I believe academic hiring should be based on merit and that hurt feelings are no reason to ban opinions.
By Dorian Abbot Updated Oct. 29, 2021 Wall Street Journal Commentary
I am a professor at the University of Chicago. I was recently invited to give an honorary lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The lecture was canceled because I have openly advocated moral and philosophical views that are unpopular on university campuses.
Here are those views:
I believe that every human being should be treated as an individual worthy of dignity and respect. In an academic context, that means evaluating people for positions based on their individual qualities, not on membership in favored or disfavored groups. It also means allowing them to present their ideas and perspectives freely, even when we disagree with them.
I care for all of my students equally. None of them are overrepresented or underrepresented to me: They represent themselves. Their grades are based on a process that I define at the beginning of the quarter. That process treats each student fairly and equally. I hold office hours for students who would like extra help so that everyone has the opportunity to improve his or her grade through hard work and discipline.
Similarly, I believe that admissions and faculty hiring at universities are best focused on academic merit, with the goal of producing intellectual excellence. We should not penalize hard-working students and faculty applicants simply because they have been classified as belonging to the wrong group. It is true that not everyone has had the same educational opportunities. The solution is improving K-12 education, not introducing discrimination at late stages.
I believe we are obliged to reduce bias where it exists, where we can. That includes honest reflection on whether we are treating everyone equally. But you cannot infer bias based only on the ratios of different groups after a selection. A multitude of factors, including interest and culture, influence these ratios. I disagree with the idea that there is a right ratio of groups to aim for. Instead, the goal should be fair selection processes that give every candidate an equal opportunity.
I run a large course on the politically charged topic of climate change. But I refuse to indoctrinate students. The course presents the basic scientific evidence and encourages students to think for themselves about the best solutions to the problem. I correct my students when they make scientifically unsound arguments, but I encourage the full range of political perspectives as students work out their preferred societal response. These practices reflect an understanding that the pursuit of truth is the highest purpose of a university and an acknowledgment that I myself could be wrong.
More broadly, the university has a duty to encourage students and faculty to offer their opinions and insight on the widest possible range of topics. That is best done in a respectful atmosphere, but disagreement with an argument is no excuse to prevent a person from speaking or writing. It is normal to feel discomfort when someone contends against your strongly held beliefs. But in a truth-seeking atmosphere, you must master this discomfort and either confront opposing arguments rationally or accept their validity.
It is true that someone will occasionally say something that hurts your feelings. But hurt feelings are no reason to ban certain topics. We are all responsible for our own feelings. We cannot control things that are external to us, such as the comments of others, but we can control how we respond to them. The ancient Stoics developed practices to discipline emotions and pursue rational thought. These techniques have been refined in modern times in logotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Instead of cultivating grievances and encouraging resentment, schools and universities can teach these practices and promote the principle that no one can truly harm us but ourselves. That principle allows for the expression of hurt feelings that does not involve restrictions on speech. This will have the added benefit of preparing students for a world in which anything can hurt their feelings—if they let it.
Mr. Abbot is an associate professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago.