MIT asks its faculty to endorse free speech


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Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Administrators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are trying to restore the academic freedom that made the school a world leader and a crown jewel of American science. Let’s hope the MIT faculty is ready to turn the page on the school’s shameful 2021 cancellation of a geophysicist with politically incorrect views.

On October 6, 2021, this column noted the school’s cancellation of its prestigious Carlson Lecture, which was scheduled to be delivered by Dorian Abbot of the University of Chicago. Fortunately, the indispensable Princeton professor Robert George immediately agreed to host the talk instead. But the damage was done to MIT, which had just violated its own stated policies, not to mention the fundamental principles that have enabled it to create world-changing innovations.

Professor Abbot planned to talk about his research into planetary habitability, but he canceled for other reasons. On October 29, 2021, he explained in the Journal the opinions that infuriated the cancellation crowd:

I believe that every human being should be treated as an individual worthy of dignity and respect. In an academic context, this means evaluating people for positions based on their individual qualities, not on membership of favored or disadvantaged groups. It also means allowing them to freely present their ideas and perspectives, even when we disagree with them.

I care about all my students equally. None of them are over- or under-represented to me: they represent themselves. Their grades are based on a process that I define at the beginning of the quarter. That process treats each student fairly and equally. I hold office hours for students who would like extra help so that everyone has the opportunity to improve their grades through hard work and discipline.

Similarly, I believe that university admissions and faculty appointments are best focused on academic merit, with the goal of producing intellectual excellence. We should not penalize hard-working students and faculty applicants simply because they have been classified as belonging to the wrong group. It is true that not everyone has had the same educational opportunities. The solution is to improve K-12 education, not introduce late-stage discrimination.

The hopeful news is that after last year’s canceled lecture, many members of the MIT community were not about to give up on free speech. A task force set up by the school’s management has recently published a report on the subject and is asking the faculty to support some very sensible ideas:

Freedom of expression is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a diverse and inclusive community. We cannot have a truly free speech community if some perspectives can be heard and others cannot. Diversity of thought is an essential ingredient of academic excellence.

Free expression fosters creativity by affirming the ability to exchange ideas without restriction. Not only does it facilitate individual autonomy and self-fulfillment, it allows for participation in collective decision-making and is essential to the search for truth and justice.

Free speech is reinforced by the doctrine of academic freedom, which protects both intramural and extramural speech without institutional censorship or discipline. Academic freedom promotes scientific rigor and the testing of ideas by protecting research, publication, and teaching from interference…

A commitment to free speech includes hearing and hosting speakers, including those whose views or opinions may not be shared by many members of the MIT community and may be harmful to some. This obligation includes the freedom to criticize and peacefully protest speakers to whom one may object, but it does not include suppressing or restricting such speakers from expressing their views.

The MIT Free Speech Alliance applauds the administration, but also rightly demands that the ideas in the report be put into practice. A statement from the group of affected alumni and other friends of the institution reads in part:

MIT once had a robust free speech system that supported vigorous, open debate and a campus where a wide range of viewpoints were tolerated. A culture of free speech is essential to STEM, as nothing is more damaging to science than orthodoxy that cannot be questioned. It is precisely this culture and the talent it attracted that allowed MIT to become the leading science and engineering university in the world.

The culture of free inquiry is the essential ingredient for anyone the university to thrive and serve the world.

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Mr. Freeman will host “WSJ at Large” on Friday at 7:30 PM EDT on Fox Business Network. The program is repeated at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. EDT Saturday and Sunday.

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James Freeman is co-author of “The Cost: Trump, China and American Revival.”

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