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Canceled in Academia

If there is any place where free speech should be welcomed and encouraged it is on college campuses, where various ideas and beliefs should be debated and explored. Today, however, college campuses have increasingly become unwelcome places for the free speech they should celebrate.

There are any number of examples in recent years of speakers, more often then not from the political right, who have had their invitations to speak rescinded by college administrators after their scheduled appearances were protested by student groups. A recent incident involving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is not only representative of this alarming trend, it suggests that it is expanding in dangerous ways.

Dorian Abbot is a geophysicist at the University of Chicago whose work on climate change, specifically the benefit of learning about our planet’s climate from studying other planets in our solar system, earned him an invitation from MIT to deliver its prestigious John Carlson Lecture earlier this month in Boston. Abbot is also a skeptic of affirmative action.

In August, Abbot, who is white, wrote in Newsweek that affirmative action should not be used to give a boost to candidates for admission to college based on their ethnic or racial identities. He argued that merit should be the sole factor and that it would be dangerous for institutions of higher education to view group membership as more important than merit.

Abbot’s view is simplistic. It ignores the reality that many gifted minority students funneled into inferior public schools by the nation’s de facto segregationist system are deprived of an opportunity to show their merit. That said, his point is not racist or inflammatory. Critics have ignored Abbot’s argument that putting individual merit over group identity would end “legacy and athletic admission advantages, which significantly favor white applicants.”

The invitation drew protests from MIT faculty and students who, according to Michael Powell of the New York Times, described the invitation to Abbot as oppressive, infuriating and inappropriate. Sadly, but not surprisingly, MIT quickly caved and withdrew the invitation. It must be emphasized that the geophysicist was going to speak on geophysics, not affirmative action, and the esteemed university deprived students and faculty and the public of the opportunity to hear from a prominent scientist.

The Times’ Powell wrote that this issue highlights the conflict between free speech and social justice advocated by progressives in academia. One of the social media critics of MIT’s decision to invite Abbot was Phoebe A. Cohen, a geoscience professor and department head at Williams College. Asked if the decision to rescind Abbot’s invitation threatened academic rigor and free speech on campus, Cohen replied that “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.” Even if true, should intellectual debate and rigor be abandoned on campuses because white men came up with the idea? And to be replaced by what?

It’s encouraging that there has been a backlash against MIT in academic circles. For example, Princeton’s Robert P. George, a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance, invited Abbot to make a speech the day of the cancelled lecture, declaring that “MIT has behaved disgracefully in capitulating to a politically motivated campaign.”

The cancelled lecture that caused this academic debate involved a respected climate scientist talking about climate change. It wasn’t cancelled because he was a climate-change denier but because his views on affirmative action didn’t sit well with some faculty members and students and MIT took the easy way out. Also the dangerous way out.

“I don’t want to live in a country where instead of discussing something difficult we go and silence debate,” said Abbot in the Times. That really is something that everyone in academia should agree on.

Bill Everhart is the former editorial page editor of The Berkshire Eagle and is an occasional Eagle contributor. 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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