Dorian Abbot is a geophysicist at the University of Chicago. In recognition of his research on climate change, MIT invited him to deliver the John Carlson Lecture, which takes place every year at a large venue in the Boston area and is meant to “communicate exciting new results in climate science to the general public.”
Then the campaign to cancel Abbot’s lecture began. On Twitter, some students and professors called on the university to retract its invitation. And, sure enough, MIT buckled, becoming yet another major institution in American life to demonstrate that the commitment to free speech it trumpets on its website evaporates the moment some loud voices on social media call for a speaker’s head.
But there is more to this story than meets the eye. For although most outlets have covered Abbot’s disinvitation as but the latest example of an illiberal culture on campus, it is qualitatively different from other recent instances in which invitations have been rescinded—and suggests that the scope of censorship is continuing to morph and expand.
Is Abbot a climate-change denier? Or has he committed some terrible crime? No, he simply expressed his views about the way universities should admit students and hire faculty in the pages of a national magazine.
Back in August, Abbot and a colleague criticized affirmative action and other ways to give candidates for admission or employment a leg up on the basis of their ethnic or racial identity in Newsweek. In their place, Abbot advocated what he calls a Merit, Fairness, and Equality (MFE) framework in which applicants would be “treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.” This, Abbot emphasized, would also entail “an end to legacy and athletic admission advantages, which significantly favor white applicants.”