November/December 2020Vol. XXXIII No. 2
Editorial

The Suri and Fisher Reports on Outside Gifts

Sally Haslanger Jonathan A. King Ruth Perry Nasser Rabbat

The establishment of the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Guidelines for Outside Engagements (“Suri Committee”) and the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee to Review MIT Gift Processes (“Fisher Committee”) came as a response to the widespread concern among faculty, students, staff, and alumni about the handling of the bin Salman, Epstein, Schwarzman, and other donations. (Student committees were also consulted, and their reports appear as appendices.)

The reports from the two committees make clear that the members of the committees received substantive input from the MIT community. The two reports are thorough and thoughtful in attempting to articulate values and principles for accepting gifts, and in the latter setting up procedures to establish whether or not prospective gifts satisfy the standards set. We appreciate the Suri Committee’s recommendation that these matters require a Standing Committee, and with the Fisher Committee, the need to establish a Grants Acceptance Committee for ongoing review of proposed gifts. Similarly, the “Red Light” and “Yellow Light” formulations are clear and appropriate.

Yet some of us were hoping that the committees would address the errors made, raise the issues of accountability, and address again the actual cases that launched the whole endeavor to structure outside engagements at MIT.

It would have given the reports much more credibility and authority had past errors been discussed and responsibilities assigned, and corrective actions suggested. Instead, both committees were directed only to address future gifts, as yet unreceived.

The opening paragraph of the Suri Committee Executive Summary asks “Are we inadvertently helping bad actors ‘launder’ their reputations through their associations with MIT?“. The answer to this question is “yes” for those cases that brought this issue to a head. For example, among the “Red Lights” listed in Section 5.1. #2 is: “Has this individual directly engaged in, funded, or otherwise supported any gross violations of political, civil, or human rights; or serious violations of the laws of war?”. Human rights include political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights and also violations by non-state actors such as the Houthis in Yemen, as the UN has concluded, or violations by States such as Saudi Arabia.

Continuing in Bad Company
In spite of the accomplishments of the Suri Committee, there remain questions about past and future gifts from Stephen Schwarzman, whose name, now closely associated with MIT, is in the news, but not for making the world a better place or for the “betterment of mankind.” This time it is for deploying the exploitative power that is his hallmark and making the world a worse place for millions of its inhabitants in the process. Last year it was revealed that his company, the Blackstone Group, was one of the driving forces behind the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, further endangering the climate of the planet and ignoring the rights of the indigenous peoples who live there1. Schwarzman is one of the richest men in the world and the damage caused by his activities spreads far beyond the rainforest.2

His Blackstone Group has been condemned by the United Nations3 for exacerbating the worldwide housing shortage by “the financialization of housing” – the large-scale scooping up of foreclosed homes at bargain-basement prices following the financial crisis of 2008, feeding those properties back into the rental sector at steeply increased rents, onerous fees and leases, and then moving to evict them when renters fall behind. On the whole, the company is making it harder for millions of men, women, and children to find decent affordable places to live and pushing them into greater poverty – violations of human rights as understood today.4 Given that an overwhelming number of these renters are Black and other people of color, Blackstone’s actions are indeed against Black lives5. Additionally, Schwarzman has been known for financing the campaign to frustrate California’s recent attempts in 2018 and 2020 to introduce a rent-control measure which would have benefited many ordinary folks and for mounting an unsuccessful effort to stop New York’s new pro-tenant housing laws in 2019. Schwarzman is part of the super-rich class that exploits and extracts profits from the most marginalized people at home and in the world. Although these activities would have activated the “Yellow Lights” described by the Suri Committee, and perhaps even “Red Lights,” the Gift Acceptance Committee which has been proposed to review such cases will not be in place until July 2022, and its charge will not include revisiting current or past gifts.

Charitable and philanthropic “giving” has long been a favored mode of reputation laundering by the super-rich, although vulture capitalism brings with it a certain opprobrium when it is noticed. (See in this issue, Sally Haslanger’s “The Problem with Philanthropy“). There is a fine line between the pragmatic and the squalid, and many think we are well across it here. The Institute is, or ought to be, a global beacon of excellence in the application of practical intelligence for the betterment of the human condition. Schwarzman’s Blackstone Group works for neither of these principles.

In the town meeting on the Suri and Fisher reports, there was attention to considering gifts on a case by case basis for a while and building up a set of precedents or “case law”. The Schwarzman and Epstein donations are examples of such “case law”, both to determine what should be done in the future in cases like this and, more generally, to consider how to address what is reasonably seen as a past mistake.

Editorial Subcommittee

Footnotes
  1. https://theintercept.com/2019/08/27/amazon-rainforest-fire-blackstone/
  2. https://www.housinghumanright.org/modern-day-robber-baron-the-sins-of-blackstone-ceo-stephen-schwarzman/
  3. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24404&LangID=E
  4. For Schwarzman’s recent anti-rent control activities in California, see https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20200914005889/en/%E2%80%98Yes-on-21%E2%80%99-Special-Report-%E2%80%98Modern-Day-Robber-Baron-The-Sins-of-Blackstone-CEO-Stephen-Schwarzman%E2%80%99. Scholarship on the links between evictions and poverty is extensive. See e.g., https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/mdesmond/files/desmond.evictionpoverty.ajs2012.pdf
  5. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/07/private-equity-blackstone-anti-racism-housing