Opinion open letter

MIT must not cancel scientific presentations over societal pressure

Dear Dr. van der Hilst,

I am writing to you as an MIT graduate out of concern for your decision to cancel this year’s Carlson Lecture. I know MIT has always been open to men and women from all walks of life and am fine with reviewing whether there are existing policies that would disadvantage any qualified student. However, it is far from clear to me whether DEI efforts and policies are an improvement or divisive. Of course these are just initials, and the policies and approaches can be constructed differently in different institutions. When something is labeled like this and becomes a movement, I do feel some discomfort. Obviously, you must have felt some pressure by it or the tenets behind it to cancel the lecture.

Professor Dorian Abbot wouldn’t have been invited if his scientific work didn’t merit the honor. More importantly, I can't find anything to suggest that he is a racist or even biased. Perhaps the Hitler reference he and Stanford professor Iván Marinovic used as an example of an extreme result of distorted values was a bit much, but it isn't his main argument related to academic freedom and achievement.

I have personally witnessed the added stress and anxiety students experience when they are thrust into academic settings for which they are not prepared. MIT’s curricula and competition already provide more than enough stress as it is. Let’s help better prepare disadvantaged, minority, LGBTQ, etc. students at lower levels so when they are admitted they can compete on an equal footing. If professors aren’t even-handed, they should be educated or replaced so there is a level playing field for all students.

I am worried about our society in its readiness to label people or actions as racist, an extreme form of bias. Most people are unaware of their prejudices, which can be modified, if not corrected, simply by bringing their attention to them in a friendly way. Others are able to evolve from initial prejudices through education and experience. Racists embrace their prejudices consciously and often act on them.

We need to listen to the Abbots and Marinovics even if we don’t entirely agree with them. Let’s not do anything to limit or stifle scientific work and/or presentations. I have never written a message like this, but when MIT cancels a scientific presentation, I have to write something. We must not give in to social, political, or societal pressures in instances like this.


Daniel B. Borenstein ’57, MD, FAPA
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry (Retired), UCLA Geffen School of Medicine
Past President, American Psychiatric Association