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“There are signs of weakness in MIT’s commitment to academic freedom”

“There are signs of weakness in MIT’s commitment to academic freedom”

“MIT students show worrying signs of intolerance, and MIT appears to be failing to teach them the value of academic freedom”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is getting a little concerned about MIT.

From the FIRE blog:

MIT’s innovation is unmatched, and to keep it that way, it must defend academic freedom.

In 2022, MIT ranked second in U.S. News and World Report’s Best National University Rankings. What’s more, for the 11th year in a row, MIT was named the top university in the world by the QS World University Rankings. And for good reason. MIT has 3,543 patents active in the U.S., 730 invention disclosures, and affiliations with 100 Nobel Prize laureates. Just last year, MIT’s eminent Lincoln Laboratory developed six R&D award-winning technologies, including a hurricane-tracking satellite, a quiet propeller design for small commercial drones, a collision-prevention system for drones flying in national airspace, a cybersecurity tool, and two radio frequency-reducing systems.

What makes MIT’s innovation possible? Academic freedom. The unparalleled success of MIT is a testament to what can happen when researchers are allowed to freely explore intellectually uncharted — or even forbidden — territory.

Yet there are signs of weakness in MIT’s commitment to academic freedom. The decision to rescind University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot’s invitation to deliver the annual John Carlson Lecture, hosted by MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, has raised concerns about the institutional climate that allowed such censorship to occur. Community members have formed the MIT Free Speech Alliance, which has received a $500,000 grant from the Stanton Foundation to advance its mission of free speech and expression, viewpoint diversity, and academic freedom at MIT. They are advocating for the adoption of stronger academic freedom protections, such as the Chicago Statement. (See our “Fast Facts” overview for more.)

While MIT is a private university, its mission and objectives describe an institution where students and faculty engage in unfettered intellectual exploration. Yet according to the largest survey ever conducted on students’ free speech attitudes, MIT students show worrying signs of intolerance, and MIT appears to be failing to teach them the value of academic freedom.


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MIT president’s response below.
TL;DR: groups are working this right now, and she doesn’t want to short-circuit the process.

Dear President Kornbluth,

I’m writing to you in support of the MIT Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom recently adopted by the faculty senate. MIT needs a course-correction if it intends to “advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century,” as its mission states.

In a recent survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), MIT faculty were asked, “How clear is it to you that your college administration protects free speech on campus?” More than 40% of faculty answered that it is “Not at all clear” or “Not very clear” that the administration protects free speech.

You have the opportunity to restore faculty’s and the public’s faith in MIT’s administration. A choice to protect the expressive rights of students, faculty, and staff at the institute is a choice to protect the advancement of knowledge in Cambridge and beyond.

You said it yourself: “You’ve got to foster a culture where freedom of speech is strongly supported.” Now is the time to make your mark and endorse the MIT Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom to protect the campus community from threats to their liberty.

Henry Bowman

Dear Henry,

As you note, I have publicly expressed my strong commitment to freedom of speech. The ongoing faculty process that produced the MIT faculty statement on free expression includes upcoming consideration of a motion designed to clarify the statement further. In deference to this ongoing process, I am waiting to comment until it is final.

Thank you for your understanding and patience.

Sally Kornbluth

Back in May of 2022, Suzy Weiss wrote a detailed article on the ouster of reknowned cancer researcher David Sabatini from MIT. He had been rumored to be under consideration for a Nobel Prize, when the jealousies of a rejected girlfriend, also a researcher at MIT with her own lab, led to his ouster for sexual harassment. Even though the brief affair happened when Sabatini was divorced and e-mails seemed to indicate the woman in question threatened him, the woman was supported by the new female head of the Whitehead Institute. (A position that had been offered to Sabatini, but he had refused it.) However petty the basis of Sabatini’s ouster (and it should be admitted that he eventually resigned rather than continue to endure the attacks), I believe this incident, so meticulously documented by Bari Weiss, demonstrates that MIT has been infected by the progressive woke phenomenon. As somebody who simply came across this article, I am horrified that cancer research was sacrificed to the pettiness of jealousies and competition within the academic community. It did not occur to the newly named drector that it is her job to tamp down personnel fires, and not allow a prestigeous lab to implode. There is no way the other male researchers have not been affected. IMO, MIT research has been deeply marred by this incident.

Also pertinent was the hounding and firing of Richard Stallman, a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” the founder of the Free Software Foundation, and the inventor of over who-knows-how-many software innovations and tools that still permeate consumer computer products today, over his “problematic opinions” regarding child pornography, statutory rape, and the allegations against his colleague and AI pioneer Marvin Minsky regarding what he may or may not have done on Lolita Island.* Note — his opinions.

Anyone who has spent over five minutes with Stallman realizes that he is uncomfortably far into some spectrum or other — there is an infamous online video of him giving a lecture, during which he seats himself on a stool, picks between his unshod toes, and eats the result, in the same offhand way that another lecturer might adjust his belt. (I could link it, but I think this way is best.)

It’s not uncommon for such a syndrome to result in extreme social awkwardness, especially extending to hopeless interactions with the opposite sex, and those who knew him personally have plenty of stories in this regard. But only malcontents who contend that “mere thought and speech are violence” would use it to hound a true genius into unemployability.

The sick irony is that if the same social awkwardness were shown by an employee well on the left of the bell curve (think Opie from Family Guy), Stallman’s cancellers would be demanding his employment be protected.

*The most asinine complaint is that Stallman kept a “a mattress on the floor of his office. He kept the door to his office open, to proudly showcase that mattress and all the implications that went with it.” In the CS field, the implication of a mattress in your office is that you pull a lot of all nighters, and getting your work done while you’re on a creative roll takes precedence over wasting the time required to go home to sleep. Plus, it’s a no-win complaint — If he had left his door closed, they would have inferred that nefarious things were going on behind it.

And, for the record, I knew Stallman as a student, and awkwardness always went with the territory.