Dorian Abbot is an associate professor of climate science at the University of Chicago. He is well respected in his field—he received his PhD from Harvard, where his doctoral thesis, A high-latitude convective cloud feedback, made waves in research about the damage fossil fuels are doing to the ozone layer. Since 2015, he has been tenured at UChicago and now finds himself at the epicenter of the current flurry of climate change research. In recognition of his work, he was invited to give the 2021 John Carlson Lecture at MIT, a forum to “communicate exciting new results in climate science to the general public” and an honor among climate scientists. To many, it was the crowning jewel of a fruitful career. Three days after, it was canceled.
A group of MIT students, faculty, and recent alumni banded together to demand Abbot be uninvited. Two years earlier, Abbot had started making YouTube videos stressing the importance of academic and intellectual freedom. He spoke out against the increasing focus on affirmative action in higher education, and questioned academia’s emphasis on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. In his own words, he “argued for the importance of treating each person as an individual worthy of dignity and respect.” Immediately afterward, graduate students in his department at UChicago demanded his professorial post be revoked, or otherwise restricted to a crippling degree. The clamoring escalated until Robert Zimmer, UChicago’s president, wrote an open statement endorsing faculty’s right to free expression, and the movement faded away.
Fast forward to the fall of 2021. Within two days, Abbot was uninvited from the MIT lecture. His detractors signed a petition and found a replacement speaker. The department chair told Abbot he was canceling “in order to avoid controversy”.
Abbot’s case is indicative of a larger phenomenon on college campuses. Professors, purportedly, have been living in fear; walking on eggshells in classrooms for fear of student complaints. These complaints have garnered exponential influence in comparison to what they used to be – anything that a student finds remotely offensive or “triggering” is cause for one, and the teachers involved are often fired or don’t receive tenure, regardless of the complaint’s validity. In essence, colleges (and, increasingly, high schools and social media) have become places where students expect not only physical safety, but emotional and intellectual safety as well. Statements made and viewpoints held (however long ago) that cause offense or emotional harm in the eyes of the offended and injured are reasons to “cancel” someone, a proverbial social shunning en masse. This trend has occurred over the past decade or so, and it is creating a culture of safety – not the safety afforded us by government and law, but the safety granted by white walls and padded corners: safety in every facet of life, oblivion from all pain, mental, emotional, spiritual or otherwise.
rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed and the trend only continues upward. This culture harms everyone involved, but most of all, it harms the students it “claims” to protect.