Important update re. EAPS

October 07, 2021

Dear faculty colleagues,

You are likely aware by now of a controversial situation originating in our Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS).

I wanted to share the basic facts with you directly, given that social media and media in general often obscure the full picture – including, in this case, the fact that Professor Dorian Abbot of the University of Chicago, the guest lecturer involved in this matter, remains invited to speak at MIT.

Here’s the background: Last week, EAPS department head Rob van der Hilst decided not to go forward with his department’s public Carlson Lecture. Central to this decision is the purpose and mission of the lecture itself.

The Carlson Lecture is not a standard scientific talk for fellow scientists. It is an outreach event, open to the public, with a speaker who is an outstanding scientist and role model. Typically held at a major venue away from campus, it is geared to build public understanding of and appreciation for climate science, and to inspire young people to consider careers in STEM. Each year students from local high schools are invited.

The speaker invited in early 2020 was Professor Abbot, an expert in mathematical and computational approaches to planetary sciences.

While all of us can agree that Professor Abbot has the freedom to speak as he chooses on any subject, the department leadership concluded that the debate over both his views on diversity, equity, and inclusion and manner of presenting them were overshadowing the purpose and spirit of the Carlson Lecture. Professor van der Hilst, after broadly consulting his community, decided the public lecture should not go forward and that instead the department should invite Professor Abbot to give a campus lecture where he can present his climate work directly to MIT faculty and students.

In a phone call with Professor Abbot last Thursday, Professor van der Hilst conveyed both the decision about the Carlson Lecture and the new invitation. Professor Abbot welcomed the offer to speak, and the department is in ongoing conversation with him to set a date.

It’s important to emphasize that both the department and the Institute respect and support Professor Abbot’s freedom to express his views, as well as the freedom of those who disagree to do the same.

* * *

Moving from these facts, I want to share a brief reflection.

Rob is a longtime member of our community – a trusted colleague and a thoughtful leader. He consulted closely with faculty and students in the department, seeking opinions – and listening seriously to the full spectrum of them. He has had to make a difficult decision that was informed by all the values of the department, knowing that any available path would likely have caused disappointment and frustration for many. As many of you know from your personal experience, department heads often have to make tough calls, and it is important in such moments that they can count on our support.

Additionally, this situation reminds us that we as a faculty may want to reflect together on how we collectively balance and apply the values of our community. I will be working with Lily Tsai, Chair of the Faculty, to organize an event to reflect on this situation and inform how we should address these important questions in the future.

Finally, this situation has been very hard on everyone involved, especially faculty, researchers, students and young alumni of EAPS, many of whom have been subjected to online targeting and hate mail. As a community built on foundational principles of respect and openness, we are horrified by this mistreatment and reject it in the strongest possible terms.


Martin A. Schmidt