Free Speech Icon Free Speech

Where Will Cancel Culture End? Meet Dorian Abbot

University of Chicago
Photo: University of Chicago campus, by Leefon at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

It seems in no danger of ending anytime soon. In the past 15 or 20 years, the drift toward controlling opinion and expression in academia has intensified greatly. Punishing Darwin skeptics and proponents of intelligent design in the sciences was just the start. Of course, that goes on still today. For the evolution doubter on campus, as we could tell you from the testimony of many known to the Center for Science & Culture, fear and secrecy are the rule.

It didn’t stop there. Political correctness deeply infected the humanities and social sciences. Professional fields like the study of the law were on the menu. Then came the hard sciences. Some comforted themselves that the culture of intimidation would be limited to more left-leaning campuses, like our own Evergreen State College here in Washington. It wouldn’t make its way to less flaky environs — places steeped in ancient traditions like, oh, Yale. But then it did. Christian colleges, perhaps especially those in red states, were thought to be havens. Then they fell, too. 

We’ll Always Have Chicago

At least, you might have said, there was always the University of Chicago, which, with its “Chicago Principles,” had staked much of its “brand” explicitly on academic freedom. For Chicago to turn its back on free speech would be like a Christian college turning its back on Christianity. It couldn’t happen. Right? 

Oh, you are so naive. Meet Dorian Abbot, a tenured Geophysical Sciences professor at the University of Chicago. Dr. Abbot was worried about how his university was taking the drive for “diversity” and “inclusion” so far that in hiring and in other ways, it was discriminating against males, Asians, Christians, and other politically disfavored groups. He released a series of four videos on YouTube documenting his concerns. One slide said:

Let me tell you a story about a student. He is a Christian and from a conservative family in the panhandle of Florida. He is a very promising young scientist, but he feels like he has no place in our University. He is always being excluded and his opinions and cherished beliefs are mocked and dismissed regularly. I really feel for him, and I want to make sure that he feels welcome and like he has a future in science if that’s what he wants to pursue. I want to be part of a university that makes including everyone a priority.

Here Comes the Mob

You can see this one coming from a mile away. A mob of grad students, postdoctoral students, undergrads, and others descended on Abbot, calling for his censure and punishment. They released a statement that began by decrying Dr. Abbot as “unsafe” and “aggressive”:

To the Department of the Geophysical Sciences Faculty:

We, the undersigned members of the Department of Geophysical Sciences Community at the University of Chicago, have come together to address the videos released by Professor Dorian Abbot on his public YouTube channel from Friday, November 13th, 2020 through Sunday, November 15th, 2020. The first of these videos was distributed to members of the department during the weekly virtual lunchtime seminar (“Noon Balloon”). Although these videos were removed from Professor Abbot’s YouTube channel on November 16th, their impact on the Department of Geophysical Sciences community cannot be ignored.

The contents of Professor Dorian Abbot’s videos threaten the safety and belonging of all underrepresented groups within the department and serve to undermine Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives driven by the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Coordination Team (EDICT). In these videos, he uses anecdotal evidence and poor statistics not supported by peer-reviewed literature about diversity. Although his views may not be unique within the department, his videos are a deliberate rejection of opportunities to participate in conversations within the Department of Geophysical Sciences and University of Chicago as a whole, and represent an aggressive act towards the research and teaching communities of which Professor Abbot is a member.

They called on the university, among other things, to:

Take steps to protect students and postdocs currently working with Professor Abbot, in either Research Assistant and Teaching Assistant positions, including but not limited to enabling students to opt out of Teaching Assistant positions in his classes without loss of department funding and to remove Professor Abbot from their academic committees without repercussions. For students who cannot continue working with Professor Abbot, we ask that the 50% UChicago faculty rule for committee membership be waived to allow outside advisors so that all students are accommodated. The department will commit to working with impacted students to avoid any repercussions on the advancement of their degrees at UChicago.

The purpose was to make him a pariah on his own campus. Abbot took down his videos. He said he had worked on his own biases. He was not defending his or anyone else’s “white privilege.” He was all for diversity and inclusion, for expanding pools of applicants for academic positions widely, to bring in as many members of underrepresented groups as possible. At the end of the day, however, in line with the University of Chicago’s own core principles, he wanted the best candidate for the job to be hired.

Grad Students Are the Worst

William A. Jacobson, a Cornell law professor who underwent the same treatment himself, comments at the website Legal Insurrection that in cases like this, it’s typically the graduate students are who “the most aggressive, mean-spirited, and angry” members of the mob. That rings true from our experience in the context of evolutionary censorship. Jacobson summarizes:

Prof. Abbot’s big thought crime was expressing disagreement with some aspects of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” he considers counterproductive (and which may be unlawful). Prof. Abbot didn’t express disagreement with diversity as a goal, or extraordinary outreach to minority hiring prospects to expand the pool, or actions to make sure the hiring process was free from explicit or implicit bias. He supports all those things.

Rather, after all that diversity initiative had been accomplished and a hiring decision had to be made, Prof. Abbot expressed the view that the most qualified remaining candidate should be chosen, which is consistent with U. Chicago policy.

Some prominent scholars elsewhere came out in support of Abbot. The president of the University of Chicago, Robert Zimmer, indicated that Abbot would not be punished. He said:

We believe universities have an important role as places where novel and even controversial ideas can be proposed, tested and debated. For this reason, the University does not limit the comments of faculty members, mandate apologies, or impose other disciplinary consequences for such comments.

“The Process Is the Punishment”

That’s fine. But as Jacobson points out, the spell of fear had already been well cast on the campus. Zimmer’s statement aside, Abbot had already been “punished”:

The process is the punishment. Having to stand up to the mob and attempts at cancellation is draining. Knowing that the people you work with have it out for you is depressing and makes for an infinitely hostile work environment. Even without adverse employment action being taken, the cancel culture bell cannot be unrung.

The damage also is done to the University. Those faculty without tenure learn to stay silent. Graduate students who disagree will not want to subject themselves to attack. Private expressions of support, while better than nothing, reflect a toxic public atmosphere in which dissent is punished and staying quiet will be the option for most people.

Academics are on notice not to publicly question increasingly rigid orthodoxies. It began with evolution, but it’s come a long way since. Will the immediately coming years see the stranglehold on free speech loosened? If you think so, you’re really naive. Before long, it will be those same grad students who are in charge of academic departments, and the universities. First they came from the Darwin skeptics and the ID proponents. Hardly a voice was raised in protest for our freedom. And now here we are. Where will it end?