Opinion guest column

Free expression and academic freedom on campus are worth fighting for

MIT must recommit to the values of open discussion and dissent

Anybody connected with MIT has likely heard of the “Abbot Affair” by now. Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist from the University of Chicago, was invited to give the prestigious John Carlson Lecture, an annual public event of the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Though it is unrelated to his research or lecture topic, Abbot is an outspoken advocate for “Merit, Fairness, and Equality” (MFE), in opposition to the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) initiatives that are now the norm on many campuses, including at MIT. Abbot has made many controversial statements in the public square in his defense of MFE. After an uproar both internal to MIT’s campus and on social media about allowing Abbot to speak, the department canceled this year’s Carlson Lecture and invited Abbot to instead give an internal colloquium to the department.

Whatever your views are on DEI or MFE and whatever you think of Abbot’s public comments, this cancellation is a clear sign that academic freedom at MIT is in peril. That many find Abbot’s comments in favor of MFE offensive (including some members of the MIT Free Speech Alliance) is entirely to the point — protections of academic freedom ring hollow if they only apply to speech that offends no one. The fact that Abbot was an invited guest rather than a member of the MIT community and the fact that he was offered an alternative (less prestigious and less public) opportunity to speak about his research do not justify the cancellation of his original talk. With this decision, based purely on Abbot’s sincerely held ideological perspective outside his scientific contributions, the MIT administration has signaled loud and clear that diverse perspectives on important topics of the day are not welcome on campus. That in fact, even someone who speaks on a purely scientific topic must be vetted for their political views.

Why should we care about academic freedom and free expression on campus? Those who feel that free expression is an outdated concept have very short memories. The movement to protect free expression on campus was, until recently, the purview of the left, and was intimately tied in with the anti-Vietnam War movement and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The freedom to express unpopular, even upsetting or offensive, speech is crucial both to progressive social change and to the academic process. As individuals, it is deeply hypocritical to only stand up for the right to express our own views and not those we disagree with — freedom “for me but not for thee.” That is why the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) went to bat for a group of actual Nazis in the famous Skokie case in the late 1970s. They understood that limiting the fundamental right to free expression will inevitably silence the oppressed. As former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen put it in her book Hate, such restrictions “are predictably enforced to suppress unpopular speakers and ideas, and too often they even are enforced to stifle speech of the vulnerable, marginalized minority groups they are designed to protect.” These words were specific to the legal protection of the First Amendment, but as Strossen makes clear, can be applied to free expression on campus as well. Specifically, the academic freedom of faculty to challenge the establishment is fundamental to the role that an academic institution like MIT must play in testing, debating, and discussing a diverse range of ideas about the important topics of the day, of which DEI clearly qualifies. As she writes, “In light of the enormous power of private universities… either to facilitate or stifle the free exchange of ideas and information… except in unusual circumstances, [private universities] should permit all expression that the First Amendment shields from government censorship.”

If the only person harmed by the Abbot Affair were Abbot himself, this would be a relatively small concern; Abbot has weathered this just fine. But an administration that signals a lack of strong support for free expression on campus stifles speech across the board — in classrooms, research laboratories, dorm rooms, and the public square. This is not idle speculation; a recent Heterodox Academy survey of American college students suggests that over 60% of students in 2020 (up from 55% in 2019) felt the climate on their campus prevented them from saying what they believe. A recent poll by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) suggests the situation for students at MIT may be even worse. And a recent informal poll of MIT faculty found close to 80% of respondents expressing concern about their free expression.

MIT has recently convened an Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression. We encourage the members of this Working Group to carefully examine the history of academic freedom and free expression on campus. We urge them to bring back a recommendation for MIT to rededicate itself to the core principles that have spurred robust debate, and ensured that campus life is full of diverse perspectives and a healthy ecosystem of ideas, within a campus culture that values discussion and dissent. As a concrete suggestion, we urge MIT to explicitly adopt the Chicago Principles defending free speech at universities. And we urge everyone in the MIT community who cares about free speech, viewpoint diversity, and academic freedom to join the MIT Free Speech Alliance.

This article was written by Melanie Soderstrom ’98, Eric Rasmusen ’84, and Jim Rutt ’75 (President) on behalf of the MIT Free Speech Alliance. We can be contacted at admin@mitfreespeech.org, or Twitter @mitfreespeech.