Professor Dorian Abbot, a tenured faculty member in the Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, is currently under attack by a mob of university students, faculty, and alumni after he posted a series of YouTube videos criticizing his department’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee.
According to Professor Abbot, EDI efforts “promote a worldview in which group membership is a primary aspect of the human being and different groups are taught to view each other antagonistically.” For this reason, he hoped his videos might ignite a spirited intellectual discussion, while depicting the dangers of vilifying groups based on race, class, and gender.
Instead, Professor Abbot was blown away by the social media firestorm and backlash to his videos. “I think I was a little naive,” he told the Chicago Thinker. Finding the comment section unproductive and not conducive to a civil debate, Professor Abbot decided to delete the videos.
However, one can still access the slides featured in the original video posts. Since Professor Abbot merely read off of his presentation slides in the videos, his message is still publicly available. “What concerns me,” said Professor Abbot in one of his videos, “is that we have been trying to fix bias problems by building new biases into selection processes.”
Last year, Professor Abbot served on a committee for a competitive postdoctoral fellowship, as well as on the hiring committee for the Geophysical Sciences department. Professor Abbot reported in his videos that both of these committees made selection decisions based upon sex and race. According to Professor Abbot, some common phrases he heard in these meetings were the following:
“We need more X diversity in our department, not more Chinese…[b]ecause Z is a white male, he has no right to discuss certain issues…[and] [w]e should hire Y primarily because he or she will help us with our problem with X diversity.”
Professor Abbot also disclosed to the Thinker that, when he was on the department’s hiring committee, he and the other committee members were told that the dean of the division wouldn’t consider a faculty candidate, regardless of ability, unless he or she was a woman or an underrepresented minority.
Professor Abbot provided the following quotation from an email he received while on that committee: “…the only hires that will be considered are for women and/or under-represented groups. I know we cannot legally say that for an advertisement, but it may affect how things play out if we move forward with interviews…”
This was not an isolated incident. According to Professor Abbot, Assistant Professor Graham Slater, who is a member of the EDI departmental committee, recently gave a seminar to the department, which included the following quotation: “If you are just hiring the best people you’re part of the problem.”
Meanwhile, Professor Abbot released a thorough response to these incidents. And he remains committed to his argument:
“I am speaking out on these issues because I believe I have a moral obligation to warn about the dangers of adopting a group-based framework in the academy and in society more generally… I am firm in my belief that sometimes people need to be challenged to think through the implications of ideologies they are advocating [for].”
In his video presentation, Professor Abbot says he is trying to remind the University of its primary goal: “the creation of important new knowledge” and “the education of students.” He believes that the University should not be involved in “advocating particular political ideologies, religious instruction of the population, attempting to adjudicate and effect social justice, and providing for the national defense.”
“Let’s stay focused on doing amazing research and teaching, because society depends on us to do that. Let’s continue to hire and promote faculty based on their ability and promise in research and teaching,” he concluded.
Unfortunately, in academia, Professor Abbot’s statements are highly controversial. Professor Abbot, who says he’s “just a sciences guy” was in shock after he received fierce opposition from a group of his students and colleagues, many of whom expressed being “hurt” and feeling “unsafe” due to his beliefs.
Professor Slater wrote on Twitter that “[d]ropping videos on [Y]ou[T]ube and then promoting them to members of the community without an outlet for moderated conversation is an aggressive act.” He added that Professor Abbot’s behavior has “the potential to do considerable harm. It has already done harm. It is an act I completely repudiate.”
Professor Slater was not alone in his criticisms. The following examples demonstrate the collective outrage, posted in response to Professor Abbot’s commentary:
Finally, staff, students, and alumni of the Geophysical Sciences department created a letter containing 11 demands addressed to the Geophysical Sciences department faculty. In it, the group contends that the contents of Professor Abbot’s opinions “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).” They also assert that his videos “represent an aggressive act” towards research and teaching communities.
More specifically, the co-signers’ 11 demands would effectively ostracize and shame Professor Abbot, by stripping him of departmental titles and privileges, as well as by allowing offended students to transfer out of his courses. The group also demands that the Department of Geophysical Sciences formally and publicly denounce Professor Abbot’s views, and change hiring and promotion procedures so as to prioritize EDI. When it comes to free speech, “[t]here is a group [on campus] that’s trying to silence anyone who disagrees with them,” Professor Abbot told the Thinker.
The University of Chicago prides itself on the “Chicago Principles,” a mission statement claiming a commitment to the defense of free speech and open debate. However, in practice, these principles are routinely ignored. Students and professors understand that there are repercussions, both professional and social, for speaking freely if their opinions defy current campus orthodoxy.
Incidents that suppress free speech on campus abound at the University of Chicago. A few recent examples include the vicious harassment of conservative students, including a PhD student who presented research that contradicted leftist ideology, and the revocation of Steve Bannon’s invitation to speak on campus.
A petition was created and has been signed by over 9,000 people, asking President Robert Zimmer to affirm Professor Abbot’s right to free speech and calling on the University to uphold the Chicago Principles.
To the University’s credit, President Zimmer released a strong statement maintaining that, as prescribed by the Chicago Principles, “faculty are free to agree or disagree with any policy or approach of the University, its departments, schools or divisions without being subject to discipline, reprimand or other form of punishment.”
However, the letter penned by angry students, staff, and alumni calling for Professor Abbot to be censured was not addressed to President Zimmer—it was addressed to the Geophysical Sciences department faculty. The angry signatories are requesting a response addressing each individual demand from the Department of Geophysical Sciences by the end of Autumn quarter, Friday, December 11th.
It has yet to be determined whether the Geophysical Sciences department will maintain the University’s commitment to the Chicago Principles or if President Zimmer will further intervene. If the department punishes Professor Abbot in direct contradiction with the University’s principles, President Zimmer may have to defend free speech and diversity of thought by taking greater action.
Professor Abbot, for his part, appears to be at peace with his decision to speak his mind about the perils of groupthink and race/gender-based bias. “I’m not worried about any of this” and “I don’t feel like a victim,” said Professor Abbot. “If they run me out of the University, then I don’t want to be here anyway.”