Dorian Abbot is an associate professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. He spends his days studying climate change and extrasolar planets. In a piece written for Bari Weiss’ Substack, Abbot says he’s never been particularly political. He uses an online tool to decide who to vote for. But a few years ago he began to have concerns about academic freedom. He says he mostly kept his thoughts to himself for several years but that changed last summer.
In the fall of 2020 I started advocating openly for academic freedom and merit-based evaluations. I recorded some short YouTube videos in which I argued for the importance of treating each person as an individual worthy of dignity and respect. In an academic context, that means giving everyone a fair and equal opportunity when they apply for a position as well as allowing them to express their opinions openly, even if you disagree with them.
The YouTube videos that Abbot created were taken down but you can see some of the content by following the link above. In any case, when Abbot spoke up a group of graduate students in his department coordinated a letter denouncing him. Here’s a sample of that:
The contents of Professor Dorian Abbot’s videos threaten the safety and belonging of all underrepresented groups within the department and serve to undermine Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives driven by the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Coordination Team (EDICT). In these videos, he uses anecdotal evidence and poor statistics not supported by peer-reviewed literature about diversity. Although his views may not be unique within the department, his videos are a deliberate rejection of opportunities to participate in conversations within the Department of Geophysical Sciences and University of Chicago as a whole, and represent an aggressive act towards the research and teaching communities of which Professor Abbot is a member.
The denunciation letter went on to make a bunch of demands which would have made it difficult for Abbot to continue his work but all of those demands were put aside after University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer issued a letter last November defending free expression. That put an end to the first effort to cancel Abbot.
In August, Abbot spoke up again, this time in the form of an op-ed at Newsweek which he co-wrote with another academic from Stanford. That article directly challenged the premise of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts on college campuses.
The underlying premise of DEI is that any statistical difference between group representation on campus and national averages reflects systemic injustice and discrimination by the university itself. The magnitude of the distortions is significant: for some job searches discrimination rises to the level of implicitly or explicitly excluding applicants from certain groups.
DEI violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment. It entails treating people as members of a group rather than as individuals, repeating the mistake that made possible the atrocities of the 20th century. It requires being willing to tell an applicant “I will ignore your merits and qualifications and deny you admission because you belong to the wrong group, and I have defined a more important social objective that justifies doing so.” It treats persons as merely means to an end, giving primacy to a statistic over the individuality of a human being.
Sure enough, this strategy was employed when I was chosen to give the Carlson Lecture at MIT — a major honor in my field. It is an annual public talk given to a large audience and my topic was “climate and the potential for life on other planets.” On September 22, a new Twitter mob, composed of a group of MIT students, postdocs, and recent alumni, demanded that I be uninvited.
It worked. And quickly.
On September 30 the department chair at MIT called to tell me that they would be cancelling the Carlson lecture this year in order to avoid controversy.
Abbot concludes his piece today by arguing his treatment is just one example of what cancel culture is doing to society:
I view this episode as an example as well as a striking illustration of the threat woke ideology poses to our culture, our institutions and to our freedoms. I have consistently maintained that woke ideology is essentially totalitarian in nature: it attempts to corral the entirety of human existence into one narrow ideological viewpoint and to silence anyone who disagrees. I believe that these features ultimately derive from the ideology’s abandonment of the principle of the inherent dignity of each human being. It is only possible to instrumentalize the individual in order to engineer group-based outcomes within a philosophical framework that has rejected this principle. Similarly, it is easy to justify silencing a dissenter if your ideology denies her individual dignity.
There is some good news here. While Abbot was deplatformed at MIT, Princeton has invited him to give his lecture on the same day he was scheduled to speak at MIT. The Princeton lecture will be available on Zoom.
Obviously it’s good news that Abbot hasn’t been fired or had his job made more more difficult. And it’s good news that a version of his lecture will take place. Still, all of this might have gone very differently if not for the intervention of just two people, his school’s President and one professor at Princeton. What happens to our universities when the people who joined the cancel mob (mostly grad students) take over the administration? The fact that cancel culture often doesn’t result in cancellation isn’t a sign that the mob is reasonable or non-threatening, it’s only proof that their long march through the institutions isn’t complete.