Can you feel it? The chill in the air, the sense that something is indefinably different in your surroundings? I’m not talking about the onset of autumn. I’m talking about the mounting disorientation so many of us feel, the gut-level perception that we’re not living in the same world that we knew just a few years ago. The pandemic brought it into full exposure, but it started around 2015, maybe 2016. Remember how, almost overnight, conversations — even between friends — started getting dicey? The range of topics you could safely discuss shrank. Everything became politicized. Nowhere has this sea change been more explicit and oppressive than in higher education, a point the Massachusetts Institute of Technology drove home in late September by cancelling a prestigious lecture by a University of Chicago geophysicist, Dorian Abbot, in order to placate a gang of Twitter activists.
Abbot is an early-career tenured professor at the U of Chicago who studies climate processes and exoplanets (that is, planets in solar systems other than our own). He’s got a stellar research record (ha!), with nearly 4,000 citations recorded by Google Scholar, putting him well in the top range of scientists worldwide. One of Abbot’s specialties is studying the potential habitability of far-away planets using mathematical and computer modeling. His summarily canceled talk at MIT, the prestigious annual Carlson Lecture on climate science, was supposed to be about using what we know of the Earth’s climate to predict which exoplanets might harbor life — a pretty uncontroversial, if nifty, topic. Nothing that normally ought to ignite a firestorm, right?
Writing for Newsweek Can Be Hazardous
Well, maybe someone tipped them off that Abbot tortures puppies his spare time, or that he was recently convicted for aggravated assault and battery against a nun. Or maybe they belatedly discovered that Abbot is actually a scientific charlatan, a climate change denialist who was going to use his Carlson lecture to claim that burning fossil fuels actually cleans the air, cures acne, and will restore the Amazon.
But no. Abbot is widely respected as a credible and capable scientist in his field. His career hasn’t suffered any personal scandals. What happened was that, in August, he co-authored an editorial in Newsweek criticizing the methods of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives in some universities. In Abbot’s view, the goals of DEI initiatives — to increase representation of minorities and women in academia — are laudable, but the methods of DEI as currently practiced are counterproductive and harmful to universities’ mission of pursuing truth.
In a nutshell, Abbot and his co-author Ivan Marinovic, a Chilean-born Stanford economist, argued that universities shouldn’t preferentially hire or admit people on the base of race and skin color for affirmative action purposes (which tends to give a leg up to minorities and people of color), nor should they have preferential admissions for legacy applicants and athletes (which tend to advantage white applicants). Instead, university hiring and admissions should be solely guided by demonstrated academic abilities, while institutions of higher education should invest heavily in college preparation for minorities to ensure a diverse pool of qualified applicants.
A Cancelable Non-Extremist Viewpoint
Abbot and Marinovic’s ideas might sound reasonable to the seventy-four percent of Americans who, according to a 2019 Pew poll, said employers should never hire or promote people on the basis of race. Majorities of both Republicans and Democrats, as well as of white, black, and Hispanic respondents, agreed with this sentiment, and not because of opposition to diversity — a full 75% of respondents (again, including majorities of all ethnic groups surveyed) said that it was important for employers to promote and increase diversity in their organizations. They simply believed that competence, skill, and experience should determine who gets what job, regardless of skin color.
But while this view is the majority opinion among Americans of all races, it’s so strongly rejected by most university professors, administrators, and students that Abbot’s co-authorship of the Newsweek article cost him his Carlson lecture. Once MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences publicly announced in September that Abbot would deliver the 2021 Carlson Lecture, a flurry of MIT students and others descended on Twitter to demand that his invitation be rescinded.
The firestorm was small, but intense. So intense that, within days, the chair of the department called Abbot on the phone to tell him — I like to imagine in a sheepish voice, but who knows? — that the Carlson Lecture wouldn’t be held this year.
Abbot was disinvited. The pressure from student and Twitter activists had worked.
Shortly after this announcement, Abbot wrote a guest editorial at the Substack newsletter of Bari Weiss, a former New York Times opinion writer whose blog often provides a vehicle for researchers and journalists who find their opinions suddenly unspeakable in university and similar settings. Abbot wrote there that
a small group of ideologues mounted a Twitter campaign to cancel a distinguished science lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because they disagreed with some of the political positions the speaker had taken. And they were successful within eight days.
The fact that such stories have become an everyday feature of American life should do nothing to diminish how shocking they are, and how damaging they are to a free society. The fact that MIT, one of the greatest universities in the world, caved in so quickly will only encourage others to deploy this same tactic.
Activists Define Reality
Abbot is right on both counts. It is shocking, not to mention cringe-inducing, to watch one of the central pillars of American higher education crumble like a rotten tree in the face of petulant, extremist student activism. And activists all around the country — and all over the English-speaking world — will definitely notice.
Because, simply put, this episode proved that activists’ tactics work. By rousting up a Twitter swarm and typing out public letters to be signed by coteries of aggrieved (and privileged) peers, they’re now finding themselves, in 2021, able to dictate the terms of discussion and daily life itself the greatest centers of learning in the world.
We’re entering a new world, then, where politics dominates almost literally everything. In this kind of toxic environment, your opinions about DEI initiatives aren’t just relevant to discussions of campus diversity. They’re relevant for completely different spheres, such as geophysics. This is true even if you agree with the stated goals of DEI initiatives but are merely criticizing the ways that they’re being implemented, as Abbot does. Activists are able to control the narrative about you. And because they can define you, they can decide where you get to speak, write — and even work.
They’re able to do these things because big, important institutions keep letting them. Leaders and bureaucrats keep giving into their absurd demands. This makes the activists powerful. It’s really that simple. And it hurts real, living people.
The cowardice of MIT’s withdrawal of Abbot’s invitation is embarrassing for the university. But it’s outright defamatory for Abbot. If a big university cancels your lecture because of the allegations of activists and students, the implicit message is that you’re guilty of those allegations. Even though you haven’t been convicted in a court of law, your reputation is stained. Other universities and institutions might think twice about inviting you to speak on their campuses.
In case you’re tempted to sympathize with the student activists’ determination to protect vulnerable minorities from Abbot’s views on geophysics (remember he wasn’t going to MIT to talk about DEI issues), it’s worth reinforcing again: Abbot isn’t a white supremacist or racist. Committed neo-fascists don’t often write things like,
I am in favor of many DEI efforts. Around 2010 I learned about the Harvard implicit bias test from a DEI program on campus. I took it and found that I had an implicit bias against women in science. I tried to consciously fight that unconscious bias and purposefully worked with many women in science. Five years later when I retook the test, it no longer revealed an implicit bias. I also strongly support expanding applicant pools as much as possible. I believe that diversity is healthy and good for a university because it tends to lead to more perspectives and debate that fully explores intellectual issues.
But he also writes that
After trying to remove our biases and increase the pool of applicants as much as possible, I believe we should continue to select the most qualified applicants.
And that’s where his worldview and that of the graduate student activists come into irresolvable conflict. One of the axioms of today’s cutting-edge antiracism is that it’s racist by definition to say things like “we should hire the most qualified candidates,” because such sentiments actually reflect a desire to preserve the white-supremacist status quo. Of course, this reading is difficult to square with the fact that majorities of Americans of all races — including African-Americans — agree that employers should hire on the basis of qualifications, not race. But somehow the activists don’t seem to pick up on the irony of talking over actual people of color.
A Revolutionary Fire
I’m not writing about this because I agree wholeheartedly with Abbot. I actually have quite a bit more sympathy for affirmative action in college admissions than he does, although I agree that it would be against the law for a college to refuse to consider male non-minority applicants for an academic job (which Abbot reports was happening at the University of Chicago, where his department would only consider female or minority candidates for a particular faculty position).
I’m writing about this debacle because the whole story is a bad sign. The history of the 20th century sends a clear message: when universities and other intellectual centers start becoming intolerant toward even good-faith debate in favor of a totalizing ideology, we’re in for the kind of times that eventually give historians lots of material to work with, but only after society has picked up the pieces.
And the ideology of activists in universities is totalizing. Its proponents sincerely believe that dissent from their worldview is literally evil. From their point of view, canceling people like Dorian Abbot is necessary to protect minorities. The activists are not hypocrites. They really, truly see institutions in the United States as fundamentally designed to propagate and reinforce white supremacy, including institutions of higher education. In order to destroy the systems that privilege white people over others, they’re firmly convinced that we need to uproot the very foundations of existing institutions. That’s what the word “radical” means — Latin “radix,” root.
This is the language — and the tactics — of revolution.
Yes, Tucker Carlson and other bloviators on Fox News complain endlessly about campus extremism. As a result, many respectable people who are not face-to-face with campus life assume that it must not actually be a problem. Call it the post-2015 syndrome: whatever populist agitators say, respectable professionals assume the truth is 180 degrees away.
But I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in the thick of university life, and the revolutionary language I used above — e.g., “uprooting” American institutions that are seen as fundamentally designed for the primary purpose of perpetuating white supremacy — is an accurate representation of how many, if not nearly all, of the most ambitious, influential, and high-profile segments of the grad student and young-professor population speak. And they’re the ones determining the future trajectory of many of our most valuable and treasured institutions — institutions that draw the most talented people from around the world.
Unless someone stops them.
A Minority Dominates
I’m not saying that the activists are a numerical majority. They’re usually not. Most grad students and young academics used to get into the crazy game of academia because they were genuinely in love with something — some arcane subject, a long-dead language, some fascinating area of scientific inquiry that kept tugging at them in the dark quiet of the night, arousing their longing for knowledge.
This majority isn’t in the university to play politics. True geeks usually don’t speak up with their hesitations and doubts about the activists’ programs because they know that, if they did, a furious wrath would burst down on them — just as it did for Abbot, and just as I’ve seen it do for a growing number of friends and colleagues in New England and beyond. So they keep their heads down and keep playing the long game, hoping the craziness will eventually run its course.
But Abbot’s case proves that the activists are winning. Universities and organizations across the United States are becoming institutionally dominated by the demands and extreme black-and-white worldviews of of disaffected but ambitious students and junior faculty. Many department chairs and high-level administrators don’t stand up to them, fearing a PR disaster: an open letter signed by dozens or hundreds of rising scholars, a Twitter firestorm, or a walkout.* Bureaucratic leaders keep hoping that if they prove their wholehearted support of justice and equity, eventually the activists will trust them and dial down their tactics.
The Bear Is Hungry
But this won’t work. Let me use an analogy. You may have heard that, if you’re attacked by a bear while out hiking, you should play dead. It’s probably just a mother trying to protect her cubs. If you convince her that she’s killed you, you’re no longer a threat. She’ll trundle away and leave you alone.
This is good advice, generally speaking — when it comes to grizzly bears. But occasionally, black bears (ironically, the smaller, cuter variety of North American bears) aren’t trying to protect their cubs. They’re trying to hunt and eat you. They’ll go into predator mode, quietly stalking you from behind, then burst out of the woods for the kill. If this happens, playing dead is a terrible idea. The bear will simply start eating you alive. You have to fight back. Get desperate. Hit the thing in the nose. Make yourself look big. Whack at its face with a log. Scream.
You might lose. Bears are bigger, faster, and stronger than you. But the other option is too terrible to comprehend. As long as you have breath in your body, you fight. And who knows? You might just convince the bear that you’re more trouble than you’re worth. You just have to frustrate and stymie it enough to make it look somewhere else for dinner. Winning means watching it angrily lope away into the trees.
Of course student and faculty activists aren’t bears trying to kill us. It’s an analogy, people. The activists who got Abbot canceled at MIT are human beings made in the image of God whose passion for a cause they hold dear is warping their other priorities. My experience in modern academia cautions that many of them are — how can I put it? — unhappy people who are projecting their personal and family demons outward to the social world. They deserve our compassion as much as the luckless people whose careers they try to ruin.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t fight back where they’re wrong. The point of the bear analogy is that sometimes you pacify or appease — and sometimes you fight like hell.
What’s going on in universities is in the “fight like hell” category.
Accordingly, Abbot has some advice for people who are sick of being bullied by the small but vocal coterie of campus activists who, in enforcing their narrow ideology, are spinning rational, good-faith disagreements into career-destroying Wrongthink. He urges administrators to
(n)ever give in to a mob. Rewarding bad behavior encourages more of it. You, more than anyone else, have the power to put an end to cancel culture by simply ignoring demands made by a mob.
To faculty, he advises that
(c)ancellation tactics work by isolating the target and fostering an atmosphere of fear. You can help by joining together with others committed to academic freedom. I recommend organizations like AFA, FIRE, Heterodox Academy, and ACTA. If you are ever tempted to join a cancellation mob, remember that you could be the next one on the chopping block.
And for donors:
Tell your alma mater that freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and academic freedom are supremely important to you. Ask what protections for free speech are in place and whether the school has endorsed the Chicago Principles. Make your gifts conditional. Stop giving if administrators do not robustly defend these principles. (Link added by me — Connor)
If opinions that are supported by three-quarters of the population of the country are seen as so unspeakably vile that they warrant censorship and professional cancelation in the very institutions that produce our leaders, we are in big trouble. So do something about it. Take Abbot’s advice. If you went to college or grad school, call up the development office at your alma mater and tell them you won’t be donating any more unless the school signs the Chicago Principles, a comprehensive statement of commitment to freedom of inquiry and debate in higher education. If you’re a student or a professor, pledge to courageous, firmly, and humanely resist attempts at censorship or thought control in your department. Be polite but uncompromising with those who try to censor you. If you’re entering school, don’t apply to study in departments that have a track record of giving into social media or activist mobs. Vote with your feet, your voice, your talent, your passion, your intellect, and your dollars. Invest these things in institutions that deserve them — not the ones that give into mobs.
Fortunately, the entire higher education industry hasn’t yet capitulated to the activists. Only days after Abbot’s Carlson Lecture was canceled, Princeton University professor Robert P. George arranged to have Abbot deliver the same lecture later this month at Princeton. The lecture will be on October 21st at 4:30 pm, East Coast time — the same day it was originally scheduled for MIT.
There’s one more way, then, that you can show support for freedom of speech and inquiry in the spaces where it matters most: Abbot’s relocated talk will be on Zoom, and it’s open to the public. Show up for it. You can register here. Support courage over cowardice, and show MIT — and the whole world — that giving in to the mob means missing out on the good stuff.
* Of course, campus administrators increasingly see eye-to-eye with the student and junior-faculty activists on issues of thought control and ideology. The top-heavy bureaucracies that are the real centers of power in most 21st-century universities are, unfortunately, very unlikely to take in upon themselves to be a moderating force unless outside pressure (particularly from donors) forces them to.