With academic freedom threatened at MIT, Williams must stand up for free speech – The Williams Record
In higher education, academic freedom and a tolerance for a variety of perspectives are vital. However, time and time again, colleges and universities bow to the pressure of social media and undermine this fundamental mission. This semester, MIT did national headlines when he canceled the appearance of Dorian Abbot of the University of Chicago, a distinguished climatologist and geophysicist who was to give a prestigious public lecture at the university. After the abbot writings in opposition to affirmative action in hiring professors and college admissions grabbed attention on social media, crowds of academics and progressive Twitter activists demanded that MIT cancel the event and prevents Abbot from speaking. Even though the conference focused on his work in climate science and had nothing to do with the subject of affirmative action, his opponents ridiculed Abbot as an oppressive choice that was at odds with the university’s core tenets. .
Among the participants in this The offensive on Twitter against Abbot was Williams’ own chair of geosciences, Phoebe Cohen. In recent weeks, Cohen has become a public face of the opposition at Abbot’s conference, having done several interviews about the controversy with national news outlets, including NBC News, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times. Speaking to New York Times, Cohen defended his role by pressuring MIT to cancel Abbot’s lecture and argued that universities should not invite speakers who have different values about diversity and affirmative action. Regardless of his college scholarship, Abbot was inherently disqualified because of his political positions.
As a member of the Williams community, I was deeply offended by Cohen’s claim, as it goes against the very essence of liberal arts education that Williams is trying 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 science. In making this argument, Cohen asserts that perspectives should not be considered and examined if they run counter to mainstream progressive academic dogma. For those trying to cancel Abbot’s conference, political ideology seems to supplant scientific research and achievement.
Discussing specifically the appropriate role of academic debate in academia, she argued that “this idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated. Cohen’s statement is incredibly dangerous, because it implies that minorities and women are unable to resist the pressures of “intellectual debate and rigor”, requiring the dismantling of a meritocratic system. As a person of color, I reject the implication that I am inherently disabled in the pursuit of knowledge. By making “intellectual debate and rigor” agents of racial and patriarchal oppression, Cohen rejects intellectualism as the antithetic of progressive ideology.
After a massive backlash from liberal and conservative media, Cohen published an editorial in Inside higher education Monday in which she deplores “becoming a click trap” and defends her words as being taken “out of context” by journalists indifferent to “context and nuances”. It’s clearly in Cohen’s best interests to explain her comments, but it’s important not to let Cohen be absolved of responsibility for the feelings she expressed in this quote and to respected reporters. Even so, she doubles down by writing that “the intellectual debate and the concept of ‘rigor’ are often considered the pinnacle, that is, the the most ideal form – of intellectualism today in American higher education, a type of discourse that is prioritized and treasured in a system that was created by and for white men. Cohen continues to argue that intellectual debate and rigor are structural tools of white patriarchy, downplaying the value of debate and rigor for education. By pushing this distorted understanding of academic debate, Professor Cohen and like-minded people are damagingly uprooting dissenting voices like Abbot on affirmative action.
The absurdity of the reaction to Abbot’s views is that he’s not even a dissenting voice. His views are well mainstreamed and widely held among Americans. A 2019 Pew Research Poll revealed that 73 percent of Americans, including the majority of all racial groups, say that “colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity when making decisions about admission of students “. In addition, California voters, among the most progressive in the country, in 2020 rejected by a margin of 15 percentage points, a proposal that would have allowed the use of affirmative action in admissions to public universities. Progressive academics, not Abbot, are the ones who are out of touch with this issue.
The central issue is that Abbot’s stance on affirmative action should not affect his ability to deliver a distinguished lecture on climate change. By pushing MIT to cancel Abbot, academics like Professor Cohen reveal that conforming to the ideological whims of the progressive intellectual class is supplanting its expertise and achievements in a scientific field. By giving in to Abbot’s critics, MIT is cowardly surrendering to opponents of free speech and academic freedom.
After MIT canceled Abbot’s lecture, Robert George of Princeton, chairman of the university’s James Madison program on American ideals and institutions, guest Abbot to take the floor to reaffirm the importance of academic freedom and freedom of expression in our intellectual discourse. However, when David Romps, director of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at UC Berkeley, similarly attempted to invite Abbot to stress the importance of separating science from politics, it became clear that he would be faced with to significant opposition from faculty and Romps felt forced to resign of his role as a director. It is disheartening that the university that housed the Berkeley free speech movement in the 1960s is unwilling, in 2021, to uphold the principles of free speech and academic freedom so integral to his history.
At Williams, we must ensure that our rights to free speech and academic freedom on campus are protected from those who wish to subvert intellectual discourse and ideological diversity in their quest for conformity. Instead of “pushing aside the mistaken narratives of ‘free speech’,” as Cohen argues, it is necessary, we must harness freedom of speech as a core value in a Williams education. The Williams administration can take several concrete steps to protect our academic environment from actors threatening to erode our core values as a liberal arts institution. First, we need to work with pro-freedom of expression organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education review our existing policies and see if they adequately protect open academic research and prevent censorship. In addition, the administration must join with dozens of colleges and universities to adopt the Chicago Declaration, a clear affirmation of freedom of expression on college campuses. With these strong protections, Williams can successfully renew its commitment to providing liberal arts education, free from ideological agenda, to its students.
Niko Malhotra ’24 is from Falmouth, Maine.