classier than you modern-day Savonarolas deserve, asked his supporters not to attack those who canceled him, but I have respectfully ignored his wishes.

I don’t support canceling you for your belief in the racist DEI religion (a fringe movement rejected by lopsided majorities of all races). Universities should be places open to a wide spectrum of ideas, even bad ones. I do, however, support canceling you for engaging in a Twitter mob against a man who literally did nothing wrong.

Two days later, on October 7, Dr. Mary Knapp, an MIT research scientist, walked into her office to discover a voicemail from a blocked number. The caller claimed to be a reporter with the Associated Press, but it quickly became clear that he was not. 

Hey, Dave Felch, AP, calling to see whether you have a comment on the cancellation of the Carlson lecture. Specifically, I want to know if the fact that you have a vagina contributed to your success within your particular science and whether you feel as if you’re an affirmative action hire and that your status is based not upon your skills but upon your sex since that seems to be what you approve of. I’ll give you a call back thank you very much and I’d appreciate it if you could get a coherent response together. 

Knapp found the voicemail profoundly disquieting. Whoever this stranger was, he’d taken the time to track down her work phone number and leave her a crude voicemail claiming to be a reporter. Worse yet, his message questioned whether she was at MIT simply because she was a woman.

It was far from the first time someone had challenged her merit. Knapp grew up in Lowman, New York. Her parents didn’t set limitations on their daughter’s ambitions and encouraged her to pursue her interests full-bore. Her father, a geologist by training, helped cultivate her love of the natural world. Together the two would discuss the sky, black holes, and all things related to astronomy. 

“I was lucky in that I had parents who were very encouraging of my interest and certainly did not tell me that there were fields that I couldn’t go into or weren’t appropriate for a girl or whatever.” Knapp remembers. “They always supported me and encouraged me to pursue whatever I was interested in.” 

But it wasn’t until adolescence that Knapp decided she wanted to pursue science professionally. Her high school offered students a shadow program in which students could opt to follow for a day someone in their chosen profession. Knapp’s guidance counselor recommended that she shadow scientists at nearby Cornell University, a group of whom were then running the Mars Rover program. 

“I had never really thought about what a job in science would be like,” she says. “But I got to see that and like see that you know, that was something I could do. So that set me on the path of astronomy and aerospace engineering.” 

Knapp applied to MIT and was accepted. She earned her bachelor’s in aerospace engineering in 2011 and her Ph.D. in planetary science in 2018. Though she thrived in this new environment, she soon found she was not as welcome as she thought. 

“I have been told both implicitly and explicitly since I was an undergrad at MIT that I didn’t deserve to be there because they wanted more women,” she says. “People said that to my face on more than one occasion and I have come to believe that’s not the case and feel like I have demonstrated in the 14 years—that in fact I do deserve to be there.”

When Knapp first read Abbot’s piece in Newsweek, she couldn’t help but view it through the prism of her past experiences. Peers and co-workers had repeatedly questioned her worthiness, and now here was a fellow scientist suggesting that students were selected based on identity rather than aptitude. 

“Yes, it absolutely affected how I interpreted what Dorian Abbot said in his Newsweek article and subsequent publications and interviews and what not,” Knapp says. “And I think that’s why it was important to me that the institution I belong to push back on that and say you know we don’t think that anyone who’s underrepresented is only here because we want to check a diversity box.”

Though Abbot’s comments about affirmative action were vexing, it was the comparison Abbot drew between diversity and inclusion efforts and Nazi Germany that put Knapp over the top. She took to Twitter: 

“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 and that EAPS isn’t serious about (and is actively hostile towards DEI.)”

When the Earth department at MIT decided to cancel the Carlson Lecture, Knapp felt that it had made the right decision. She disputed the claim that the cancellation of the lecture violated anyone’s free speech.

“If you say something offensive and someone, you know, makes a decision not to associate with you, that is not a violation of speech; that’s an equally free choice,” Knapp says. “It’s a form of speech itself. I also would say that there isn’t, associated with free speech, the right to a platform.”

Though Knapp’s position engendered opposition among conservatives and free-speech fundamentalists, it also elicited disagreement from those with more nuanced views. 

Similar to Knapp, professor Kerry Emanuel thinks that the cancellation of Dorian Abbot’s Carlson Lecture goes beyond free speech. He argues instead, universities face a slightly different quandary—the question of what they should do with unpopular voices. For instance, he says, had the speaker been an overt white supremacist, a consensus might agree that they shouldn’t be invited to host the lecture. 

“It’s phrased by a lot of people as a question of free speech and it’s sort of tangentially that because his speech was not prevented. Indeed, he was able to get both his science talk and for example, the op-ed or the editorial in Newsweek,” Emanuel says. “The question is whether someone should be punished for saying things that somebody else doesn’t like and you know, as one of my colleagues pointed out, everybody would draw a line in the sand somewhere.”

Still, Emanuel remains concerned about Abbot’s disinvitation. Throughout most of his over three decades at MIT, he expressed himself without hesitation. But in recent years, he has grown alarmed as his peers have become increasingly reluctant to speak their minds to their students: 

“It’s usually the case that in pools of graduate students, there’s a small but very very vocal minority that feel completely free to castigate someone that doesn’t agree with their point of view,” he says. “It’s a generational thing. That’s just not healthy.”

When Robert van der Hilst decided to cancel the Carlson Lecture, Emanuel knew he had to signal his disagreement with the decision. He and Rothman had invited Abbot to give a talk on the climates of extraterrestrial planets. Diversity and inclusion had nothing to do with the lecture, yet Abbot was being penalized for his personal views. Such actions were unprecedented at MIT. 

“To my knowledge, this Abbot situation … that was the very first time an outside speaker had been canceled for reasons having to do with that person’s politics or shall we call them extracurricular views,” said Emanuel. “I’ve never heard of this happening before.”  

So, when van der Hilst announced the lecture’s cancellation, Emanuel and his Lorenz center co-director Rothman released a statement making their stance clear. They ultimately supported the Earth and Planetary sciences’ decision to invite Abbot back to give the talk in the spring, but criticized the decision to cancel the lecture: 

We applaud our department head’s determined efforts to reach this compromise and are appalled at the stream of hate mail and messaging that he, his staff, and our students have had to endure. Our support for the compromise does not mean, however, that we agree with the decision to cancel the Carlson Lecture. Although one may envision instances in which an invited speaker’s non-scientific activities are so abhorrent that they require cancellation, we do not believe this case rises to that level. Nevertheless, we accepted this decision as a way to maintain departmental unity, to move beyond the disagreements of the last two weeks, and to focus on the essential work of our department: education and research.

Like Emanuel, Rothman is concerned by the cancellation of the lecture and its long-term implications. He worries that one day, regular university lectures could become targets for cancellation, and that consequently, the communication of scientific knowledge throughout universities could be threatened. 

“What was really lost was the communication of research, the communication of ideas. That’s what was lost,” Rothman argues. “In this particular case, it was a public lecture and so, it’s the communication to the general public. In my mind, the danger of decisions that are made in such cases somehow filter down to an ordinary lecture. I hope that never happens.”

Though Emanuel tends to agree with his colleague, he harbors a more optimistic outlook. Since the cancellation of the Carlson Lecture, he’s noticed a surprising shift in the behavior of his fellow faculty members at MIT. He has observed that rather than stoking fear, the cancellation has prompted them to become more outspoken about the diversity and inclusion initiatives being implemented on campus. 

“If there’s a silver lining to this whole debacle at MIT, it’s that people are now talking more freely about the whole issue,” Emanuel says. “I think there was a feeling by many, and I certainly had it that you couldn’t talk about it because you certainly couldn’t criticize a policy because you know, you’d immediately be subject to being labeled a racist or something like that.” 

Emanuel also observes that those who’ve weighed in on DEI measures on campus are, for the most part, good-faith actors who share the same goal.

“I think that it’s a complicated case because it does also bring to the surface differing opinions about how to foster diversity in a, for example, university environment. And you know, there are strong passions,” he says. “It is not a question of whether we have it or not—everybody’s in favor of some form of it, but let’s not make it taboo to ever question what the bureaucracy is putting in place.” 

Even Dorian Abbot, who privileges merit over diversity, understands this essential truth: that for one, we must ultimately have the other. 

“I’ve had an excellent experience working with and advising people of pretty much every race, and both men and women. And that’s been great,” he says. “And I hope to continue doing that. And I’d love to see that in science, especially, because if you have more different kinds of people in it, you’re more likely to get the geniuses. You know, you don’t want to miss the geniuses.” 

Dylan Croll is a writer and reporter living in New York City.