The Shame of MIT: Canceling Dorian Abbot

Louis K. Bonham

Editor's Note: After this article was published, Professor Caroline Morley deleted the Tweet to which the author links. We have substituted an archived link to the Tweet, which shows the post as it originally appeared on Twitter.

In today’s cultural moment, cowardly college administrators willing to jettison principles of academic freedom, free inquiry, and free speech rather than stand up to Twitter mobs are, unfortunately, commonplace. Even so, some cases stand out as particularly egregious examples.

Consider a certain soon-to-be-former dean of a major law school, who surrendered to the mere possibility of online outrage, preemptively hobbling the activities of a clinic in the law school’s newly-endowed “First Amendment Center,” while simultaneously pontificating about the importance of free speech in society. Or the dean of the business school at a major university, who within hours of a Twitter mob’s demands defied instructions from the university’s HR department and acted unilaterally to suspend and bar from campus a professor for refusing to grade students differently by race (and then retaliated against said professor after the university ordered him reinstated).

Enter Robert van der Hilst, chairman of MIT’s Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Studies department, who has essentially told these candidates for the Most Cowardly University Administrator award, “Hold my soy milk!”—proceeding to throw academic freedom under the bus and surrender to the keyboard warriors in a truly craven fashion.

Each year, MIT hosts the John Carlson Lecture, which “communicates exciting new results in climate science to the general public.” This past July, it gave the honor of presenting this prestigious lecture to University of Chicago professor of geophysical studies Dorian Abbot. Professor Abbot was to speak on “Climate and the Potential for Life on Other Planets,” which is one of his fields of research.

However, in addition to his scientific work as a geophysicist, Prof. Abbot is also known as an outspoken critic of so-called “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (“DEI”) initiatives. As implemented on college campuses, he argues that such initiatives violate “the ethical and legal principles of equal treatment” and treat “people as merely a means to an end.” In short, he believes we ought to base hiring and admission decisions on individual merit, rather than identity group membership.

Not surprisingly, such views are considered blasphemous by various wokester and outrage groups, who last year launched a social media campaign to have his employer cancel him. To its credit, the University of Chicago decisively stood up for its principles of free speech and academic freedom, essentially telling the Twitter mob to go home and grow up. And, indeed, Prof. Abbot has done yeoman’s work in educating others on how to stand up to would-be cancelers and witch hunts on and off campus.

At the time MIT awarded Prof. Abbot the Carlson Lecture, none of this was secret, nor did any of it have the slightest impact on the merit of his scientific research and findings. And MIT has (correction: had) a reputation for standing up for academic freedom and free speech. In 2019, for example, a similar social media mob attempted to pressure MIT to disinvite Dr. Subramanian Swamy (a former Indian politician) from speaking at the MIT India Conference. MIT rejected such efforts, with its chancellor and provost writing that:

For MIT as a university, guarding freedom of expression is fundamental to our mission of advancing knowledge and educating students. We are and must be committed to ensuring that different points of view — even those we reject — can be heard and debated in a respectful and safe way.

Nevertheless, when word got out that Prof. Abbot was to give the Carlson Lecture, the social justice warriors went into high gear on Twitter. Typical was University of Texas professor Caroline Morley, who objected to MIT having Prof. Abbot speak because of his “deeply problematic views of equity in the sciences.” I wrote Prof. Morley requesting comment, indicating I would like her to address:

  1. What exactly did you find “problematic” with Prof. Abbot’s views?
  2. Prof. Abbot’s views largely mirror those recently expressed (see op. at pp. 22-23, 25-27) by Judge James Ho of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Do you consider Judge Ho’s articulation of the law to be similarly “problematic”?
  3. You object to a scientist with ethical views you find “problematic” giving a prestigious scientific lecture. Do you believe it would be acceptable for people who may find your views “problematic” to try and deplatform you in like manner? If not, why not?

While Prof. Morley received my request (she immediately took to Twitter to comment that she had received an e-mail requesting comment from “some former lawyer” (!)), like most keyboard commandos she did not attempt to respond to a serious inquiry. (As Professor Bill Jacobson has pointed out, many online activists who pushed for Prof. Abbot’s disinvitation have now set their accounts to “private” rather than own what they have wrought.)

This apparent limit on Prof. Morley’s capacity for rhetoric—i.e., why bother with the hard work of thinking or writing critically when it is so much easier to just reduce things to labels on social media?—is par for the course when it comes to academic cancel culture. Was Prof. Abbot’s science unsound? Was he unqualified? Had he broken the law, or committed a tort against anyone? Nope. His heresy was that he supports treating people as individuals and evaluating them on merit—a position that the vast majority of Americans support, and which, as Judge Ho’s concurrence points out, is what the law actually requires. Nevertheless, to his detractors, none of this matters: they disagree with him, therefore he must be silenced, and if MIT did not accede to their demands, they’d scream some more.

To his and MIT’s shame, Prof. van der Hilst quickly caved to the mob and canceled the Carlson Lecture. MIT’s official statement passed the buck to Prof. van der Hilst, and made not even passing reference to MIT’s prior statements in support of free speech and academic freedom. For his part, Prof. van der Hilst took full responsibility for the decision, claiming that the “current distractions” created by the Abbot’s cancelers would detract from the effectiveness of the lecture. He also downplayed the importance of the Carlson Lecture (previously promoted by MIT as a prestigious annual event), saying it was “not a scientific talk for fellow scientists,” but merely an outreach event to “inspire and engage with area high school students.” (I wonder if John Carlson appreciates Prof. van der Hilst’s newfound denigration of the event he endowed.)

So what lessons has Prof. van der Hilst now taught by example?

First, he (and cancelers such as Prof. Morley) obviously believe it is acceptable behavior for scientists to deplatform other scientists based on ethical or political views unrelated to science. (The ghost of Trofim Lysenkosmiles.) Would they find it acceptable if others returned the favor? Or, as is more likely the case, are they hypocritically unwilling to live under the same rules they apply to others? (And no, I am not calling for anyone to be deplatformed—these are called rhetorical questions.)

Second, MIT’s purported commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression is now officially a bad joke. (Prof. van der Hilst apparently has no such commitment.) All it takes is a noisy group of wokesters to create a potential PR “distraction,” and MIT will fold like a cheap suit. (MIT’s punting the issue to the “discretion of the department chair” is cowardly evasion: either MIT has principles that it stands for or it does not.) Now that MIT and Prof. van der Hilst have demonstrated that they will indeed grant a “heckler’s veto,” they can now expect many more hecklers with even more strident demands.

Consonant with his prior positions, Prof. Abbot has graciously taken the high road, forgiving those who have injured him while pointing out the corrosive effects of cancel culture and kowtowing to outrage mobs. Others are not so forgiving. Numerous organizations, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Academic Freedom Alliance, and respected academics like Robert George and Jonathan Turley, have all issued blistering condemnations of MIT and Prof. van der Hilst.

Frankly, both deserve every ounce of opprobrium that is heaped on them. Surrendering to intellectual Visigoths was immoral, ineffective, and downright cowardly.

(Author’s note: I wrote both MIT’s press office and Prof. van der Hilst requesting comment for this article. Neither responded to me. The responses given above were from statements given to others.)

Louis K. Bonham is an intellectual property litigator. He is a graduate of the University of Texas (BA ’83, JD ’86), was an Articles Editor on the Texas Law Review, and served as a law clerk to the Hon. Edith H. Jones of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Image: Muzammil Soorma, Public Domain

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