Professor embroiled in controversy over disinvited speaker

Jacob Posner

Cohen received significant backlash online for voicing her opposition to MIT’s decision to invite Abbot to speak at the university. (Photo courtesy of Phoebe Cohen.)

Professor and Chair of Geosciences Phoebe Cohen became the subject of online criticism in mid-October after opposing MIT’s decision to invite geophysicist Dorian Abbot — who has critiqued affirmative action — to give a prominent lecture. 

Cohen spoke to a number of national news outlets about her tweets calling on MIT to disinvite the speaker, a step the university ultimately took and faced significant pushback against. One quote by Cohen in a New York Times article particularly provoked multiple counterattacks by leading conservative thinkers, though Cohen says it was taken out of context. 

Cohen’s quote read, “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.” 

In an email to the Record, Michael Powell, the writer of the Times article, disputed that he included the quote without sufficient context. 

In a Nov. 8 opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed, Cohen provided further context on her quote, some of which she said she had explained to Powell during the interview. She wrote, “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 said in an interview with the Record that she doesn’t disagree with meritocracy as such but does take issue with what she characterized as American higher education’s biased standards of measuring intellectual abilities. Cohen argued, for instance, that the SAT is more highly correlated with family income rather than intelligence, and placing a high value on aggressive interpersonal debate benefits groups in the “dominant demographic.”

“There are many other forms of intellectual discourse and knowledge building that don’t center on conflict,” she wrote in her opinion piece. “‘Intellectual debate’ is often cited as an ideal for finding truth, but in reality, it is a framework that gives equal weight to two ideas that often are not, in fact, equally worthy of platforming. Some things, such as the humanity of any group of people or the roundness of the Earth, are simply not up for debate.”

The Abbot lecture

Abbot, who teaches at the University of Chicago, was set to give a public lecture at MIT on “whether the climate of planets outside the earth’s solar system could sustain life,” according to an article in The Boston Globe. But MIT disinvited him after criticism from graduate students and professors about videos and opinion pieces by Abbot on affirmative action and diversity, equity, and inclusion work. An essay Abbot wrote in Newsweek in August criticized affirmative action and compared what he calls “a regime of ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’” to racial discrimination in academic institutions in Nazi Germany. 

“Ninety years ago Germany had the best universities in the world,” Abbot wrote in the essay. “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.”

Although Cohen said she disagrees with Abbot’s views, her critiques on Twitter centered more on the MIT earth sciences department’s decision to invite Abbot in the first place.  

“During the last few years, MIT’s earth sciences department has been making some big moves towards increasing diversity, equity, inclusion in their department, which has historically been a not very diverse department in a not diverse academic discipline,” said Cohen, who worked at MIT as a postdoctoral researcher for two years. “They hired a diversity officer just for their department. They have a diversity statement on their website. They have a committee, so they were putting a lot of time and energy and even resources into this.” 

Cohen said she thought it was therefore hypocritical for MIT to invite Abbot to speak, given his views on affirmative action. She argued that an institution signaling that it offers a welcoming environment for people of marginalized identities — when, in her view, it doesn’t — can lead to a “bait and switch situation.”

Coverage in the media

Soon after Cohen and other critics began calling out MIT on Twitter for what they saw as its hypocrisy, reporters reached out. Of the critics, Cohen said she was the only tenured professor that she knew of, so she agreed to be interviewed. 

Cohen claims that Powell took the quote on intellectual debate and rigor out of context. The quote quickly went viral on Twitter, ultimately garnering criticism from Times columnists John McWhorter and David Brooks, among many others.

McWhorter argued in his piece in the Times that Cohen’s view implies that “the questions Abbot raised are morally out of bounds.”  

This view of what he characterized as “ultra-woke” progressives “forbids basic curiosity and rational calculation and stands athwart the very purpose of the small-L liberal education that universities are supposed to provide,” he continued.

McWhorter also said that affirmative action is a complex issue requiring careful thought and criticisms of the practice shouldn’t be rejected outright. 

Brooks, meanwhile, used Abbot’s case as evidence of a cultural divide between progressive elites and most Americans, arguing that the elite “subculture” is attempting to dominate all others. Seventy-three percent of American adults believe that race or ethnicity shouldn’t be considered in college admissions, he wrote, and yet Abbot was disinvited from MIT for espousing the majority view.

He also took issue with Cohen’s framing of meritocracy in racial terms specifically. “If you want to stage a radical critique of individualism and intellectual rigor, be my guest,” Brooks wrote. “But things get problematic when you assign the ‘good’ side of this tension to one racial category and the ‘bad’ side to another racial category.”

Cohen said that part of the issue with such coverage of her comments was that it drew on a quote that had been placed out of context. According to Cohen, the quote came out of a long conversation she and Powell had about why diversity, equity, and inclusion matter in geosciences — none of which made it into the article.

Cohen said she received many supportive emails after the publication of her piece in Inside Higher Ed, including from some University of Chicago graduate students. Supporters of Cohen also spoke out on Twitter. 

“I’m so proud to call Phoebe a collaborator and friend,” tweeted Jacquelyn Gill, a paleontologist with nearly 100,000 followers, on Monday. “And I’m livid at how many people, reporters, and pundits (who should know better) manufactured outrage for clicks by taking words out of context. Sources are real people: do better.” 

“In speaking out against harmful ideas, Dr. Cohen became a target, because a journalist for the NYT decided to create more heat than light,” she continued in the tweet’s thread. “Meanwhile, the ‘canceled’ academic got an op ed in the WSJ, Dr. Cohen got an inbox full of hate speech, and the outrage machine got its fill.”

Powell said in an email to the Record that Cohen misrepresented their exchange. After sending her the paragraphs of the story that included her quotes, he said she did not push back against her quote on standards of intellectualism. In fact, he said, Cohen added further thoughts in support of it.

In his email to the Record, Powell pointed out that the article includes a paragraph on diversity in the geosciences, as well one on the “desultory history of race science and the United States.” He also highlighted a sentence in the article about a Stanford study Cohen sent him on the decreasing number of Asian Americans earning geoscience degrees. 

“The professor has strong views on diversity in the sciences and on the sometimes subordinate position of free expression,” Powell wrote. “Some of her colleagues in the sciences take issue with these views and her argument is with them. I quoted her accurately and with context.”

For Cohen, the most upsetting element of the coverage, which included articles in the Times, the Globe, and NBC, was the lack of acknowledgement of why diversity is important. It centered instead on liberal academics “canceling” Abbot, which she said isn’t even quite what happened. 

“There was no detailed discussion of the demographics of the earth sciences, and how that has basically remained almost unchanged for 40 years, in terms of race and ethnicity. The only group that has increased its representation in the earth sciences in the last 40 years are white women,” Cohen said. “And [there was no discussion of] the many barriers that minoritized people, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA people face in our field — which are all very real.”

Online harassment

Cohen said that, as she faced harassers questioning her intelligence and telling her to resign, she received helpful advice from friends on how to deal with the outpouring of hate. Cohen set up a filter on her email, locked her Twitter account (it’s now public again), and deleted the Twitter app off of her phone and iPad. 

“Fortunately, I have a very busy job, and a small child,” she said. “And so closing my computer, closing my devices made it mostly go away.”

Cohen emphasized that people of other marginalized groups have experienced much worse internet harassment than she did. She said she knows people who have received death threats, which she has not.

“I have the privilege of having a stable job and feeling protected in that and being white,” Cohen said. “This should really be about the people who feel excluded, who feel pushed out or feel like they don’t even want to enter into different academic disciplines, including the geosciences, because of views like [Abbot’s].”