Who Comes After Dorian Abbot?

If the standards the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used in his case are applied broadly, it could have unfortunate repercussions for many other academics, argues Alex Small.

November 8, 2021
Dorian Abbot
(University of Chicago)

The Dorian S. Abbot affair has attracted significant attention in recent weeks within higher education and the news media. It all began when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology invited the climate science professor to give a prestigious scientific lecture but then disinvited him because, Abbot said, he’d publicly criticized academe’s increasing focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.

If the Abbot case was just about one professor no longer giving high-profile talks in certain venues, probably nobody would be much worse off. After all, Abbot will continue to do his research. His institution, the University of Chicago, a bastion of academic freedom, will surely continue employing him. Other fine scientists will still give public lectures, interested young minds will enjoy those lectures and the planet will keep turning amid one planetary scientist’s travails. What I fear, however, is that if the standards MIT used in that case are applied broadly, it could have unfortunate repercussions for many other academics.

Abbot was disinvited to speak because he voiced his opposition to diversity preferences in admitting students, hiring faculty and bestowing awards. Yet the validity of such preference is clearly a question that’s up for debate. Here in California, the public decisively rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized race and gender preferences in state universities. I voted for the measure and urged friends to do likewise, so I presumably remain eligible to give scientific talks. But some faculty members in my university voted against it. Can they still give public lectures on science? Can we still assign them to teach impressionable freshmen from diverse backgrounds?

I also know a medical school professor who opposes racial and gender preferences in admissions and hiring; there is precedent for curtailing a medical school professor’s teaching duties over such matters. However, he has done compassionate deeds for people close to me. Might he be a worthy role model for young doctors regardless of his views on affirmative action?

One difference between Abbot and my colleagues who oppose affirmative action is that Abbot has been vocal about his opinions, while they have mostly avoided attention. Discretion is certainly the better part of valor in some situations, but silence advances neither the university’s purpose of truth seeking nor the activist’s goal of effecting change. Also, conditioning a scholar’s invitation to talk about science on silence regarding social controversies flatly contradicts commonplace arguments among progressives that censoriousness isn’t actually a significant problem.

Worse, a practice that effectively mandates silence on public controversies clashes with higher education institutions’ goal of preparing students for informed and active citizenship -- for instance, my university system’s mission of equipping students with knowledge and skills that will “allow them to be responsible citizens in a democracy.” One way in which institutions demonstrate their commitment to this goal is via general education programs that require students from all majors to study the wide range of humanities and social science perspectives they might use to understand our complex world. Professors accordingly assign students to write papers analyzing contemporary controversies in those disciplinary contexts. Given such efforts, it would be hypocritical in the extreme to then insist that professors who themselves received such an education abstain from public commentary on controversial issues.

Perhaps Abbot’s unforgivable error was speaking publicly outside his expertise, which is planetary science, not social science. Students in his department alleged a year ago -- without supporting citations -- that his arguments regarding diversity preferences rely on “anecdotal evidence and poor statistics not supported by peer-reviewed literature about diversity.” But many of his critics, such as the aforementioned geoscience graduate students, similarly lack graduate training in economic or sociological analysis of the scientific workforce. One could reasonably ask what qualifies them but not Abbot to opine on proper methods for selecting students and faculty?

If colleges and universities actually accepted the criticism that Abbot lacked the expertise to hold an opinion on hiring practices, then, by extension, budget committees should consist entirely of finance and accounting professors. (I would embrace this argument if it releases me from all committees without the word “physics” in their names.)

One might instead sanction Abbot on the grounds that, as the letter from geoscience graduate students argued, academic diversity programs are such a sensitive topic that critics “threaten the safety and belonging of all underrepresented groups.” Yet diversity is far from the only sensitive matter where scholars often hold divergent opinions. Consider the weighty topic of war and peace (armed conflict, not Tolstoy’s ponderous novel). I am active in a professional society that includes many scientists and engineers at defense contractors, and I work amicably with them to organize scientific meetings despite my own peacenik preferences. Conversely, nobody seriously argues that my support for drastic military spending cuts disqualifies me from teaching veterans, military reservists and ROTC cadets. If we regarded questions about U.S. military policy as too fraught to tolerate disagreement among colleagues, then we would have to fire any professor whose laptop has a sticker supporting peace and/or our troops.

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Ultimately, attempted justifications for disinviting Dorian Abbot founder on the diversity of perspectives that are present in academic communities. The reality is that these varied and opinionated people work together productively despite disagreements, as we share a commitment to broad education for engaged citizenship. I have been privileged to learn from teachers, colleagues and friends who are Marxists and capitalists, atheists and fundamentalists, and people who straddle every other conceivable divide. When inviting scientific speakers, their opinions on controversial social issues should be as irrelevant as their preferred pizza toppings.

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Alex Small is a professor of physics at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a writing fellow at Heterodox Academy.

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