Understanding MIT’s Free Speech Crisis

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.     

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