A Different Kind of Campus-Speaker Controversy
Dorian S. Abbot is scheduled to give a lecture about the potential for life on other planets on Thursday at Princeton University. Thousands have reportedly signed up to watch it online, though its remarkable popularity may be driven less by the topic — fascinating though it may be — than by the circumstances: Abbot was supposed to give the same talk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as part of its annual John Carlson Lecture series, but the offer to speak was withdrawn because of his views on
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Dorian S. Abbot is scheduled to give a lecture about the potential for life on other planets on Thursday at Princeton University. Thousands have reportedly signed up to watch it online, though its remarkable popularity may be driven less by the topic — fascinating though it may be — than by the circumstances: Abbot was supposed to give the same talk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as part of its annual John Carlson Lecture series, but the offer to speak was withdrawn because of his views on colleges’ diversity programs.
The situation has fueled unease among those who believe that the window of acceptable viewpoints has narrowed on many campuses, and that any opposition to diversity programs can lead to professional consequences. Abbot told his story in an essay published in the newsletter of the journalist Bari Weiss, describing what happened to him as a cancellation, though he still has tenure at the University of Chicago, where he is an associate professor of geophysics, and his lecture at Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions is likely to be better attended than the one he would have given at MIT.
And yet what’s remarkable about Abbot’s case, and what sets it apart from the dozens of other campus-speaker controversies that come and go in the headlines, is that, rather than offering hot takes about diversity and inclusion, Abbot was going to speak about climate and exoplanets and the Fermi paradox, subjects on which he is an acknowledged expert and which have nothing at all to do with departmental hiring practices. Apparently because he believes, as he and a co-author wrote in Newsweek opinion piece a couple of months ago, that the effect of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs “violates the ethical and legal principles of equal treatment,” he can’t talk about, say, how the search for water on other planets is key to finding life-sustaining conditions there.
Abbot hadn’t really spoken out on nonscience issues until last November. It was then that a colleague at Chicago gave a talk at an internal seminar that Abbot believed suggested that the most qualified faculty members shouldn’t be hired if doing so failed to contribute to the university’s diversity goals. Abbot disagreed and asked to give a presentation in response. When that request was denied, he posted a series of slides on YouTube that made his case that the university should “try as hard as we can to treat everyone who applies to our department equally, and judge applicants only on the basis of their promise as scientists.” He also pointed to numbers suggesting that female applicants were more likely to be selected for a postdoctoral-fellowship prize, and said that administrators had told a hiring committee he was on that only women or underrepresented minorities would be considered for an open faculty position.
The university should “treat everyone who applies to our department equally, and judge applicants only on the basis of their promise as scientists.”
Those slides led to a letter, signed by more than 100 graduate students at Chicago, along with some students and faculty members at other institutions, saying that the YouTube videos amounted to an “aggressive act towards the research and teaching communities” at the university, and calling for a number of strictures and penalties against Abbot, and for the faculty of the geophysical sciences department to declare the videos “unsubstantiated, inappropriate, and harmful.”
In response, a petition was started calling on Robert Zimmer, the university’s president, to “affirm Chicago’s commitment to the free and open discussion of ideas.” As of this writing, more than 13,000 have signed that online document. Zimmer subsequently released a statement that was seen as a victory for Abbot and his supporters, writing that the university is “committed to creating an inclusive environment where diversity is not only represented but individuals are empowered to fully participate in the exchange of ideas and perspectives.” Abbot was not sanctioned.
Abbot chronicled his brush with attempted cancellation in a Quillette essay titled “An Academic’s Guide to Surviving Campus Witch Hunts.” In his opinion piece in Newsweek, co-written with Ivan Marinovic, an associate professor of accounting at Stanford’s business school, Abbot argued for an alternative to diversity, equity, and inclusion that they dubbed Merit, Fairness, and Equality, under which university applicants “are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.” They also likened, in an eyebrow-raising analogy, what’s happening on American campuses to the Nazi campaign in the early 1930s to remove Jewish students and lecturers from universities in Germany.
This led to complaints on Twitter that Abbot shouldn’t be allowed to give the Carlson lecture, and MIT ended up pulling the invite. Robert van der Hilst, the head of the earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences department, which hosts the Carlson lecture, wrote in a statement that the lecture “isn’t a scientific talk for fellow scientists” but rather part of the university’s public outreach and that the “current distractions” would undermine this purpose. He said he made the decision “knowing that some might mistake it as an affront on academic freedom — a characterization I do not agree with.”
In the end, though Abbot has been deprived of the honor of giving the Carlson lecture, which is no small matter, more people will learn about the wonder and mystery of exoplanets than would have otherwise. Yet the questions raised by the original disinvite hang in the air. Are Abbot’s views on diversity so beyond the pale that he shouldn’t be allowed to give a public scientific talk? Are those views, as graduate students wrote in their letter last November, inappropriate and harmful? Can a scholar’s outspokenness on a freighted topic like diversity programs undermine his or her academic standing?
The director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center, David Romps, announced on Twitter this week that he intended to invite Abbot to speak at the center, but after discussing the matter with other faculty members “it became unclear to me whether we could invite that scientist ever again, let alone now.” As a result, Romps wrote that he is resigning as director.
Meanwhile, MIT has somewhat surprisingly invited Abbot to give a lecture next May to students and faculty members, a talk that will likewise focus on his scientific work and that apparently doesn’t carry with it the same public-outreach mission as the Carlson lecture. Abbot has accepted the invitation, he confirmed via email, albeit with some trepidation. “Yes, that’s the plan,” he wrote. “I might need security!”