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Free speech debate in science academia roils after cancelled lecture

A prominent climate physicist at the University of California Berkeley has resigned following a disagreement with faculty members about inviting a speaker to speak to the school. He had been criticized for his political views.

Dorian Abbot (a geophysicist) has been criticised for his opposition to affirmative action programs as well as other initiatives that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion at colleges, universities and colleges. His opposition to affirmative action programs and other initiatives to promote diversity, equity and inclusion at colleges and universities has drawn criticism from left-leaning students as well as academic faculty members.

A statement was made on Twitter , Monday by David Romps, a physicist. Romps said that he will be stepping down as director at Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center or BASC “at the close of this calendar year” or “when a replacement is available, whichever comes first.” A spokesperson for the university said Romps would still remain a professor in Earth and Planetary Sciences. The incident has sparked a debate over whether it is appropriate to restrict speech on college campuses.

This month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology canceled a lecture invitation for Abbot, a geophysicist and an associate professor at Chicago’s University of Chicago. This was in response to a editorial he wrote in Newsweek . It argued in favor of a Merit, Fairness, and Equality framework on campuses. The article, which Abbot co-authored in Newsweek , called for riots in Chicago policeman Derek Chauvin. In a article published Oct. 5, on Substack ., Abbot addressed these comments.

Abbot was due to give the prestigious Carlson Lecture to MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences about his research on climate science.

Romps did not respond to a request to comment. He requested the faculty to host Abbot’s prestigious Carlson Lecture at MIT. This lecture was about his research on climate science and the potential for alien planets to support life.

Romps stated that he had asked faculty members if they could invite Abbot to speak to them in the next months to hear his science talk and, by extending an invitation now, reaffirm the fact that BASC, which is purely scientific, was able to invite him to speak to them. He stated that the discussions were not resolved and that his colleagues had refused to invite guest lecturers with differing political views. This is against the school’s mission.

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

Abbot said in an emailed statement: “Professor Romps is an extremely brave proponent of academic freedom. Few people are willing to defend academic freedom and even resign from an important position in support of it. If we had a few more leaders and administrators like Professor Romps, we wouldn’t be having a crisis of academic freedom in our universities.”

Dan Mogulof, a spokesperson for UC Berkeley, said the school believes diversity of perspective is “absolutely essential.”

“UC Berkeley’s administration regrets that the director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center has decided to resign given that faculty members affiliated with the Center have not yet fully discussed and considered — much less decided — whether to extend an invitation to the speaker in question,” Mogulof said in a statement.

Keith Whittington is a Princeton University professor of politics and chair of the Academic Freedom Alliance’s academic committee. He said that avoiding lecture topics or people with controversial views could compromise the principles of free speech universities are supposed to uphold. This could limit the range of ideas and opinions that can be discussed on college campuses,” Whittington said.

But, comparing the cancellation of a school’s public lecture to censorship is too simplistic, according to Phoebe Cohen (a Williams College paleontologist and associate professor in geosciences). She stated that concerns about whether such actions restrict free speech on campuses are exaggerated.

” “It becomes this struggle cry of academic freedom and free speech, but he still has academic freedom,” Cohen stated of Abbot. “He is allowed to say whatever he wants to say, and he has, but that doesn’t mean that he’s free from consequences.”

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

” “It all comes down to who’s being harmed,” she stated. “Universities don’t have a responsibility to platform people who are harming others.”

Still, Whittington said, Abbot’s case differs from other cancellations because the views expressed in his op-ed were unrelated to the topic of his planned lecture at MIT.

” We are not referring to an outsider provocateur who was brought to campus by a student group,” Whittington stated. “We’re talking about a distinguished scientist who was invited to give a scientific talk and people were saying he can’t do that because he also happens to hold political beliefs they disagree with.”

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


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