After canceled lecture, free speech debate roils science academia

A prominent climate physicist resigned Monday from one of his roles at the University of California, Berkeley, after he said faculty members would not agree to invite a guest lecturer to the school who had previously come under fire for his political views.

The lecturer, geophysicist Dorian Abbot, has been the subject of criticism for opposing affirmative action programs and other initiatives designed to promote diversity, equity and inclusion at universities. Abbot has been the subject of boycotts and opposition from left-leaning students and academic faculty meetings.

In a statement on Twitter, the Berkeley physicist, David Romps, said he is stepping down as director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center, “at the end of this calendar year or when a replacement is ready, whichever is sooner.” Romps will remain a professor in the school’s department of earth and planetary sciences, according to a Berkeley spokesperson.

The incident has added to an ongoing debate about when, if ever, it is appropriate to suppress speech on college campuses.

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology rescinded a lecture invitation to Abbot, a geophysicist and associate professor at the University of Chicago, amid public backlash over an op-ed article that he co-wrote in Newsweek that argued in favor of a “Merit, Fairness, and Equality” framework on campuses as an alternative to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, which he said sought “to increase the representation of some groups through discrimination against members of other groups.” Last year, Abbot also denounced riots that erupted in Chicago after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. He addressed those comments in a post published Oct. 5 on Substack.

Abbot was scheduled to deliver the prestigious Carlson Lecture at MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences about his research on climate science and the potential for alien planets to support life.

Romps, who did not respond to a request for comment, said his request to Berkeley faculty followed the MIT cancellation.

Romps said he asked faculty members if the school could invite Abbot “to speak to us in the coming months to hear the science talk he had prepared and, by extending the invitation now, reaffirm that BASC is a purely scientific organization, not a political one,” he wrote on Twitter.

The climate scientist said discussions remained unresolved and that his colleagues’ unwillingness to include guest lecturers who have divergent political beliefs goes against the school’s mission.

“Excluding people because of their political and social views diminishes the pool of scientists with which members of BASC can interact and reduces the opportunities for learning and collaboration,” he wrote, adding that such actions signal that, “some opinions — even well-intentioned ones — are forbidden, thereby increasing self-censorship, degrading public discourse, and contributing to our nation’s political balkanization.”

Abbot said in an emailed statement: “Professor Romps is an extremely brave proponent of academic freedom. There are very few people willing to openly defend academic freedom, let alone resign an important directorship in support of it. If we had a few more leaders and administrators like Professor Romps, we wouldn’t be having a crisis of academic freedom in our universities.”

Dan Mogulof, a spokesperson at UC Berkeley, said the school believes that diversity of perspective is “absolutely essential.”

“UC Berkeley’s administration regrets that the director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center has decided to resign given that faculty members affiliated with the Center have not yet fully discussed and considered — much less decided — whether to extend an invitation to the speaker in question,” Mogulof said in a statement to NBC News.

Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University and chair of the academic committee of the Academic Freedom Alliance, said decisions to shy away from lecture topics or figures who represent opposing viewpoints or have controversial personal politics risk compromising the principles of free speech that universities are meant to uphold.

“That could shrink the scope quite dramatically of what kinds of ideas and opinions can be discussed on college campuses,” he said.

But equating the cancellation of a school’s public lecture to censorship oversimplifies the matter, said Phoebe Cohen, a paleontologist and associate professor of geosciences at Williams College. She added that concerns over whether these types of actions curtail free speech on campuses are overblown.

“It becomes this battle cry of free speech and academic freedom, but he has academic freedom,” Cohen said of Abbot. “He is allowed to say whatever he wants to say, and he has, but that doesn’t mean that he’s free from consequences.”

And while universities should uphold academic freedoms, Cohen said institutions also have a responsibility to consider the communities that their students and faculties are a part of. 

“It comes down to who is being harmed,” she said. “Universities don’t have a responsibility to platform people who are harming others.”

Still, Whittington said Abbot’s case differs from other cancellations because the views expressed in Abbot’s op-ed were unrelated to the topic of his planned lecture at MIT.

“We’re not talking about some outside provocateur that a student group brought to campus,” Whittington said. “We’re talking about a distinguished scientist who was invited to give a scientific talk and people were saying he can’t do that because he also happens to hold political beliefs they disagree with.”

Whittington and his colleagues at the Academic Freedom Alliance sent a letter Monday to MIT asking that the institution take actions to address and rectify the situation.

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