“How do you bring about a free speech turnaround on campus? Maybe, just maybe, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is on the verge of that achievement.
On Sept. 30, 2021, MIT committed what many in American higher education consider a grievous violation of its tradition of free speech and academic freedom. Having invited the distinguished University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot to deliver its prestigious John Carson Lecture, it abruptly disinvited him after progressive activists objected to his critiques of affirmative action and faculty hires based on race and gender.
Significant soul-searching in the MIT community followed. A Working Group on Free Expression was created, and now it has released its 56-page report. The report contains a “Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom,” which the working group has called on the MIT faculty to adopt.
The proposed statement proclaims that “MIT unequivocally endorses the principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom” and adds that “we cannot prohibit speech that some experience as offensive or injurious.” This is exactly right. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., wrote, the true test of our commitment to free expression is whether we protect “not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
The statement also acknowledges the importance of intellectual diversity, noting that “diversity of thought is an essential ingredient of academic excellence.” Since great science emerges from challenging accepted beliefs and a competition of ideas, MIT will find renewed strength if it embraces heterodoxy…”
“The MIT faculty have an important decision to make. They should strengthen the working group’s proposed statement and then adopt it. But they — and the university administration — should also recognize that this is only a first step. If they want MIT to be a gold standard for free expression, and MIT should, then they need to walk the walk and make the vision of the statement a reality on campus. They should start by ensuring commitment to free expression a key criterion in their upcoming presidential search…”
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