Berkeley universities

Free speech debate shakes science universities after conference canceled

A prominent climate physicist resigned from one of his posts at the University of California at Berkeley on Monday, after saying faculty members would not agree to invite a guest lecturer to the school who had already been criticized for his political views.

The speaker, geophysicist Dorian Abbot, has come under fire for opposing affirmative action programs and other initiatives designed to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in universities. Abbot has been the subject of boycotts and opposition from left-wing students and meetings of university professors.

In a Twitter statementBerkeley physicist David Romps said he would step down as director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center “at the end of this calendar year or when a replacement is ready, whichever comes first.” Romps will remain a professor in the school’s department of earth and planetary sciences, according to a Berkeley spokesperson.

The incident added to the ongoing debate about when, if at all, it is appropriate to suppress speech on college campuses.

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology canceled an invitation to a lecture to Abbot, a geophysicist and associate professor at the University of Chicago, amid a public backlash against an opinion piece he has co-wrote in Newsweek which advocated for “Merit, Fairness and Equality” on campuses as an alternative to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, which he said were “aimed at increasing the representation of some groups by discriminating against members of other groups “. Last year Abbot also spoke out against the riots that broke out in Chicago after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin. He responded to those comments in an October 5 post on Substack.

Abbot was scheduled to deliver the prestigious Carlson Lecture at MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences on his research into climate science and the potential of alien planets to support life.

Romps, who did not respond to a request for comment, said his request to Berkeley faculty followed MIT’s cancellation.

Romps said he asked faculty members if the school could invite Abbot “to speak to us in the coming months to hear the science talk he had prepared and, extending the invitation now, reaffirm that BASC is a purely scientific and not a political organization, ”he wrote on Twitter.

The climate scientist said the discussions were unresolved and his colleagues’ reluctance to include guest speakers with divergent political views was against the school’s mission.

“Excluding people because of their political and social views decreases the pool of scientists with which BASC members can interact and reduces opportunities for learning and collaboration,” he wrote, adding that such actions signal that “certain opinions – even well-intentioned ones – are prohibited, thus increasing self-censorship, degrading public discourse and contributing to the political balkanization of our nation.”

Abbot said in an emailed statement: “Professor Romps is an extremely courageous supporter of academic freedom. There are very few people willing to openly defend academic freedom, let alone step down from a senior administrator position in support of it. If we had a few more leaders and administrators like Professor Romps, we wouldn’t have a crisis of academic freedom in our universities.

UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said the school believed that the diversity of perspectives was “absolutely essential.”

“The UC Berkeley administration regrets that the director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center has decided to step down as faculty members affiliated with the Center have yet to fully discuss and consider – let alone decide – you had to invite the speaker in question, ”Mogulof said in a statement to NBC News.

Keith Whittington, professor of politics at Princeton University and chairman of the academic committee of the Academic Freedom Alliance, said decisions to avoid conference topics or figures who represent opposing views or have policies controversial personalities risk compromising the principles of free speech that universities are supposed to uphold.

“This could drastically reduce the scope of the types of ideas and opinions that can be discussed on college campuses,” he said.

But equating the cancellation of a school’s public lecture with censorship oversimplifies the matter, said Phoebe Cohen, paleontologist and associate professor of geoscience at Williams College. She added that concerns about whether these types of actions restrict free speech on campus are overblown.

“It becomes this battle cry of free speech and academic freedom, but it has academic freedom,” Cohen said of Abbot. “He’s allowed to say whatever he wants, and he has done it, but that doesn’t mean he’s immune to the consequences.”

And while universities should respect academic freedoms, Cohen said institutions also have a responsibility to consider the communities of which their students and faculties are a part.

“It depends on who is injured,” she said. “Universities do not have the responsibility of setting up people who harm others. “

Still, Whittington said Abbot’s case differs from other cancellations because the views expressed in Abbot’s editorial were unrelated to the topic of his scheduled MIT conference.

“We’re not talking about an outside provocateur that a group of students brought to campus,” Whittington said. “We are talking about a distinguished scientist who was invited to give a scientific lecture and people were saying that he cannot do it because he also happens to have political beliefs that they do not agree with. ‘OK.”

Whittington and his colleagues at the Academic Freedom Alliance sent a letter Monday to MIT asking the institution to take action to remedy the situation.


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