Why the Latest Campus Cancellation Is Different

Following a Twitter outcry, a scientist was stopped from giving a lecture at MIT for reasons that had nothing to do with the lecture itself.

MIT campus
Adam Glanzman / Bloomberg / Getty

About the author: Yascha Mounk is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the founder of Persuasion.

Updated at 10:15 a.m. ET on October 11, 2021

Dorian Abbot is a geophysicist at the University of Chicago. In recognition of his research on climate change, MIT invited him to deliver the John Carlson Lecture, which takes place every year at a large venue in the Boston area and is meant to “communicate exciting new results in climate science to the general public.”

Then the campaign to cancel Abbot’s lecture began. On Twitter, some students and professors called on the university to retract its invitation. And, sure enough, MIT buckled, becoming yet another major institution in American life to demonstrate that the commitment to free speech it trumpets on its website evaporates the moment some loud voices on social media call for a speaker’s head.

But there is more to this story than meets the eye. For although most outlets have covered Abbot’s disinvitation as but the latest example of an illiberal culture on campus, it is qualitatively different from other recent instances in which invitations have been rescinded—and suggests that the scope of censorship is continuing to morph and expand.

Is Abbot a climate-change denier? Or has he committed some terrible crime? No, he simply expressed his views about the way universities should admit students and hire faculty in the pages of a national magazine.

Back in August, Abbot and a colleague criticized affirmative action and other ways to give candidates for admission or employment a leg up on the basis of their ethnic or racial identity in Newsweek. In their place, Abbot advocated what he calls a Merit, Fairness, and Equality (MFE) framework in which applicants would be “treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.” This, Abbot emphasized, would also entail “an end to legacy and athletic admission advantages, which significantly favor white applicants.”

There are rational grounds for criticizing Abbot. In the conclusion to his piece, for example, he made an ill-advised comparison with 1930s Germany:

Ninety years ago Germany had the best universities in the world. Then an ideological regime obsessed with race came to power and drove many of the best scholars out, gutting the faculties and leading to sustained decay that German universities never fully recovered from. We should view this as a warning of the consequences of viewing group membership as more important than merit, and correct our course before it is too late.

Abbot seemingly meant to highlight the dangers of thinking about individuals primarily in terms of their ethnic identity. But any comparison between today’s practices on American college campuses and the genocidal policies of the Nazi regime is facile and incendiary.

Even so, it is patently absurd to cancel a lecture on climate change because of Abbot’s article in Newsweek. If every cringeworthy analogy to the Third Reich were grounds for canceling talks, hundreds of professors—and thousands of op-ed columnists—would no longer be welcome on campus.

Meanwhile, Abbot’s beliefs about affirmative action, right or wrong, are similar to those held by the majority of the American population. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, for example, 74 percent of Americans believe that, in making hiring decisions, companies and organizations should “only take qualifications into account, even if it results in less diversity”; just 24 percent agreed that they should “also take race and ethnicity into account in order to increase diversity.” Similarly, in a 2020 referendum on affirmative action, 57 percent of voters in California—a very liberal state that also happens to be majority minority—voted to uphold a ban on the practice.

Campaigns to cancel public appearances by controversial figures are in many cases motivated by the expectation that they will express some of their offending views at the event. When violent protests stopped far-right polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at UC Berkeley in 2017, for example, the organizers had every reason to believe that he would repeat his most inflammatory claims.

Even when protesters oppose appearances by controversial public figures who are set to speak on topics that are not in themselves controversial, they normally object to them because there is some connection between a speaker’s controversial views and their general area of professional expertise. Those who oppose talks by Charles Murray about topics that are unrelated to race, for example, argue that his writings on the supposed differences in average IQ between racial groups call his expertise as a social scientist into doubt.

Even though I strongly disagree with Murray’s views on race and find Yiannopoulos to be a trollish provocateur, I have also disagreed with attempts to stop either of them from going through with their talks. As the Yale professor Nicholas Christakis succinctly put it, “There is no right to be invited to speak at a college. But, once a person is invited, a college should never yield to demands to withdraw an invitation.”

But Abbot’s case is far more shocking than that of either Murray or Yiannopoulos. That’s partly because his opinions are much less extreme. It is also because the views that provoked such controversy are completely unrelated to the subject on which he was invited to lecture. “Omg how did *anyone* in @eapsMIT think this was ok?” read one tweet calling for the cancellation of Abbot’s lecture, referring to MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “As an alum, I’m asking you to fix this—now. Totally unacceptable and sends a message to any student that isn’t a white man that they don’t matter and that EAPS isn’t serious about (and is actively hostile towards) DEI.”

MIT did not rescind its invitation to Abbot in the expectation that he would repeat his views about affirmative action. Rather, he was disinvited from one of the most important research universities in the world because it could not tolerate that a scientist be permitted to speak about his uncontroversial research after daring to express unrelated views that, although controversial, happen to be held by a majority of the American public.

In the end, a conservative professor invited Abbot to hold his lecture at a small academic center at Princeton on the same day. MIT, when it cancelled his lecture, invited him to give a scientific presentation to a much smaller audience of EAPS professors and graduate students. As is frequently the case with these kinds of controversies, any one instance can, viewed in isolation, come to look like a big storm in a small teacup.

And yet, the principle that MIT has effectively established is deeply worrying. For it would, if other institutions should follow the university’s example, amount to a severe restriction on the ability of Americans to disagree with a specific set of beliefs about how to remedy injustice without raising the risk that they might no longer be able to carry on their work, even if it is completely unrelated to politics. In effect, this would create a prohibition on controversial political speech for all academics—and eventually, perhaps, professionals in other highly visible domains.

MIT’s decision is not just another in a long series of campus controversies, then. It sets a precedent that will, unless it is forcefully resisted, pose a serious threat to the maintenance of a free society.

This piece has been updated to clarify that MIT invited Abbot to speak to professors and graduate students at the time it informed him that the Carlson Lecture had been canceled.