The MIT Free Speech Alliance, formed after MIT canceled a guest lecture by geophysicist Dorian Abbot, will use the grant to expand its staff and support more programs on campus. (Marcio Jose Bastos Silva / Shutterstock.com)
by Connor Murnane
June 15, 2022
When MIT bowed down to a crowd of students, alumni, faculty and others — some of whom had no connection with the institution — demanding the cancellation of a speaker, the college could not have imagined the movement that would arise from the disinvitation.
In October 2021, MIT rescinded its invitation to the University of Chicago geophysicist Father Dorian speak at its annual meeting John Carlson Lecturehosted by the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Abbot’s lecture was on the guillotine simply because he wrote a editorial widely critical of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. In the article, he argued that DEI “violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment”.
While Abbot claimed his speech would make no mention of affirmative action or the DEI, his opponents believed that this unique op-ed spoke more to his dignity to speak on a college campus than the roughly 80 scientific publications listed on his curriculum vitae.
The public outcry over this cancellation was swift and fierce. FIRE questioned what MIT stood forthe Alliance for Academic Freedom challenged MIT’s commitment to free inquirythe heterodox Academy awarded Abbot its Open Inquiry Courage Award 2022more than 150 MIT professors signed a petition urging the institute to adopt the Chicago Principles, and MIT alumni came together to form the MIT Free Speech Alliance. In addition, the MIT administration created a Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression comprised of faculty and administrators tasked with investigating the state of free speech on campus and charting a way forward.
The MFSA does not see this as a final victory, but simply as the first step towards creating a university culture of free expression.
FIRE previously covered the launch of the MFSA and its affiliation to the national organization, the Alumni Free Speech Alliance. Since its inception, the MFSA has been committed to “upholding MIT’s support for freedom of expression, open inquiry, and diversity of viewpoint.”
With a recently announced grant totaling $500,000 of the Stanton Foundationthis group of MIT graduates is the first free speech alumni organization to win a grant of this caliber, proving that their movement is here to stay.
Seed grant will support freedom of expression
The Stanton Foundation has a long history of supporting First Amendment work, including here at FIRE. “Frank Stanton was a strong advocate for the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of thought and speech,” Stanton Foundation spokesman Steve Kidder said in the MFSA press release. “MFSA’s goals align directly with the principles and values that Frank Stanton held so deeply.”
MFSA President Chuck Davis, 1987, said, “This generous seed grant will set us on the path to self-sustaining growth. Over the past few months, MFSA has amassed over 800 supporters and in the weeks since this grant was announced, they have seen a rapid increase in subscribers. Davis added:
These funds, along with donations from alumni, will allow us to hire professional staff to complement our large team of dedicated volunteers, expand and strengthen our free speech programming and awareness, and support our watchdog activism, helping MIT to remain the premier engineering and research institute in the world despite the opposing cultural forces that threaten all American universities.
In a phone interview with FIRE, Davis explained how this grant will be used over the next two years. As well as hiring staff, the MFSA will update and revamp its website to streamline its messaging and subscriber engagement, organize and host a free speech conference in Cambridge, co-sponsor and help organize a debate on campus on the institution’s DEI policies, implement a lecture series, and reach 1,000 members.
Like FIRE, Davis thinks the MFSA needs to focus on change the culture on campus. The alumni group intends to support and promote on-campus programs that teach the importance of free speech to all institute constituencies. A recent MSFA newsletter suspects that MIT, named Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression is about to publish his work and is said to have “done a good job”.
The MFSA does not see this as a final victory, but simply as the first step towards creating a university culture of free expression. Beyond the current climate at MIT, Davis said, “We seek to engage, educate, and inspire each generation of future leaders during their time at MIT. We are definitely building for the long term.
FIRE commends the members of MSFA for their dedication to promoting and preserving free expression in their alma mater, as well as the Stanton Foundation for enabling these alumni to continue their critical work.
We invite you to join the MIT Free Speech Alliance and subscribe to FIRE Alumni Newsletter. Together we can hold our colleges and universities accountable to the principles on which they were founded.