Administrators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are trying to restore the academic liberty that made the school a world leader and a crown jewel of American science. Let’s hope that MIT faculty are ready to turn the page on the school’s shameful 2021 cancellation of a geophysicist with politically incorrect views.
On October 6, 2021 this column noted the school’s cancellation of its prestigious Carlson Lecture, which was scheduled to be delivered by Dorian Abbot of the University of Chicago. Fortunately the indispensable Princeton professor Robert George immediately agreed to host the lecture instead. But the damage was done at MIT, which had just violated its own stated policies, not to mention the bedrock principles that have enabled it to give birth to world-changing innovations.
Professor Abbot was planning to talk about his research on planetary habitability, but he was canceled for other reasons. On Oct. 29, 2021, he explained in the Journal the opinions that enraged the cancel crowd:
I believe that every human being should be treated as an individual worthy of dignity and respect. In an academic context, that means evaluating people for positions based on their individual qualities, not on membership in favored or disfavored groups. It also means allowing them to present their ideas and perspectives freely, even when we disagree with them.
I care for all of my students equally. None of them are overrepresented or underrepresented to me: They represent themselves. Their grades are based on a process that I define at the beginning of the quarter. That process treats each student fairly and equally. I hold office hours for students who would like extra help so that everyone has the opportunity to improve his or her grade through hard work and discipline.
Similarly, I believe that admissions and faculty hiring at universities are best focused on academic merit, with the goal of producing intellectual excellence. We should not penalize hard-working students and faculty applicants simply because they have been classified as belonging to the wrong group. It is true that not everyone has had the same educational opportunities. The solution is improving K-12 education, not introducing discrimination at late stages.
The hopeful news is that after last year’s canceled lecture, many members of the MIT community were not about to give up on free expression. A working group created by the school’s leadership has recently released a report on the subject and is asking faculty to endorse some very sensible ideas:
Free expression is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of a diverse and inclusive community. We cannot have a truly free community of expression if some perspectives can be heard and others cannot. Diversity of thought is an essential ingredient of academic excellence.
Free expression promotes creativity by affirming the ability to exchange ideas without constraints. It not only facilitates individual autonomy and self-fulfillment, it provides for participation in collective decision-making and is essential to the search for truth and justice.
Free expression is enhanced by the doctrine of academic freedom, which protects both intramural and extramural expression without institutional censorship or discipline. Academic freedom promotes scholarly rigor and the testing of ideas by protecting research, publication, and teaching from interference…
A commitment to free expression includes hearing and hosting speakers, including those whose views or opinions may not be shared by many members of the MIT community and may be harmful to some. This commitment includes the freedom to criticize and peacefully protest speakers to whom one may object, but it does not extend to suppressing or restricting such speakers from expressing their views.
The MIT Free Speech Alliance is hailing the administration but also rightly demanding that the ideas in the report be put into practice. A statement from the group of concerned alumni and other friends of the institution reads in part:
MIT once had a robust free speech culture that supported vigorous, open debate and a campus on which a wide variety of viewpoints were tolerated. A free speech culture is essential to STEM, as nothing is more detrimental to science than orthodoxies that cannot be questioned. It is precisely this culture and the talent it attracted that enabled MIT to become the premier science and engineering university in the world.
The culture of free inquiry is the essential ingredient for any university to thrive and to serve the world.
Mr. Freeman will host “WSJ at Large” Friday at 7:30 p.m. EDT on the Fox Business Network. The program repeats at 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. EDT on Saturday and Sunday.
James Freeman is the co-author of “The Cost: Trump, China and American Revival.”
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