It was only about a month ago that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made headlines for disinviting University of Chicago geophysics professor Dorian Abbot from a planned lecture due to pressure from critics who questioned Abbot’s stance on campus diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Now, multiple free speech groups and a coalition of MIT community members are pressing the college to reaffirm its seemingly flagging commitment to academic freedom and free speech by adopting the Chicago Statement on Freedom of Expression.
The MIT Free Speech Alliance, which launched earlier this week, seeks to “advocate for MIT’s support for free speech, open inquiry, and viewpoint diversity.” The group urges the administration to adopt the Chicago Statement, the gold standard institutional commitment to free expression. The MIT group is also a member of the Alumni Free Speech Alliance, a national organization dedicated to helping alumni mobilize and publicly hold their alma maters accountable to the promises of free expression and inquiry. The group will provide an outlet for MIT stakeholders — including alumni, faculty, students, and friends of MIT — to promote free speech principles and stand behind all members of the MIT community facing censure or other hardships over protected speech.
The formation of the MIT Free Speech Alliance comes shortly after 73 MIT faculty members, representing a broad range of disciplines, signed onto a letter urging the institution to “improve its written commitment to academic freedom and free expression.” The faculty suggest the adoption of the Chicago Statement, which states, in part: “[T]he University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn,” and that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
FIRE endorsed the Chicago Statement shortly after it was introduced in 2015, with FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff calling it one of the most important and “inspiring statements on the unique importance of free speech to any university community.” FIRE has since led a campaign to get other universities to adopt similar policy statements, with more than 70 having so far done so.
It’s clear that a recommitment to free speech is sorely needed in Cambridge. MIT ranked #2 in U.S. News’ latest college rankings, but only #76 out of 155 in FIRE’s 2021 College Free Speech Rankings. Surveyed students showed an unwillingness to listen to opposing viewpoints and are skeptical that the administration will defend the rights of controversial speakers. As exemplified by its stumble in the Dorian Abbot affair, that skepticism has unfortunately proved to be well-founded. The threat of social isolation or career suppression causes students and faculty to be wary of truly engaging in the marketplace of ideas. One MIT student surveyed stated, “in class or in the dorms if you voice disagreement with the agreed upon liberal narrative you will be ostracized socially and targeted for being someone who uses ‘hate speech.’”
Adopting the Chicago Statement will send a message to incoming students: Come to campus ready to participate in a free exchange of ideas.
However, FIRE has found meaningful connections between students’ belief that the college administration will support free speech and a more positive campus climate. The request to adopt the Chicago Principles may seem like a small step, but doing so is likely to go a long way toward alleviating the chilling effect that censorship can have on the campus community. When students and faculty see the leaders of their schools publicly pledge to protect free expression, they feel more secure to freely speak their minds.
Adopting the Chicago Statement will send a message to incoming students: Come to campus ready to participate in a free exchange of ideas. Additionally, it reassures faculty that they will not lose their livelihoods for expressing dissenting views — or for inviting a controversial speaker.
The fight to preserve free speech on American campuses needs individuals and groups with direct and deep ties to a university. Both the faculty and alumni group wish to see MIT return to its place as a world-renowned institution that pushes the boundaries of human understanding.
We hope you will follow and support the MIT faculty and alumni that are fighting to ensure the institution lives up to its storied past. Also, please consider joining FIRE’s Alumni Network to receive breaking news curated specifically for your alma mater, including FIRE’s latest legal developments, strategies for activism, and reporting related to free speech and academic freedom.