Education

MIT deals with fallout from canceled lecture

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology continues to face fallout from its cancellation of a planned guest lecture by Dorian Abbot, an associate professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago who has compared academe’s diversity “regime” to Nazism.

Meanwhile, Princeton University is preparing to host Abbot later this week so he can deliver his canceled lecture there instead of at MIT.

L. Rafael Reif, president of MIT, said in a mass email Monday that the “controversy around this situation has caused great distress for many members of our community, in many quarters. It has also uncovered significant differences within the institute on several issues.”

Reif’s email expressed support for the department of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, which sponsored the lecture and ultimately pulled the plug on it, saying that its faculty members, students and young alumni have “suffered a tide of online targeting and hate mail from outside MIT” in recent weeks, as a result of the controversy. Reif also expressed confidence in Rob van der Hilst, department head, saying he is a “person of the highest integrity of character” who “faced a difficult situation.”

Van der Hilst determined that the department “could not host an effective public outreach event centered around Professor Abbot” and “chose to extend instead an invitation for an on-campus lecture,” Reif said. “Rob took this step deliberately to preserve the opportunity for free dialogue and open scientific exchange.”

That said, Reif continued, “there is no doubt that this matter has caused many people inside and outside our community to question the institute’s commitment to free expression. Some report feeling that certain topics are now off limits at MIT.” So, he said, “Let me say clearly what I have observed through more than 40 years at MIT: Freedom of expression is a fundamental value of the institute.”

Proposing a path forward, Reif said that it’s “vital now that we engage in serious, open discussion together.”

A faculty forum is planned for the end of the month. Reif said professors will discuss topics such as whether MIT needs guidelines to help groups navigate questions of free inquiry, whether free speech merits more prominence in the curriculum and how MIT should respond when members of the community “bear the disproportionate cost of other people’s speech.”

Students must also be included in deliberations of this sort, Reif continued, and MIT is creating a working group to take away lessons from the Abbot matter.

Long-Planned Lecture, New Concerns

Since 2020, Abbot had been planning to deliver MIT’s annual John Carlson Lecture on climate change to a public audience including high schoolers. His chosen topic was climate and the potential for life on other planets. But van der Hilst recently told Abbot that the department was canceling the lecture this year, amid questions about Abbot’s commentary on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Such questions about Abbot were first raised internally at Chicago last year, after Abbot published a series of YouTube videos and slides arguing that some DEI efforts were introducing bias into the system, not eliminating it. In one set of slides, for instance, Abbot told the story of the Holodomor in Soviet Ukraine, in which millions of Ukrainians who resisted or were believed to be resisting collectivization were effectively starved to death.

“What does this have to do with the current academic climate on campus?” Abbot wrote. “I do not think that we are about to have a Holodomor, but I do see similarities in the worldview being advocated on campus to those that [led] to Holodomor.”

Antiracism efforts and some versions of DEI “promote a worldview in which group membership is a primary aspect of the human being and different groups are taught to view each other antagonistically,” Abbot also said. “They tend to claim that members of certain groups are successful mostly because of some sort of privilege, just like the Communists claimed about the Kulaks.”

Abbot’s views on diversity gained greater notoriety over the summer, when he co-wrote an op-ed for Newsweek on academe’s diversity “problem.”

“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 wrote in that piece. “This regime was imposed from the top and has never been adequately debated. In the current climate it cannot be openly debated: the emotions around DEI are so strong that self-censorship among dissenting faculty is nearly universal.”

Abbot didn’t discuss the Holodomor in Newsweek, but he did liken academic wokeism to Nazism, saying, “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.”

Abbot doesn’t evoke the Holocaust in the piece, but the general comparison of the DEI mind-set to the Nazi mind-set is what upset some at MIT most of all.

In canceling the Carlson lecture this year altogether, MIT’s earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences department extended Abbot an invitation to address fellow scientists instead of the general public, at a later date. Abbot still cried foul, saying that his critics knew how prestigious the lecture was and sought to deny him it for that reason.

In addition to posts on social media, Abbot shared his story in former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss’s Substack newsletter, saying, “I have consistently maintained that woke ideology is essentially totalitarian in nature: it attempts to corral the entirety of human existence into one narrow ideological viewpoint and to silence anyone who disagrees.” He did not mention in the piece that he’d been invited to speak at MIT in another capacity.

Soon after the cancellation news broke, Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals & Institutions offered to host Abbot’s lecture instead.

“I’m delighted to report that we’ve expanded the Zoom quota for Dr. Dorian Abbot’s Princeton lecture — the one shockingly and shamefully canceled by MIT — and literally thousands of people have registered,” Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program, said on Twitter.

Abbot’s talk, which apparently will now reach a greater audience than it would have originally, is set for Thursday, the same day he’d planned to speak at MIT.

Asked about his arguably inflammatory comparison between DEI efforts and Nazism, Abbot said via email Monday that “it’s extremely telling that some people claim to be offended by the Newsweek article, but no one offers a factual argument disputing the specific points we made. The reason is that the limited points we made are absolutely historically accurate.”

At the very least, that’s up for debate, especially as Nazi comparisons seem to be becoming more common: public figures as different as former president Obama and the decidedly anti-woke former president Trump have been publicly compared to Nazis. The Anti-Defamation League publishes periodic reminders against Nazi comparisons to the present day, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, to avoid minimizing the deaths of millions in the Holocaust.

Whether this comparison makes Abbot unfit to deliver a public lecture at MIT is another question. As Reif’s note says, the university is divided on the issue.

Abbot said, “People can judge my character for themselves based on how I’ve handled this situation. I also encourage everyone to attend my lecture on Thursday and see for themselves whether I am fit to give a public-facing lecture.”

Regarding that Princeton talk, Abbot said he’s “extremely grateful to Professor George for organizing an alternative venue for my lecture. I hope the thousands of people who have signed up will enjoy some fun and relaxing science, which has absolutely nothing to do with politics.”

Abbot also said he’d confirmed the date for his department colloquium at MIT: May 4 of next year.



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