With the month of October barely underway, we have already seen two incidents at elite institutions of higher education that underscore the continuing threats to academic freedom from both the right and left. A Twitter mob convinced MIT to disinvite a distinguished professor of geophysics from speaking at the school due to his views about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies. And at Yale, a prominent history professor stepped down from leadership of a prestigious program when right-wing donors insisted on selecting members of a “board of visitors” that would advise on the appointments of program instructors.
After publicly announcing earlier this year that Professor Dorian Abbot, a geophysical scientist at the University of Chicago, would be delivering the prestigious John Carlson Lecture, MIT rescinded his invitation and cancelled the event. The reason? Abbot is a harsh critic of DEI policies, which encourage representation and participation of diverse groups of people in higher education, including through preferential hiring of faculty and evaluation of student applicants. In a recent Newsweek column, Abbot wrote that DEI “violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment” and “undermines the public’s trust in universities and their graduates.” Abbot proposed an alternative framework he called Merit, Fairness, and Equality whereby “university applicants are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.” Apparently, graduate students and faculty at both MIT and Chicago were so affronted by Abbot’s words that they organized a disinvitation campaign, which ultimately convinced the chair of MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science to de-platform Abbot.
For MIT’s part, the school says that it merely disinvited Abbot from giving the Carlson Lecture, a public outreach talk aimed, in part, at engaging local high school students. The university says it invited Abbot to campus to address fellow climate scientists about his research instead. Apparently, Abbot’s views about DEI make his climate science research unfit for consumption by the general public, but not by his fellow academics.
There are a number of troubling aspects to this episode. First, Abbot’s views about DEI are decidedly mainstream. According to a recent Gallup poll, 74% of U.S. adults oppose preferential hiring or promotion of Blacks. The Republican Party’s platform includes this line: “Merit and hard work should determine advancement in our society, so we reject unfair preferences, quotas, and set-asides as forms of discrimination.” If the nation’s institutions of higher education are to remain effective as providers of civic education, forums for political debate, and incubators of novel policy ideas, the views of most Americans and one of the two major political parties cannot be made verboten. Note carefully that in saying Abbot’s views are mainstream, I am not saying they are right. Rather, I am claiming that if universities want to make a significant epistemic contribution to the larger society, they cannot seal themselves off from views that have wide currency in the general public.
Second, having determined that Abbot’s scholarship would make a valuable contribution to MIT and the local community — something which they have a plenary right to do — faculty and administrators should not have allowed objections to his political views to outweigh or override that initial determination. When the free exchange of ideas is obstructed by political actors — be they government officials or political activists — academic life suffers. The political views of a vocal minority are no justification for suppressing scholarly exchange. Those who object to Abbot’s ideas have every right to strenuously protest them, but not to try to exclude him from an academic community that has already validated his worth as a scholar.
Finally, rescinding the invitation will undoubtedly embolden activists who seek to harness the power of social media to silence speakers whose views they deem harmful or offensive. It would have been better if Abbot had not been invited at all, if the alternative was to truckle to the heckler’s veto.
That’s the view from the left. But recent events amply demonstrate that academia has something to fear from the political right, as well. The Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University takes a select group of two dozen students and immerses them in classic texts of history and statecraft while also introducing them to a raft of high-profile guest instructors. The program was until recently led by historian Beverly Gage, and is underwritten by large donations from Nicholas Brady, a former U.S. Treasury secretary under presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush, and Charles Johnson, a mutual fund billionaire and leading Republican donor. A week after the 2020 presidential election, a professor who teaches in the program published an opinion article titled “How to Protect America From the Next Donald Trump.” According to Gage, this led Brady and Johnson to demand the creation of a five-member “board of visitors” that would advise on the appointments of instructors, pursuant to a 2006 donor agreement that had until then not been followed. Worse, the donors insisted that they could choose the board. Again according to Gage, Yale president Peter Salovey and Pericles Lewis, vice president for global strategy and vice provost for academic initiatives, ultimately caved to these demands. This caused Gage to resign, effective at the end of the year.
The day after The New York Times reported the story, Salovey released a letter to the faculty affirming Yale’s commitment to academic freedom and promising that he will give “new and careful consideration to how we can reinforce” that commitment. No word yet about plans for the board of visitors.
It is a foundational principle of academic freedom that scholars should be insulated from, to quote Fritz Machlup, those “fears and anxieties that may inhibit them from freely studying and investigating whatever they are interested in, and from freely discussing, teaching or publishing whatever opinions they have reached.” One source of such fears and anxieties is left-wing Twitter mobs; another is powerful donors who seek to steer teaching and research in a particular direction, often for ideological reasons. Freedom from political interference entails that faculty ought to be free to choose, in the absence of outside interference or pressure, both who gets to do teaching and research in the academic community and what they can research and teach. A board of visitors of the kind envisioned by Brady and Johnson, with members appointed by them and whose “advice” would be backed by the threat of pulling the fiscal plug on the program, is anathema to these principles.
Despite these stories, there is reason for optimism. As Matthew Yglesias pointed out, some surveys seem to indicate broad, and indeed increasing, American support for free speech, particularly among college graduates. This suggests that threats to free speech mostly stem from vocal or powerful minorities. But such compact, determined groups can wreak havoc. For example, the cause of prohibition was never supported by the majority of Americans, but the Anti-Saloon League and the voters it galvanized nevertheless managed to amend the Constitution to forbid the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” As the weather turns cold, faculty and administrators at our institutions of higher education must commit to thwarting a profounder chill.