MIT angered countless students when the school decided to cancel a lecture by famed geologist Dorian Abbot. MIT notified Abbot on Sept. 30 that the school wanted to “avoid controversy” when current students and alums complained about Dorian Abbot’s stance that academic evaluations should be fully based on merit.

Abbot’s controversial stance on academic evaluations had nothing to do with the lecture he was due to give. He was scheduled to deliver the John Carlson Lecture. Sponsored by MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) each year, this is a lecture meant to communicate “exciting new results in climate science to the general public.”

But MIT caved in the face of Twitter pressure. When MIT canceled the lecture Princeton quickly snapped up Dorian Abbot. “I’m delighted to report that we’ve expanded the Zoom quota for Dr. Dorian Abbot’s Princeton lecture – the one shockingly and shamefully canceled by MIT – and literally thousands of people have registered,” Princeton professor Robert P. George said, by way of tweet.

Who is Dorian Abbot?

Dorian Abbot is an associate professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago. He was scheduled to lecture at MIT on that academic field — his life’s work has been, in his own words, the use of “mathematical and computational models to understand and explain fundamental problems in Earth and Planetary Sciences.”

Abbot was invited last year to give this year’s lecture, which was scheduled for October 21. But it will not happen, because Dorian Abbot has also spoken out on the issues of academic freedom and merit-based university hiring.

Why do Critics Have an Issue With Dorian Abbot?

Academic freedom is an ideal usually applied to the behavior of university administrators. They are advancing academic freedom to the degree to which they encourage and protect (especially from political pressures) the unpopular views of their tenured faculty, and the faculty’s expression of those views, both inside and outside of the classroom. 

Abbot’s view is the controversial one that academic freedom and merit hiring are closely related subjects: that merit hiring, the practice of giving “everyone a fair and equal opportunity when they apply for a position,” is intimately connected with the policy of academic freedom, as defined above, and both must be advanced together, against those political pressures. 

Dorian Abbot’s expression of this view in a public way this summer created an opportunity for a test case on exactly that point. From his own point of view, at any rate, MIT flunked the test.

The lecture, titled “Climate and the Potential for Life on Other Planets,” is scheduled to happen by way of Zoom at 4:30 p.m. ET on Oct. 21 – the identical day it had been scheduled to take place at MIT. 

Do you think MIT made a mistake canceling the lecture? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!