Tip of the Iceberg

Was the Abbot Cancellation an Isolated Incident? Or the Tip of an Ugly Iceberg?

MIT would like its alumni, and the rest of the world, to believe that the cancellation of Dr. Dorian Abbot’s Carlson Lecture was an isolated incident. Because the truth is something uglier.

In the last few years there have been two visible, egregious incidents of cultural cancellation at MIT.

  •  In 2020, Father Daniel Maloney was removed as the MIT Chaplain, at the behest of members of the MIT administration. Father Maloney’s sin was that he sent a pastoral email to Catholic students at MIT early in the wake of the George Floyd killing suggesting that Catholics avoid rushing to judgement about the role racism might have played in his murder.

  • In 2021, Professor Dorian Abbot of the University of Chicago had his scholarly presentation cancelled at the prestigious, MIT-sponsored Carlson Lecture. Dr. Abbot’s appearance was cancelled because two months previously he had co-authored an editorial advocating that university hiring be based on merit, fairness and equal treatment of candidates.

Evidence suggests that these were not isolated, unrepresentative examples of speech suppression and viewpoint intolerance at MIT. Rather, these incidents were just visible signs of an encroaching climate that supports suppression of the speech of disfavored viewpoints and identity groups. These visible incidents of speech suppression can only happen in a culture in which viewpoint and speech suppression is tolerated generally. When a visible incident of speech suppression occurs in such a culture, then the rest of the community reacts defensively by engaging in broad self-censorship to avoid being the next cancellation victim.

There is a wide range of evidence that the speech suppression culture at MIT has driven a large portion of the community to engage in self-censorship.

  • MIT consistently ranks below the midpoint of over 200 four-year colleges in campus openness to free speech in annual surveys by FIRE. The FIRE annual reports cover both administration policies and perceptions by undergraduate students.

  • An anonymous survey of the MIT faculty after the Abbot Cancellation indicated that over half of the faculty answered Yes to the question, "Do you feel on an everyday basis that your voice, or the voices of your colleagues are constrained at MIT?"  Almost 80% of the faculty answered Yes to the question  "Are you worried given the current atmosphere in society that your voice or your colleagues' voices are increasingly in jeopardy?" In a focused study of MIT by FIRE in 2022, which covered faculty, graduate students and undergraduates:
    • 40% of faculty reported that they were more or much more likely to self-censor on campus compared to two years earlier (i.e., before the Abbot Cancellation)
    • 48% of students expressed that they were uncomfortable expressing views on a controversial political topic in common campus space.

  • In the wake of the Abbot Cancellation, over 150 members of the MIT faculty felt compelled to write an open letter to the MIT administration complaining about the lack of support for free speech by the administration and urging the Institute to adopt the Chicago Principles.

MIT has built formal institutional mechanisms aimed at controlling speech, and which have been weaponized for speech and viewpoint suppression on other college campuses.

  • A system for anonymous reporting of speech which someone finds offensive, biased, or harmful; the reports not only trigger an administrative investigatory and discipline process, but they create a permanent record in employee or student files.

  • Bias response team and related administrative processes for investigating and punishing freely expressed viewpoints, not just actual discriminatory or harassing actions.

  • Compelled speech programs which require obeisance to specific political or ideological viewpoints and which punish intellectual disagreement, in the form of DEI statements required for applicants for faculty positions. 

The Abbot Cancellation was not an isolated incident. These signs indicate that MIT has strong mechanisms to suppress selective speech and viewpoints, and an administration that will wield them. In response, a significant part of the MIT community has reacted by practicing self-censorship in the classroom and around the campus. Many members of the MIT community are no longer comfortable expressing themselves freely and openly. People do not consider themselves free to speak their minds.