Affirm Prof. Dorian Abbot's Right to Free Speech and Uphold the Chicago Principles

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Professor Dorian Abbot, a tenured faculty member in the Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, has recently come under attack from students and postdocs for a series of videos he posted to YouTube expressing his reservations about the way Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts have been discussed and implemented on campus.

In these videos Prof. Abbot raised several misgivings about DEI efforts and expressed concern that a climate of fear is “making it extremely difficult for people with dissenting viewpoints to voice their opinions.” The slides for each of Prof. Abbot’s videos can be found here, and his own account of events and his opinions can be found here. Nowhere in these materials does Prof. Abbot offer any opinion that a reasonable observer would consider to be hateful or otherwise offensive.

Shortly after uploading the videos, Abbot’s concerns were confirmed when 58 students and postdocs of the Department of Geophysical Sciences, and 71 other graduate students and postdocs from other University of Chicago departments, posted a letter containing the claim that Prof. Abbot’s opinions “threaten the safety and belonging of all underrepresented groups within the [Geophysical Sciences] department” and “represent an aggressive act” towards research and teaching communities. (We have redacted the names of the student and postdoc signatories in order to protect their right to free expression and ensure they are not subjected to the same treatment they have meted out to Prof. Abbot.)

The letter also issued 11 demands, many of which would serve to ostracize and shame Prof. Abbot, while stripping him of departmental titles, courses, and privileges. The signatories further demand that the Department of Geophysical Sciences formally and publicly denounce Prof. Abbot’s views, and change hiring and promotion procedures so as to prioritize DEI.

The notion that Prof. Abbot’s opinions represent acts of aggression and threaten anyone’s safety is hyperbolic and absurd. It is unsettling to see such linguistic distortions being used by graduate students at an elite university—let alone the University of Chicago, which has enjoyed a reputation for protecting free speech. The plain purpose of such extreme rhetoric is to stifle debate by dishonestly casting reasonable disagreement as violence and harassment.

Putting aside the evident bad faith of Prof. Abbot’s would-be censors, these demands run counter to the University of Chicago’s widely touted “Chicago Principles”, which outline the “University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas” that “guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” These principles are widely considered the academic Gold Standard for their commitment to free and open inquiry and ones we wholeheartedly support. Indeed, we look to the University of Chicago, and its famous principles, as our lodestar when it comes to academic free speech.

President Zimmer, we are confident that you recognise that the soul of the University is at stake in this conflict and you will affirm Chicago’s commitment to the free and open discussion of ideas. We expect you to do what is right and what many of your predecessors as University of Chicago Presidents have done in the past, which is to stand firmly behind the principles supporting the free expression of ideas. But because there are some who doubt your commitment to these values, including some members of the University, we ask that you issue a statement affirming that Prof. Abbot will not be reprimanded, will not be subject to any departmentally imposed punishments and humiliations, and will not be stripped of any departmental titles, courses, or privileges, or have his tenure put in jeopardy. It is not enough to point to the Chicago Principles and affirm that Prof. Abbot’s tenure isn’t in jeopardy; they must be upheld through your words and actions.

We trust that you will understand the seriousness of the current attempt to suppress free expression and will stand firmly behind Prof. Abbot. The University of Chicago is an increasingly rare safe harbor for those who believe in the true spirit of the Enlightenment and are committed to the search for truth, regardless of how many feathers are ruffled on the journey.

In 1902, University of Chicago President William Rainey Harper declared that “the principle of complete freedom of speech on all subjects has from the beginning been regarded as fundamental in the University of Chicago” and that “this principle can neither now nor at any future time be called into question.” The demands of the students who are attacking Prof. Abbot are calling these principles into question. We are confident you will do the right thing.