With academic freedom under threat at MIT, Williams must commit to free speech

Niko Malhotra

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. 

Specifically discussing the proper role of academic debate in academia, she contended 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, for it implies that minorities and women are incapable of withstanding 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 handicapped in the pursuit of knowledge. By rendering “intellectual debate and rigor” as agents of racial and patriarchal oppression, Cohen dismisses intellectualism as antithetical to the progressive ideology.  

After massive public blowback from the liberal and conservative media alike, Cohen published an op-ed in Inside Higher Ed on Monday in which she laments “becoming clickbait” and defends her comments as taken “out of context” by journalists uninterested in “context and nuance.” It is clearly in Cohen’s self-interest to explain away her comments, but it is important not to let Cohen be absolved of responsibility for the sentiments she expressed in this quotation and to respected journalists. Even so, she doubles down in writing that “intellectual debate and the concept of ‘rigor’ are often seen as the pinnacle — that is, the most ideal form — of intellectualism today in American higher education, a type of discourse that is prioritized and prized in a system that was created by and for white men.” Cohen continues to argue that intellectual debate and rigor are structural tools of the white patriarchy, minimizing the value of debate and rigor to education. In pushing this warped understanding of academic debate, Professor Cohen and like-minded individuals detrimentally root out dissenting voices like Abbot on affirmative action.     

The absurdity of the reaction to Abbot’s views is that he is not even a dissenting voice. His opinions are well within the ideological mainstream and widely held among Americans. A 2019 Pew Research poll revealed that 73 percent of Americans, including majorities of all racial groups, say that “colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity when making decisions about student admissions.” Furthermore, California voters, some of the most progressive in the nation, in 2020 rejected by a margin of 15 percentage points a proposition that would have allowed the use of affirmative action in public university admissions. Progressive academics, not Abbot, are the ones out of touch on this issue. 

The central issue is that Abbot’s position on affirmative action should not have any bearing on his ability to present a distinguished lecture on climate change. By pushing MIT to cancel Abbot, academics like Professor Cohen reveal that conformity to the ideological whims of the progressive intellectual class supplants one’s expertise and achievement in a scientific field. In giving into Abbot’s detractors, MIT cowardly surrenders to the opponents of free speech and academic freedom.

After MIT canceled Abbot’s lecture, Princeton’s Robert George, the chair of the university’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, invited Abbot to speak to reaffirm the importance of academic freedom and free speech to our intellectual discourse. However, when David Romps, the director of UC Berkeley’s Atmospheric Sciences Center, similarly attempted to invite Abbot to stress the importance of separating science from politics, it became clear that he would face significant opposition from the faculty and Romps felt compelled to resign from his role as director. It is disheartening that the university that was home to the Berkeley Free Speech movement of the 1960s is unwilling, in 2021, to stand up for the principles of free speech and academic freedom so integral to its history. 

At Williams, we must ensure that our rights to free speech and academic freedom on campus are protected from those willing to subvert intellectual discourse and ideological diversity in their pursuit of conformity. Instead of “pushing back against flawed ‘free speech’ narratives” as Cohen argues is necessary, we must harness free speech as a fundamental value in a Williams education. There are several concrete steps the Williams administration can take to protect our academic environment from actors threatening to erode our core values as a liberal arts institution. First, we must work with pro-free-speech organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to examine our existing policies and see whether they adequately protect open academic inquiry and prevent censorship. Furthermore, the administration must join dozens of colleges and universities in adopting the Chicago Statement, a clear affirmation of freedom of expression on college campuses. With these strong protections, Williams can successfully renew its commitment to providing a liberal arts education, free from ideological agendas, to its students. 

Niko Malhotra ’24 is from Falmouth, Maine.