In higher education, academic freedom and a tolerance for a variety of perspectives are vital. However, time and time again colleges and universities bend to the will of social media pressure and undermine this core mission. This semester, MIT made national headlines when it canceled the appearance of University of Chicago’s Dorian Abbot, a prominent climate scientist and geophysicist who was set to give a prestigious public lecture at the university. After Abbot’s writings in opposition to affirmative action in faculty hiring and university admissions garnered attention on social media, throngs of progressive Twitter academics and activists demanded that MIT cancel the event and prevent Abbot from speaking. Even though the lecture was focused on his work in the climate sciences and had no relation to the topic of affirmative action, his opponents derided Abbot as an oppressive choice who was contradictory to the core principles of the university.
Among the participants in this Twitter offensive against Abbot was Williams’ own Chair of Geosciences Phoebe Cohen. In recent weeks, Cohen has emerged as a public face of the opposition to Abbot’s lecture, having done multiple interviews on the controversy with national news organizations including NBC News, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times. Speaking to the New York Times, Cohen defended her role in pressuring MIT to cancel Abbot’s lecture and argued that universities should not invite speakers who hold different values on diversity and affirmative action. Regardless of his scholarship in academia, Abbot was inherently disqualified because of his political positions.
As a member of the Williams community, I was deeply offended by Cohen’s assertion, for it goes against the very essence of the liberal arts education Williams attempts to achieve. Abbot’s views on affirmative action are so diametrically opposed to Cohen’s personal opinion that Abbot must be institutionally rejected by academia despite his expertise in climate sciences. In making this argument, Cohen asserts that perspectives should not be considered and scrutinized if they go against the prevailing progressive academic dogma. For those attempting to cancel Abbot’s lecture, political ideology seems to supplant scientific inquiry and achievement.