Press Releases | Intellectual Diversity

University of Chicago Geophysicist Dorian Schuyler Abbot Recognized as a 2021 Hero of Intellectual Freedom by ACTA

October 8, 2021 by ACTA

WASHINGTON, DC—Dorian Schuyler Abbot, associate professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, has been recognized as a Hero of Intellectual Freedom by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).

Professor Abbot was recently invited to deliver the Carlson Lecture before the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. He was scheduled to speak on the topic of “Climate and the potential for life on other planets.” Professor Abbot has been a tenured professor at the University of Chicago for 10 years, teaching and researching subjects such as climate change, the cryosphere, planetary habitability, and exoplanets. MIT’s Carlson Lecture is a prestigious honor in the field of science. 

On September 30, 2021, MIT withdrew Professor Abbot’s invitation after a group of activists launched an online cancelation campaign against him. In 2020, they began targeting him after he spoke out in a series of short, self-produced videos advocating 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.”

In August of 2021, Professor Abbot co-authored an op-ed in Newsweek, arguing that diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, as currently implemented on campuses nationwide, violate “the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment” and treat “persons as merely means to an end, giving primacy to a statistic over the individuality of a human being.” The co-authors proposed an alternative framework called “merit, fairness, and equality,” “whereby university applicants are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.” They also urged “an end to legacy and athletic admission advantages, which significantly favor white applicants.”

By disinviting Professor Abbot, MIT has violated its own policies and principles, which specifically demand that the university adheres to a “policy of open research and free interchange of information among scholars.” Furthermore, by its own standards, MIT is directed to recognize and embrace that a “free and open exchange of ideas and viewpoints reflected in the concept of academic freedom may sometimes prove disturbing or offensive to some,” but that “the examination and challenging of assumptions, beliefs or opinions is, however, intrinsic to the rigorous education that MIT strives to provide.”

ACTA President Michael Poliakoff decried MIT’s behavior, noting, “Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born, in collaboration with his wife Hedwig Ehrenberg Born, once wrote, ‘Uncompromising, indefatigable pursuit of truth is, then, the hallmark that distinguishes the scientist from the charlatan. It constitutes the indispensable ethic of science.’ In addition to his distinguished contributions to geophysical science, Dr. Abbot has rendered a service to the academy by challenging its reliance on criteria other than individual merit in student admissions and in faculty hiring. Like his work in natural science, his challenges to academic procedure call out for discussion, not a cowardly cancelation of an honor due to him for his scientific contributions. How sad that MIT, a world-famous place of science, cannot withstand a Twitter storm and live up to the ethic of science.”

Previous recipients of ACTA’s Hero of Intellectual Freedom Award include Smith College alumnus Jodi Shaw (2021) and Professors Joshua Katz of Princeton University (2020), Abigail Thompson of the University of California–Davis (2019), Samuel Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College (2018), and Luana Maroja of Williams College (2017).

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