EAPS department annual Carlson Lecture canceled over speaker Dorian Abbot’s comments on DEI

Abbot remains invited to present his scientific work at MIT through ‘alternative forums’

Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) Department Head Robert van der Hilst canceled the department’s annual John Carlson Lecture due to controversy surrounding the invited speaker, Professor Dorian Abbot of the University of Chicago, and his views on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts within academia.

Abbot remains invited to speak at MIT and present his scientific work to the EAPS department.

The Carlson Lecture is organized by the Lorenz Center and aims to “communicate exciting new results in climate science to the general public.”

Lorenz Center Directors, Professors Kerry Emanuel PhD ’78 and Daniel Rothman, wrote in an email to The Tech that they invited Abbot in January 2020 to give the talk “Climate and the Potential for Life on Other Planets” for the 2020 Carlson Lecture, which was not held due to coronavirus restrictions.

Since being invited, Abbot has been vocal in criticizing academic DEI efforts through op-eds, interviews, and now-deleted YouTube videos.

In a Newsweek op-ed titled “The Diversity Problem on Campus,” published August 2021, co-authors Abbot and Stanford Professor Iván Marinovic wrote that DEI in academia seeks to increase the representation of some groups through discrimination against members of other groups, violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment, compromises the university’s mission, and undermines the public's trust in universities and their graduates.

Abbot and Marinovic further stated in the op-ed that Germany 90 years ago had the best universities until “an ideological regime obsessed with race came to power and drove many of the best scholars out, gutting the faculties and leading to sustained decay,” in reference to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. 

They wrote that this is a “warning of the consequences of viewing group membership as more important than merit, and correct our course before it is too late.”

After Abbot posted YouTube videos similarly critical of DEI in November 2020, members of the geophysical sciences community at the University of Chicago wrote a letter calling on faculty to, among other actions, denounce Abbot’s videos and the views represented. In response, the President of the University of Chicago Robert Zimmer addressed a statement on faculty, free expression, and diversity to members of the university community, writing that “faculty are free to agree or disagree with any policy or approach of the University [of Chicago] … without being subject to discipline, reprimand, or other form of punishment” while also reiterating the university’s commitment to strengthening its DEI initiatives.

Once Abbot’s statements and views on DEI became widely known within MIT’s EAPS department, in part due to circulation on social media by students, a push began in late September for EAPS to reconsider its invitation for Abbot to host the 2021 Carlson Lecture, culminating in the Sept. 30 decision to cancel the lecture.

EAPS Master’s Student Megan Guenther MS ’22  said in an interview with The Tech that intradepartmental discussion regarding Abbot focused on whether EAPS should allow “someone who does not align with our values to represent the department” at the “public-facing” Carlson Lecture.

Van der Hilst said in an interview with The Tech that “Abbot’s references to 20th century atrocities in Europe are deeply offensive but within his freedom of speech. On the other hand, it throws a wrench in the very thing he tries to do, which is to open up a conversation about these issues. It’s inflammatory, polarizing, and the opposite of creating space for respectful dialogue that we badly need; it makes underrepresented groups feel like they have no place in STEM.”

Van der Hilst added that “it is important to have speakers who are outstanding scientists and role models to make outreach events like the Carlson Lecture effective” and that “we felt that we could not fulfill those goals this year.”

In response to the cancellation, Abbot wrote in an op-ed for Common Sense with Bari Weiss that a “Twitter mob” of MIT students, postdoctoral associates, and alumni successfully demanded he be uninvited and that the department “caved in so quickly.”

Abbot wrote in an email to The Tech that “we cannot allow small groups of aggressive political activists to decide who is allowed to say what and where they can say it” and that “it’s very important that people understand how cancellations are carried out, and how chilling they are to open discourse.”

The Carlson Lecture cancellation has been subject to widespread and often critical media coverage from sources such as the New York Post, Newsweek, The Boston Globe, and The Atlantic.

Van der Hilst told The Tech that there are many public misconceptions regarding the Carlson Lecture decision, such as that a “Twitter mob” affected decision-making and that Abbot was “canceled.”

In an email to the department announcing his Carlson Lecture decision, van der Hilst wrote that “Prof. Abbot’s scientific research remains of interest to many in the department, and the Lorenz Center will work with him to identify alternative forums at which to present his scientific work at MIT.”

Van der Hilst noted in the interview with The Tech that he had a “very cordial” initial conversation with Abbot when announcing the decision and that Abbot had a meeting with EAPS representatives Oct. 12 to finalize an alternate date and format for his departmental talk at MIT.

“Abbot is welcome to come to campus to speak, and we can engage with and discuss science and other topics that come up,” van der Hilst said.

The James Madison Program at Princeton has since offered to host Abbot’s talk Oct. 21 at 4:30 p.m. over Zoom, the same date and time planned for the Carlson Lecture.

Thousands have registered for Abbot’s talk, causing organizers to request an expansion of the Zoom participant limit to accommodate more people.

EAPS undergraduate Juliana Drozd ’22 said in an interview with The Tech that Abbot has “benefitted from the situation” and that all the publicity has “amplified his voice.”

Princeton Professor and Director of the James Madison Program Robert George wrote in an email to The Tech that “those responsible for the cancellation of Professor Abbot’s Carlson Lecture should be ashamed of themselves” and that “they threw core principles of academic freedom and scholarly integrity overboard.”

“We further believe that every institution of higher education in the United States has a stake in the preservation of academic freedom at every other institution,” George wrote.

Though Abbot requested in a Tweet that no one attack the “activists who led the campaign” against him, many EAPS community members who discussed the situation publicly on social media have since been targeted for harassment.     

Van der Hilst told The Tech that he is “appalled” that EAPS community members are being singled out and that threats and threatening language are being communicated to MIT Police.

Near the end of 2019, EAPS commissioned Taskforce 2023 to conduct departmental surveys, convene workshops, and evaluate other departments or institutions to make recommendations on, among other areas, DEI efforts.

EAPS has since made a commitment to expand DEI efforts by appointing Professor David McGee as EAPS Associate Department Head for DEI to chair the EAPS DEI Committee and build on work done by the EAPS Diversity Council, Taskforce 2023, WiXII (Women in Course 12), TIDE (Toward Increasing Diversity in EAPS), and students who wrote the EAPS DEI Action Plan in June 2020.

Van der Hilst recommitted to DEI efforts in an email to the department Sept. 17, 2021 after Dr. Erin Fischell PhD ’15, a research scientist in the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Joint Program, resigned from the WHOI, citing a “hostile and toxic work environment” at WHOI.

Van der Hilst wrote that “we remain committed as individuals and as department leaders to the goal of creating a department with respect, inclusion, belonging, and equity for all its members as its foundation, as outlined in our EAPS Principles of Community.”

Update 10/14/21: A previous version of this article suggested that Dr. Erin Fischell was affiliated with the EAPS department. This article has been updated to reflect that Fischell resigned due to a work environment specific to WHOI and is in fact not EAPS-affiliated. Van der Hilst wrote to the EAPS department Sept. 17 to support WHOI students who are EAPS-affiliated.

Additionally, a previous version of this article included the statement “Abbot’s comments are deeply offensive” from van der Hilst. The statement has been specified to clarify van der Hilst meant that “Abbot’s references to 20th century atrocities in Europe are deeply offensive.”