On Sept. 30, Dorian S. Abbot, a University of Chicago geosciences professor, was disinvited from delivering a high-profile public outreach talk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The university rescinded the invitation following widespread pushback from people at the institution and in the broader scientific community over Abbot’s public attacks on affirmative action and diversity initiatives in higher education.
Although I am not currently affiliated with MIT or the University of Chicago, I am a geoscientist who is strongly committed to creating a more just and inclusive discipline. As such, I was one of the many people who spoke out on Twitter against Abbot’s invitation. In response, several reporters from national publications contacted me for comments about the canceled event.
I had concerns about being interviewed about the incident, as people who speak out on issues of diversity are often attacked — and the risk is greater for white women and Black, Indigenous and other people of color. But I decided that, as a tenured professor, my responsibilities to my academic community outweighed my personal risk. So I wrote some notes and talking points on the issue and waded in.
By the time Michael Powell from The New York Times reached out to me, however, I was already wary, feeling unsettled by questions that a reporter from The Boston Globe had asked me. When Powell asked me to talk to him, I responded, “If you’re serious about nuance then I am willing to talk. But if you’re just looking for a pull quote about liberal cancel culture, I’m not your person.” Powell assured me he was indeed seeking nuanced conversation and “not looking to insert Quote A into Space B.” Feeling somewhat reassured, I agreed to talk with him.
Several weeks later, The New York Times published its piece on the Abbot incident, including this quotation from me: “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.”
What followed was a deluge of attacks on Twitter, as pundits with millions of followers retweeted my words out of context. Then came the violent and insulting emails that flooded my work inbox. People tried contacting me through locked social media accounts and cc’d my college’s president in their emails. My quotation was regurgitated, and my character and intelligence questioned in The New York Post, conservative online magazines and multiple additional New York Times columns and newsletters. I even won an award.
It was horrifying and yet fascinating to see how my words served as something of a Rorschach test. Critics on the center left thought that I was claiming that only white men are capable of intellectual debate and rigor. Meanwhile, people on the far right thought I was contending that intellectual debate and rigor should be culled from higher education because they are associated with white men who are — ostensibly, according to me — inherently bad. Both takes were wrong, and neither side seemed particularly interested in the truth when outrage-driven clicks were on the line.
As a professor, I often tell my students that if people don’t understand what you are trying to tell them, then the issue is usually not their comprehension but rather your attempts at communicating. So was all this blowback my fault? The crucial difference in this case is that journalists have a tremendous power in terms of selecting quotations and providing context — or not. While people have attributed many meanings to the single quoted sentence, here’s what I actually meant, which I explained in an email exchange with the reporter a few days before the piece was published.
Intellectual debate and the concept of “rigor” are often seen as the pinnacle — that is, the most ideal form — of intellectualism today in American higher education, a type of discourse that is prioritized and prized in a system that was created by and for white men. There are many other forms of intellectual discourse and knowledge building that don’t center on conflict. “Intellectual debate” is often cited as an ideal for finding truth, but in reality, it is a framework that gives equal weight to two ideas that often are not, in fact, equally worthy of platforming. Some things, such as the humanity of any group of people or the roundness of the Earth, are simply not up for debate.
Further, the idea that two people standing behind wooden podiums pummeling each other in front of a rapt audience is the only way to engage in discourse is exclusionary, outdated and ignores the many ways that knowledge is generated, reshaped and discussed. For example, calls to decolonize higher education and academic disciplines ask those of us in dominant groups not only to update and change our curriculum and syllabi but also require us to ensure our classrooms are spaces where students feel accepted and engaged, as well as active and equal partners with the professor in their learning. And outside the classroom, my most productive and engaging intellectual conversations — the ones that have actually moved my science forward — have not been based in conflict, but instead in collaboration and a shared spirit of curiosity.
Beyond the concept of “debate,” critiques that center on rigor are equally problematic. Rigor according to whom? What standards are we using, and who is setting those standards? For centuries, a very thin slice of our society — primarily white, Christian, wealthy, non-disabled, cisgender men — has defined rigor in Western education systems.
That is not to say that debate or rigor are inherently wrong, useless or lack a place in academic discourse. But they do carry with them their own contexts and biases, and they are not neutral. For example, many metrics that academe has historically used to evaluate merit, such as standardized testing, are poorly designed and better reflect variables like family income rather than intellectual ability or even success in graduate school. Thus, using them as the standard by which we judge all people and all discourse is inherently flawed.
As you can see, it took me much more than a sentence to accurately express my point of view, because these issues are complex and require context and nuance, which The New York Times reporter didn’t include. Why did I consent to being interviewed in the first place? I spoke up because pushing back against flawed “free speech” and “meritocracy” narratives is vital. I spoke up because, as a white woman with tenure at a private institution, I was in a position where the inevitable fallout from speaking up would have relatively little impact on my career. I spoke up because reporters at what I considered reputable journalistic outlets —The Boston Globe, NBC News and The New York Times — were asking my point of view. In my naïveté, I believed they would ensure a fair and balanced perspective in their pieces. I assumed they would ask other scholars with opposing positions for comment. I even assumed that they might include the perspectives of the people directly and negatively impacted by Abbot’s harmful speech, as well.
I was wrong. In each article in which I was quoted, I seemed to be the lone dissenting voice. Me, a liberal arts professor and paleontologist — not an expert on campus free speech, not a scholar on the history of conservative thought, but a rather scientist who studies the early evolution of life on our planet.
I knew the risk I was taking by speaking at all, and I don’t regret my decision to do so. What I do regret is the trust I had in the reporters with whom I spoke and not pushing harder to have the now infamous quotation reworded or removed. I made the mistake of forgetting my audience — one that was interested in a reaction quote to fit into a piece whose direction was already determined, not in an in-depth discussion of barriers to diversifying the geosciences.
I also regret not pushing harder to encourage the reporters to include the critical aspect that this entire conversation has missed: the people whom Abbot and his supporters have harmed. Geoscience remains one of the least diverse academic fields in the United States, and for very clear reasons. Explicit and implicit biases, structural racism, and ableism contribute to not only few minoritized students entering the field but even fewer deciding to stick it out for the long run. Abbot’s views on meritocracy and affirmative action deny the real, lived experiences of these students, as well as ignore the numerous published qualitative and quantitative studies on diversity in the geosciences. Where is the merit in that?
In the end, this should never have been about me at all — it should have been about holding someone accountable for their harmful and poorly argued ideas. And it should have been about working toward a meritocracy where the playing field is level and accessible for all, and where there is space for a multitude of approaches to academic and intellectual scholarship.
I believe in freedom of speech, but not freedom from consequences. I accept the consequences of publicly speaking out: the emails, the angry tweets, the sidelong glances from colleagues in the corridor. I accept mine, as Dorian S. Abbot should accept his.