Threats to Academic Freedom: An Open Letter to MIT’s Leadership

October 26, 2021

Dear President Reif, Provost Schmidt, and Professor van der Hilst:

As CEO and President of the US Free Speech Union, I write not to rehearse the criticism with which you are already amply familiar regarding the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences’ (EAPS) cancelation of Dorian Abbot’s John H. Carlson Lecture. Rather, I write to express my consternation regarding the public statements you have made in your efforts to defend or contextualize that decision. Those statements misconstrue and mischaracterize the meaning and purpose of academic freedom and of the scholarly public lecture. They reveal an unawareness of a host of historical topics with which academic leaders should be conversant. And, in some instances, they are so recklessly misleading that they approach calumny. In short, in a situation that demands clarity, rigor, and honesty, your statements contort scholarly principles.

You have issued a number of justifications, which President Reif and Provost Schmidt patronizingly label “facts,” to correct what you have averred are distortions introduced by “the media” (to quote President Reif and Provost Schmidt). According to you, these facts are: (1) It is “a mistake” to view the cancelation of Professor Abbot’s lecture “as an affront on [sic] academic freedom” (to quote Professor van der Hilst), because, as you all have explained, “Professor Abbot has the freedom to speak as he chooses on any subject” (to quote Provost Schmidt), just as EAPS has “the freedom to pick the speaker who best fits our needs” (to quote Professor van der Hilst). (2) Concomitantly, because the Carlson Lecture is an annual address in which MIT’s EAPS chooses a distinguished scientist to communicate her or his ideas about climate science to the public, not primarily to fellow scientists, academic freedom is not at issue. (3) Because some students and faculty at MIT have deemed distasteful Professor Abbot’s views on an unrelated topic—diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies in the academy—the controversy created by those students and faculty would “overshadow” (to quote Provost Schmidt) the purpose of the Carlson Lecture. (4) Professor Abbot is unfit to deliver the Carlson Lecture because of what Provost Schmidt has characterized as his “manner of presenting” his arguments regarding DEI policies, arguments that Professor van der Hilst states draw “analogies to genocide,” are “deeply offensive,” “inflammatory, polarizing,” and “stifle” discussion.

I address your assertions seriatim.

To issue bland assurances that MIT abides by “Professor Abbot’s freedom to express his views” (to quote Provost Schmidt) is merely to state that MIT does not oppose the Constitutions of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The granting of that freedom is not within MIT’s gift. MIT’s avowal that Professor Abbot has a right not to be censored or punished by public authorities for his opinions is a public-relations stratagem unworthy of a university and is irrelevant to the issue at stake.

That issue, of course, is whether EAPS’s rescinding both of an invitation to a scholar to deliver a public lecture on his scientific work and of the academic honor that invitation bestows—a decision based not on academic or professional misconduct, but on the opinions that scholar has expressed—violates academic freedom and the related principle of freedom of expression. Your arguments in the negative evince, at best, a fundamental ignorance of those principles. (Here I commend to you several works on the history, meaning, and purpose of academic freedom and free expression in the academy, and on threats to the same: The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, edited by Richard Hofstader; Academic Freedom in Our Time, by Robert M. MacIver; No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities, by Ellen Schrecker; The Great American University, by Jonathan R. Cole; the two special issues of Social Research, edited by Arien Mack, “Free Inquiry at Risk: Universities in Dangerous Times,” Summer and Fall 2009; and Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom?, edited by Akeel Bilgrami and Jonathan R. Cole).

The purpose of academic freedom is to promote the unfettered pursuit and transmittal of knowledge. In its founding document in 1915—on the eve of the still unmatched suppression of free thought in the academy that accompanied America’s entry into the First World War and the first Red Scare—the American Association of University Professors defined as one of the three elements of academic freedom the obligation of academic institutions to protect scholars’ “freedom of extramural utterance and action.” As you know, from that time through the anti-left wing witch hunts of the late 1940s and 1950s, continuing through the Vietnam era to now, the greatest threats to academic freedom have arisen precisely from that impulse to bar scholars from the academy and from academic discourse because some or most found their extramural opinions abhorrent. Robert Maynard Hutchins, generally considered the greatest university president of the twentieth century, defined the only way academic freedom can be defended in the face of that threat:

The only question that can be properly raised about a professor . . . is his competence in his field. His private life, his political views, his social attitudes, his economic doctrine, these are not the concern of his university; still less are they the concern of the public. I have no patience with the philosophy of “Yes, but” as applied to this matter any position short of the one I have stated will be found to involve such compromises that nothing is left academic of freedom.

In this light, what all of you cite as the “purpose and mission” (to quote Provost Schmidt) of the Carlson Lecture matters not a whit. All of you have invoked “public outreach”—a term redolent of corporate public relations—in arguing that in this case MIT need not act according to academic standards. That won’t wash. A university is not just primarily an academic institution—it is exclusively so. Just as it rightly enjoys the privileges that status bestows, so too must it adhere to the obligations that status enjoins. Here the only issue that matters is that MIT used non-academic criteria to silence a scholar in what is most certainly a pedagogical and university-sponsored pursuit, regardless of the lecture’s intended audience.

Just as important, your arguments that the Carlson Lecture should not be subject to the strictures of academic freedom because it is a public lecture betray a narrow and self-interested understanding of the academy’s role in public life. In endowing the lectureship, John H. Carlson defined its purpose: “to raise awareness about climate.” Indeed, the lectureship’s only stated mission is to communicate “exciting new results in climate science to the general public.” The lecture series does not exist to help EAPS, the Lorenz Center, or MIT enhance their public images. Presumably, Mr. Carlson believed, correctly, that the best way to fulfill the mission he promulgated was to fund a lectureship in which leading climate scientists (not, say, journalists, publicists, and policy advocates) illuminate the science. For some eleven years EAPS has sought out the leading climate scientists throughout the world to transmit their work to a lay audience intent on learning the science from the best in the field. EAPS judged Professor Abbot to be one of those scientists—and one who could effectively communicate significant scholarly work to the general public. In canceling Professor Abbot’s lecture, you have deprived that audience of the opportunity to listen to and learn from a person whom EAPS itself has judged to be a scholar with singularly important ideas to convey to the public. Surely those who attend the Carlson Lecture look to the speaker not for his or her extramural views, but for his or her profound scientific knowledge and understanding.

Provost Schmidt and Professor van der Hilst have attempted to rationalize canceling Professor Abbot’s lecture by alluding to the notion that the Carlson lecturer should be a “role model.” A thorough search of public documents and statements related to the Carlson Lectureship yields no mention of this criterion before Professor Abbot’s invitation was withdrawn, which could lead one to surmise that this supposed desideratum is in fact nothing more than an ex post facto justification for canceling Professor Abbot’s lecture. Regardless, aspiring scientists no doubt seek as role models scholars who have performed innovative and significant scientific research, and who have carried out their professional duties scrupulously and generously–not those scholars with whom they may agree on social, academic, or political issues. After all, it would have been a great loss to science, if, say, a gifted young biologist who was also a member of Young Americans for Freedom had spurned Richard Lewontin as an exemplar or mentor because of Lewontin’s outspoken Marxism. The US Free Speech Union takes no position on Professor Abbot’s opinions on DEI policies, but for the sake of argument I’ll stipulate that those views are wrong and even incendiary. Nevertheless, if one believes that the academy has a responsibility to ensure that members of the public have access to the thinking of the best scholars willing to speak to them, and that academic freedom, and therefore the advancement of knowledge, demands that those scholars be judged on their intellectual distinction and not by their opinions on politics or academic policy, then one is forced to conclude that it is not Professor Abbot who has failed to properly model academic values but the three of you.

The argument that academic freedom does not apply in the case of public lectures delivered under a university’s auspices is to invent a distinction unrecognized by the world’s great universities. Here is a fragmentary list of prominent scholars who made statements or issued lengthy arguments on political, social, and moral questions that many reasonable people rightly or wrongly deemed—to quote Professor van der Hilst’s condemnations of Professor Abbot’s views—“inflammatory,” “deeply offensive,” and “polarizing.” Parenthetically included are some of the renowned public lectures they delivered: Eric Hobsbawm (the Wiles Lecture, Queen’s University, Belfast; the Nobel’s Centennial Symposia; the Creighton Lecture, King’s College, London), Edward Said (the Messenger Lecture, Cornell; the Christian Gauss Seminar, Princeton), Christopher Hill (the Ford Lecture, Oxford) Noam Chomsky (the Messenger Lecture, the Christian Gauss Seminar), Eugene Genovese (the William E. Massey Lecture, Harvard), Saul Bellow (the Romanes Lecture, Oxford), A.J.P Taylor (the Romanes Lecture). The list of distinguished scholars and their distinguished lectureships is, of course, wholly unsurprising. It would have been shocking if any of these institutions had withdrawn a lectureship invitation owing to a scholar’s extramural views; and it would have been beneath these institutions to have then waved away that breach of academic freedom by taking MIT’s position that academic freedom had, in fact, not been violated because, after all, to quote Provost Schmidt’s corporate-speak, the lectureship “is not a standard [academic] talk for fellow [academics]. It is an outreach event, open to the public.”

The three of you suggest variously muddled reasons for EAPS’s decision to cancel Professor Abbot’s lecture. Provost Schmidt states that “the debate” within MIT “over both [Professor Abbot’s] views on diversity, equity, and inclusion and manner of presenting them were overshadowing the purpose and spirit of the Carlson Lecture,” which prompted Professor van der Hilst to rescind Professor Abbot’s invitation. But why would “debate” over ideas that Professor Abbot has published prompt EAPS to cancel his lecture? Surely Provost Schmidt, the chief academic officer of a university, must understand that a unique and basic purpose of a university is to nurture—not to eschew—discussion, argument, and even strong disagreement on all subjects, especially uncomfortable and contentious ones. It is never the role of the university to avoid debate, regardless of the inconvenience caused by that debate. Since Provost Schmidt cannot possibly mean that the aim to avoid “debate” itself precipitated EAPS’s action, perhaps Provost Schmidt means that the vociferous objections to Professor Abbot’s ideas threatened to disrupt Professor Abbot’s lecture, which would, as President Reif declares, render impossible an “effective” lecture. But surely both President Reif and Provost Schmidt recognize the danger that the “heckler’s veto” (in both the legal and colloquial sense of the term) poses to free expression, generally, and to the free exchange of ideas in a university, specifically. President Reif and Provost Schmidt certainly recognize as well the university’s obligation never to wield, and to do all within its power to neutralize, that weapon. If they don’t, they should familiarize themselves with this passage from the University of Chicago’s Report on the Committee on Free Expression:

Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it. (Emphasis added.)

Perhaps Provost Schmidt means that debate over Professor Abbot’s views on unrelated issues was drawing attention away from Professor Abbot’s lecture, an address that Professor Abbot, as much as the organizers of the lecture, hoped would elucidate his significant research in climate science. If that is the case, then EAPS and MIT squandered a crucial opportunity to demonstrate to the general public and to MIT’s students and faculty the vital role a university must play in preventing political differences from shutting down, or distracting from, the pursuit and transmission of knowledge, especially given MIT’s newfound enthusiasm for using the Carlson Lecture to promote a “model” of academic life.

After all, in many instances in the last century, American universities and cultural institutions barred apparent and real Communists and those perceived to be sympathetic to Communism from participating in and enriching academic, scientific, cultural, and intellectual life. Certainly, many of those responsible for that exclusion were intolerant opportunists; many others were people of good will who were convinced—not always unjustifiably—that the scholars, scientists, and intellectuals they were barring held beliefs, usually unrelated to their academic or intellectual work, that were antithetical not only to perceived national ideals and purposes, but to the widely accepted conceptions of democracy and tolerance. Whatever the motivation, the exclusion applied non-academic criteria to the academic mission, and thereby perforce vitiated the twin purposes of the university to extend and impart knowledge. In the same way, excluding Professor Abbot, indisputably an outstanding scientist, from presenting his ideas at the Carlson Lecture because some, correctly or not, find his views on DEI policies objectionable, necessarily diminishes “public understanding of and appreciation for climate science”—the inculcation of which is the very goal of the Lecture—and frustrates the academy’s role (desirable if incidental) in helping to develop an informed citizenry.

The circumstances surrounding this year’s Carlson Lecture, like those posed by Communist and supposed Communist sympathizers, demand a university leadership dedicated to the hard and no doubt unpleasant job of instilling within their institutions (and explaining to the public) the exacting discipline of academic freedom, a discipline that requires that views one finds objectionable be tolerated and protected and that recognizes that those who hold such views can be invaluable to the academic endeavor. In short, a university’s leadership must sustain an environment that expects and demands that, say, a linguist who is also a dedicated Zionist be as open and generous in arguing and collaborating with Professor Chomsky in their shared academic field as I know Professor Chomsky would be with him or her. Furthermore, that leadership must ensure that what all of you call the university’s “public outreach” efforts help those outside the academy appreciate the distinctive, counterintuitive and therefore fragile set of values on which academic endeavor depends. Rather than withdrawing Professor Abbot’s invitation, MIT’s leadership could—and should—have exercised . . .well, leadership, by vigorously fostering an atmosphere in which Professor Abbot could elucidate his ideas on climate science to the public and interested MIT students and faculty.

Although both President Reif and Provost Schmidt praise Professor van der Hilst generally and approve of his decision to withdraw Professor Abbot’s invitation specifically, the explanations Professor van der Hilst offers for his decision differ in some significant ways from those of the President and the Provost. In interviews with The TechThe Boston Herald, and The New York Times, Professor van der Hilst objects to a historical analogy that he claims Professor Abbot drew in presenting his views about DEI policies. Elaborating on his reasoning for withdrawing Professor Abbot’s invitation, Professor van der Hilst presents, chillingly, the general proposition that “Words matter and have consequences.” Professor van der Hilst’s New York Times interviewer reports that the Professor “drilled down” on Professor Abbot’s Newsweek article in explicating his decision to disinvite Professor Abbot. Professor van der Hilst declared that Professor Abbot’s “drawing analogies to genocide . . . is inflammatory and stifles the very respectful discourse we need.”

Professor Abbot draws two comparisons to Nazi Germany in his Newsweek article:

DEI violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment. It entails treating people as members of a group rather than as individuals, repeating the mistake that made possible the atrocities of the 20th century.

Ninety years ago Germany had the best universities in the world. 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 a group membership as more important than merit…

Of course, deciding what speech is “offensive” and “inflammatory” is an entirely subjective exercise. I credit Professor van der Hilst’s pronouncements that he is profoundly repelled by Professor Abbot’s analogies. For what it’s worth, I am not (by the way, every member of my European family save one was killed in the Holocaust). One could tenably argue that the comparisons Professor Abbot draws are overly broad and intellectually lazy, but to charge him with “drawing analogies to genocide” is itself slapdash and arguably inflammatory. (Professor Abbot argues that a mindset that gives primacy to group identity can make possible atrocities like those that occurred in the twentieth century—here, by the way, one surmises that he might be referring to Nazi, Soviet, and Communist Chinese atrocities.) Professor van der Hilst deploys his pique to justify what is, despite his uninformed assertions to the contrary, an abridgement of academic freedom and of the principles of free expression. Those justifications betray an unawareness of so many realities as to border on the unworldly. After all, few gambits in argument are as ubiquitous and timeworn as the intellectually slack resort to Nazi comparisons—the tactic was so widespread in 1951 that Leo Strauss coined the term reductio ad Hitlerum to encapsulate it, and the inevitability of succumbing to Nazi comparisons in any online debate was memorialized as “Godwin’s rule of Hitler analogies” in 1990. That Professor van der Hilst finds such comparisons inflammatory rather than irritating is far more noteworthy than Professor Abbot’s deployment of them. Furthermore, despite his no doubt sincere repulsion at Professor Abbot’s comparisons, surely Professor van der Hilst must know that confected, politically motivated outrage over reductio ad Hitlerum is nearly as stale and predictable as the practice itself. Recall how Republican columnists and politicians ginned up their indignation over the Claremont McKenna philosophy professor John K. Roth’s comparisons of the 1988 Israeli elections to Kristallnacht and of Ronald Reagan’s election to the Nazi rise to power, an event, Roth averred, that sent “the world reeling into catastrophe that virtually annihilated the Jews of Europe.” (Properly, Claremont McKenna had no reaction whatsoever to Professor Roth’s comparisons.)

Moreover, Professor van der Hilst seems strikingly unaware of the troubling questions raised by his pronouncements defending his decision to disinvite Professor Abbot. For instance, in the department that Professor van der Hilst leads, and at the university that extols his academic leadership, what, precisely, is the speech that, in his estimation, will “have consequences”? What, precisely, will be those “consequences”? And who, precisely, gets to determine what speech is offensive and where, exactly, that speech falls on the hypothetical scale of offensiveness? Would Professor van der Hilst exercise his influence or powers of moral suasion to exclude those scientists who publicly avow the slogan of Palestinian nationalism “from the river to the sea Palestine will be free”—a statement that many rightly or wrongheadedly believe effectively advocates a genocidal program against Israel’s Jews—from speaking at the Perimeter Public Lectures, the Karl Taylor Compton Lectures, the James R. Kilian Lectures, the Ford/MIT Nobel Laureate Lectures (to name some of the public lecture series held at MIT)? If he would not, why not? What are the “consequences” that Professor van der Hilst believes should befall, say, a scholar and committed Marxist who fails to disavow Marx and Engels’s celebratory injunction, which some find polarizing and inflammatory: ‘“The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward”? (Emphasis added.)

Professor van der Hilst has ruled that the argument from historical analogy regarding the long-term impact of Nazi ideology on German universities disqualifies Professor Abbot from delivering a public lecture at MIT. Ironically, in 2005 another academic compared the permanent damage that Nazi ideology had imposed on German universities to the threat that he perceived “political pressures to conform to ideological beliefs” posed to academic freedom in American universities:

The stakes are high. The destruction of university systems has historically been caused by the imposition of external political ideology on the conduct of scholarly and scientific research…German universities still have not recovered from the catastrophe of 1933 when Hitler began to dismantle German science and technology by purging those researchers who did ‘‘Jewish science.’

Were that scholar to be invited to deliver a public lecture at MIT, would Professor van der Hilst argue that the invitation should be withdrawn, and would he publicly excoriate the scholar for engaging in speech that is “inflammatory, polarizing, and the opposite of creating space for respectful dialogue that we badly need”? Would Professor van der Hilst modulate his condemnation because the scholar who drew that analogy is Jonathan R. Cole, the Provost and Dean of Faculties at Columbia from 1989 to 2003 and the preeminent authority on the modern research university?

Surely Professor van der Hilst cannot be unaware that the most famous instances of reductio ad Hitlerum were the comparisons Cold War propagandists made between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the comparisons that elements within the New Left made between Nazi atrocities and American foreign policy, generally, and American conduct in the war in Vietnam, specifically. Had Professor van der Hilst been a department chair in 1967, he would surely, consistent with his views today, have been among the many people, including many who opposed the war, who found the latter analogies “deeply offensive” and “polarizing, inflammatory.” He would have been no less affronted by the following indisputably inapt and inflammatory invocation of Nazi atrocities than he is by Professor Abbot’s clumsy analogizing:

What do [Vietnamese peasants] think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe.

Professor van der Hilst would have been exquisitely sensitive to the perhaps hurtful impact that such provocative rhetoric would exercise on a university in which some sons, husbands, and brothers of student, faculty, and staff were fighting in Vietnam, and in which students, faculty, and administration had unusually close personal, professional, funding, and intellectual ties to the American military and the defense industry. Had the author of that statement—Martin Luther King, Jr.—been invited to deliver the Compton Lecture, no doubt Professor van der Hilst would have pressed for the withdrawal of the invitation, given that the Compton Lecture is a “public outreach event,” explaining that “besides freedom of speech, we have the freedom to pick the speaker who best fits our needs,” and that “words matter and have consequences.” Of course, were MIT to have rescinded an invitation to Dr. King, it would have breached the principle of campus free expression—but because King was not then engaged in the academic enterprise, academic freedom would not have been at stake. That hypothetical withdrawal, while a betrayal of a university’s commitment to free and open inquiry, would therefore have been a lesser offense than the cancelation of Professor Abbot’s lecture.

Once again, even were there to be universal and indisputable agreement that Professor Abbot’s Newsweek article is as repugnant as Professor van der Hilst contends, Professor van der Hilst’s decision to withdraw Professor Abbot’s invitation would nevertheless be a violation of academic freedom (and of the principles of free expression), because Professor van der Hilst’s bill of indictment is inadmissible in those courts.

The university is one of humankind’s greatest achievements. Its values, its mission, its concerns are singular. Academic freedom, as Louis Menand argued, “is the key legitimizing concept of the entire enterprise. Virtually every practice of academic life that we take for granted . . . derives from it.” Because academic freedom contradicts some of our most basic impulses, it is always vulnerable. It depends on those in your positions to safeguard it. You have grievously failed in your duties.

Yours sincerely,

Benjamin Schwarz

President and CEO, The US Free Speech Union

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