Section: Opinion

Weekly Column: MIT made the wrong call by disinviting guest speaker

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently disinvited Dorian Abbot, geophysicist and associate professor at the University of Chicago, from a speaking engagement for prior comments he made regarding affirmative action in a Newsweek article published in August. In this article, Dr. Abbot and co-author Ivan Marinovic, associate professor of accounting at Stanford Graduate School of Business, argue against equitable hiring and admissions practices, claiming that this approach violates the principles of “fair and equal treatment.” In other words, the authors contend that traits such as race and gender should not be factored into hiring and admissions decisions.

A primary point of contention in the article is when the authors claim that equity is essentially discriminatory, likening it to historical racism and “atrocities of the 20th century.” While such comparisons are certainly provocative, it should be noted that affirmative action is not even a settled issue in liberal circles. The authors note that their opinion that inherent qualities should not be considered in employment decisions is shared by 74% of Americans as of 2019. Thus, if MIT disinvited Dr. Abbot because of his views on affirmative action, it is a pretty small minority opinion that they are protecting. The ubiquity of this view suggests that, if anything, colleges should be exposing students to it, rather than shielding them from it. Dr. Abbot’s lecture was to be on his areas of expertise, namely climate change and extraterrestrial life. His views on affirmative action would not have been discussed at all.

Moreover, in the same article for which Dr. Abbot received backlash, he also argued for dismantling legacy admissions and athletic scholarships, claiming that both programs undermine collegiate diversity initiatives. In other words, Dr. Abbot recognizes a lack of diversity to be a pressing issue for many colleges and universities, and consequently MIT’s disinvitation serves merely as a rebuke of his proposed methods for addressing this issue. It is unclear how this decision furthers MIT’s institutional or academic aims in any meaningful way.

This incident is emblematic of a growing schism at college campuses across America between advocates for freedom of speech and those who aim to regulate views that are considered exclusionary and oppressive. Clearly, in the case of Dr. Abbot, the latter group prevailed. This outcome has negative consequences — not just for MIT, but for the integrity and efficacy of higher learning everywhere.

MIT is a private institution and has the right to host — or not to host — any lecturer that it chooses. However, the school’s decision regarding Dr. Abbot is a disservice to its students and academic community. Colleges practice necessary discretion when deciding which outside scholars and public figures to invite to their institution. One can easily imagine a speaker whose rhetoric is so hateful and bigoted that it inhibits any productive dialogue, and therefore their presence on campus is unredeemable and undesirable. This hardly describes Dr. Abbot.

MIT may have been well-intentioned in disinviting Dr. Abbot, but in doing so they hinder their own societal role as a facilitator of discourse and conduit for ideas. Colleges must exercise caution when taking certain topics off the table for debate. Perhaps the case of Dr. Abbot suggests that we have gone too far in the direction of censorship, at the cost of removing important issues from the public consciousness entirely. If this continues, we risk colleges becoming a place of rigid conformity and anti-intellectualism. Kenyon should be wary of this trend in academia, and promptly reverse course.

 

Milo Levine ’23 is a columnist at the Collegian. He is an economics major from Mill Valley, Calif. He can be reached at levine1@kenyon.edu.

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