In “The Betrayal of Academic Ethics” panel discussion at the University of Chicago moderated by Professor Rachel Fulton Brown as part of the Academia’s COVID Failures symposium, Professor Dorian Abbot of UChicago and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University shed light on the erosion of academic freedom and the coordinated suppression campaign targeting dissenting voices during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The discussion began with comments about the deterioration of academic freedom from Abbot, who gained national attention when backlash against his Newsweek article, “The Diversity Problem on Campus,” led to the cancellation of his scheduled delivery of the 2020 John Carlson lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Abbot opted to deliver the same lecture at Princeton instead.
According to Abbot, the core tenets of academia—research and the generation of new ideals—are under threat from diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) fanatics, who stifle academic progress. He then recounted his own experiences dealing with these policies, citing the requirement that academics agree to DEI principles in order to participate in peer review, a necessary component of getting research published.
Why Did We Fail?
Fulton Brown posed a key question regarding COVID tyranny: “Why did we fail?” In his remarks, Abbot reminded the audience that “freedom is something that has to be continuously cultivated; the default state of society is oppressive.” He observed a troubling propensity to trade liberty for false promises of security. Equally, Abbot noted the powerful forces that coalesce against those who take a stand against entrenched powers: “Standing up for what you believe in [in modern times] can label you a fascist.”
The Great Barrington Declaration
In his remarks, Dr. Bhattacharya exposed a coordinated suppression campaign launched against him after he co-authored the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) with Dr. Sunetra Gupta of the University of Oxford and Dr. Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University on October 4, 2020. The document advocated for an end to lockdowns and school closures. In these measures’ place, the GBD proposed an approach of “focused protection,” which prioritized the elderly and high-risk individuals. The GBD garnered tens of thousands of signatures from academics and public health experts within days of its publication.
In a shocking revelation, Bhattacharya recounted the federal government’s suppression campaign in the wake of the GBD’s publication. A recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request exposed a troubling conversation between Dr. Anthony Fauci and National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, where Collins attempted to discredit Bhattacharya and his colleagues as “fringe epidemiologists” and demanded a “quick and devastating public takedown of its premises” from Fauci.
A propaganda campaign against Bhattacharya quickly took shape, during which he was unfairly accused by Fauci of wanting to “let [the pandemic] rip.” He is currently a party to a case against the Biden administration, alleging that more than a dozen federal agencies pressured social media companies to censor speech challenging the government’s narrative on COVID public health policy.
The Corruption of Academia
This suppression campaign also infected academic institutions. Bhattacharya raised concerns about the erosion of academic freedom, emphasizing its utmost importance in “edge cases” where a small group of academics pursue an idea that the majority find inconvenient. If academic freedom does not exist in these edge cases, he argued, it does not exist at all.
Universities failed in their duty to protect faculty members who took the inconvenient position on COVID policy. Bhattacharya also discussed the harassment, abuse, and personal recriminations that he and the signers of the GBD faced; for instance, the Stanford Faculty Senate voted to condemn Dr. Scott Atlas for his positions on masking and pandemic management.
Furthermore, Bhattacharya’s own colleagues at Stanford called on the administration to silence him for participating in a roundtable discussion on COVID policy organized by Governor Ron DeSantis (R., Florida). These colleagues repeatedly sidelined him from faculty discussions on COVID policy. When he asked the medical school dean about why he did not receive invitations to these discussions, he was told that it was simply “too early for a dispassionate, academic discussion of COVID policy.”
The panel discussion highlighted the alarming betrayal of academic ethics during the COVID-19 pandemic. The coordinated campaign against dissenting voices like Bhattacharya’s and Abbot’s—fueled by powerful interests—stifled free inquiry and demonized those who challenged the prevailing narrative. Scientific disputes are resolved through the currency of data and logic, and yet the of public health ethics du jour demand unanimity. But that quest for absolute conformity that comes at the expense of free and open debate is anathema both to academic freedom and public safety.