At UChicago, a Woke Inquisition—and a Warning


At UChicago, a Woke Inquisition—and a Warning

On a college campus, there are some moments when liberal reality seems more like conservative satire, as if screenwriters were scripting the lines of some students just to humor the right wing.

One such moment occurred recently at the University of Chicago’s Department of Geophysical Sciences (my own department at Stanford). Over one hundred students started a ludicrous campaign against Professor Dorian Abbot, a mathematical climatologist. His crime? Questioning whether racial and gender identity should be primary criteria in hiring new professors.  

Since 1970, the University of Chicago has applied four principles in the hiring and promotion of faculty. They are:

  1. Research
  2. Teaching and Training, including the supervision of graduate students
  3. Contribution to intellectual community
  4. Service

These criteria may seem benign enough, but in our Woke New World, they are most certainly not. In previous weeks, one of Prof. Abbot’s colleagues told a departmental seminar that “If you are just hiring the best people, you are part of the problem.”

Prof. Abbot disagreed, and decided to respond, publishing a series of videos on YouTube voicing several very mild concerns about the DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) policies being promoted in the department.

Prof. Abbot said, among other things, “let’s try as hard as we can to treat everyone who applies to our department equally, and judge applicants only on the basis of their promise as scientists” and “let’s fight bias in science by working hard to reduce bias, not by introducing it.”

After the videos had circulated around the department, Abbot reflected on them. Some of his colleagues agreed, some disagreed. But, he said, “the current academic climate is making it extremely difficult for people with dissenting viewpoints to voice their opinions.”

Without a pause, or a hint of irony, a group of angry students claimed that Abbot’s remarks “threaten the safety and belonging of all underrepresented groups within the department.” They further accused him of “an aggressive act.”

After proving Prof. Abbot’s point more skillfully than he ever could have, the students followed in the great tradition of the activist left and issued a List of Demands to the geophysics faculty. Here’s just some of what they want their department to do:

  • Stop Prof. Abbot from teaching a popular UChicago course on climate change (his expertise)
  • Explicitly and publicly denounce Prof. Abbot and the views expressed
  • Give academic exemptions to “protect” students in the department who would be uncomfortable learning in Abbot’s classes or researching in his lab
  • Stage a professional intervention with an expert in “Transformative Justice”
  • Determine which other faculty share Abbot’s concerns, and prevent them from teaching or sitting on the hiring committee, as well

To top it off, the students asserted that all of this is necessary to foster a “welcoming, supportive, and inclusive community.”

Thankfully, this took place in Chicago, not Beijing, and the Maoist mob met a great brick wall in the form of University President Robert Zimmer.

“Faculty are free to agree or disagree with any policy or approach of the University, its departments, schools or divisions without being subject to discipline, reprimand or other form of punishment.”

This response from a University President is refreshing, to say the least. It made me wonder why our own administrators are incapable of such clarity. Stanford leaders do nominally support free expression for faculty and students. But at the same time, they consistently inflame campus hysteria and choose to use the language of trauma and damage when talking about intellectual disagreements. President Zimmer models a better way.

And so academic freedom lives another day. But though this effort failed, we should take note of what these students tried to do to Dorian Abbot.

Prof. Abbot is a climate scientist who spends his free time teaching night classes for former inmates and volunteering at shelters for the needy in Chicago. He believes in diversity and treating people equally, including in the training of new scientists.  

But in the upside-down world of 2020, his tolerance, open-mindedness, and compassion for all people are actually evidence of bigotry and grounds for his cancellation.

So, to the liberals of Stanford – my own school and my own community, about which I care so deeply – watch your back. Illiberal students, who oppose free expression and academic freedom, are not your friends.

Professors: you may think that it is in your best interest to indulge these students today, to give them a seat at the table and hope that you'll be spared from the next List of Demands. But if you even consider challenging them or their ideology, they will turn on you. And as they attempt to destroy your career and gaslight you, you’ll have no choice but to thank your inquisitors for being so supportive and inclusive.

On the other hand, if you really do believe that Prof. Abbot deserves condemnation for saying “let’s treat every person as an individual worthy of respect and dignity,” then it’s you who needs professional intervention.

PHOTO: Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences, Sebastian D. Szyszka

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