As woke agenda spreads in STEM education, dissenters wary of speaking out

MIT's disinvitation of geophysicist for opposing mandatory DEI statements casts ongoing pall over intellectual freedom on campus, new report says.

Updated: January 24, 2023 - 6:25am

As science and math education increasingly yields ground to fringe progressive critiques of the disciplines, professors who stray from the new orthodoxy or simply object to the politicization of their fields are finding it harder to speak out.

This month's Joint Mathematics Meetings in Boston, the self-proclaimed "largest mathematics gathering in the world," invited Vanderbilt University's Luis Antonio Leyva to share his research on "re-imagining" the "white, cisheteropatriarchal space" of undergraduate math education by deploying "structural disruptions that advance justice" for nonwhite queer and transgender STEM majors.

The presentation by the math education professor, who has a joint appointment in gender studies, sounds like "an over-the-top caricature, another Sokal hoax," computer science professor Aryeh Kontorovich of Israel's Ben-Gurion University told The College Fix, referring to physicist Alan Sokal's 27-year-old gibberish paper in Social Text on quantum gravity as a "social and linguistic construct.")

Leyva didn't respond to a query about Kontorovich's characterization of his presentation and has hidden his Twitter account since his presentation drew wider notice.

Leyva is far from original in assigning racial guilt to math, however.

"On many levels, mathematics itself operates as Whiteness" by "perpetuat[ing] a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans," University of Illinois math professor Rochelle Gutierrez wrote in a 2017 anthology for math educators, arguing that math teaching is inherently "political."

Gutierrez shared her vision for "rehumanizing mathematics" at the 2018 Latinx in the Mathematical Sciences Conference, sponsored by the National Security Agency and National Science Foundation among others.

Proponents of subordinating math to trendy academic theories made an early target of University of California Davis math chair Abigail Thompson for publicly opposing mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion statements in hiring and promotion, though she survived the cancelation attempt.

They succeeded, however, in getting MIT to disinvite University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot from giving a prestigious lecture at the premier private university for STEM education in 2021, because of his unrelated opposition to mandatory DEI statements. 

That incident continued to cast a pall over intellectual freedom at MIT a year later, when the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression surveyed about 200 faculty and 250 students. It released the full report last week.

A small majority of professors said they opposed Abbot's disinvitation, while only one in six supported it. About six in 10 said the administration should defend a hypothetical professor who criticized campus DEI efforts against firing demands by students, with only 6% calling for an investigation and none calling for classroom removal, suspension or termination. 

Six in 10 also oppose "any kind" of action or "formal disincentives" against faculty who refuse to take DEI trainings, while fewer believe resistant faculty should "lose opportunities at work" (12%), "be suspended until they comply" (7%) or "be fired" (1%).

But 38% of faculty believe the administration would not defend controversial speech, while 41% said it wasn't clear whether the MIT administration protects free speech.

Two in five faculty said they were more likely to censor themselves on campus since the start of 2020 — a year marked by new potential for outrage mobs driven by virtual classroom incidents, as well as George Floyd-driven racial activism — compared to 45% who said they were about as likely to self-censor.

Willingness to speak up was not helped by MIT's working group on freedom of expression, commissioned in response to blowback over the Abbot disinvitation, whose final report last fall failed to "specify whether it will prioritize a commitment to diversity or to academic freedom," according to FIRE. 

For example, the 12-member working group said free speech proponents have "failed to make the case for open and uninhibited debate in terms that are informed by our nation's history of racial subordination." 

Professor Ed Schiappa, one of the working group members, disputed how FIRE's report characterized his comments at an MIT Free Speech Alliance event where he discussed the working group's final report.

"I was not consulted about these quotations and paraphrases and, in fact, at the time of my meeting with MFSA I was told the briefing was only for MFSA," Schiappa wrote in an email to Just the News.

"My words were definitely taken out of context and distorted," he said, and he denies the working group was told to avoid revisiting Abbot's disinvitation. The report confirms his experience that "FIRE is not interested in being nonpartisan," Schiappa said. 

FIRE told Just the News it had since corrected a few "discrepancies" from its "real-time notes" on Schiappa's comments, but pointed to the Sept. 28 MFSA press release and tweet promoting the Zoom event to the public, as well as the full video from the event.

Schiappa posted a slide about 20 minutes into the event with the administration's instructions to the working group. It read: "We were not asked to investigate or otherwise litigate the decision to cancel the Carlson [public] lecture," which was repurposed as a closed event for MIT scientists.

The professor stated it another way during the event: "Part of our charge was not to revisit the decision about the Carlson lecture and so we did not. We did not investigate it, we did not try to litigate it," though members met with each department head and were aware of the "fallout" from the disinvitation, which "inspired" some of the group's recommendations.

Around 84 minutes in, MFSA President Charles Davis said the report "seemed caveated and hedged in certain places," particularly consecutive recommendations that seem to cancel each other out on handling "contested matters of speech." Schiappa responded that in order to achieve "100% buy-in on the entire report," some parts are "a function of keeping certain people happy so that they let you be happy."

"If the group cannot even stand up to its own members, how can it be expected to stand up to people on and off campus who demand the subordination of academic freedom?" FIRE's report asks of the working group.

MIT faculty are also facing increasingly intolerant students, according to FIRE's survey. Three-quarters support shouting down speakers or trying to prevent them from speaking, most (52%) support blocking students from attending such events, and a third support "using violence" for that end. FIRE said those answers are about 15 percentage points higher than from national student surveys.

The civil liberties group, which stuck to higher education for its first two decades, partly attributed the inhibition of faculty to the declining proportion of tenured spots at MIT. Its untenured faculty grew by 38% from 2006-2020, contrasted with 10% growth in tenure and tenure-track faculty over the same period.

MIT generally declines to comment on "the activity or assertions of advocacy groups outside of MIT," spokesperson Kimberly Allen told Just the News.

She pointed to President-elect Sally Kornbluth's Boston magazine interview last fall, where she said MIT must "foster a culture where freedom of speech is strongly supported." Allen also cited "another conversation" where Kornbluth said universities must let people "open their minds to a wide range of ideas, understanding that attacking the idea is not the same thing as attacking the individual," but did not answer further queries on the details of that conversation.

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