January-March 2024Vol.XXXVI No. 3

In Defense of Learning, Research, and Free Inquiry

Sally Haslanger, Jonathan A. King, Ceasar McDowell, Nasser Rabbat, Balakrishnan Rajagopal

Since their emergence in medieval times, universities have served as outposts of independent thought, resisting pressures from the Church and State. Following the industrial revolution, universities in France, Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United States emerged as leading centers of learning, innovation, and research in the modern world.

The transformative period for American higher education came with significant public investment after World War II, establishing the United States’ dominance in scholarship, science, and technology. This era of free inquiry, a core element of academic freedom, greatly benefited students, postdoctoral fellows, research staff, and faculty, enabling a focus on human, social, economic, and technological challenges, thereby contributing to improving global living standards.

The prioritization of societal needs within these academic environments fostered an atmosphere where diverse fields of learning and inquiry could thrive. Breakthroughs in molecular biology at UC Berkeley, for instance, occurred alongside and were interconnected with movements such as the Free Speech Movement, the opposition to the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement.

At MIT, physicists like Vicki Weisskopf, Philip Morrison, Herman Feshbach, and Aaron Bernstein, who became faculty members after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, maintained a strong stance against nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War. This intellectual climate also supported advancements in genetic engineering, computer technology, and telecommunications, as well as student activism against the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa. Leading figures in the 1969 Scientists Strike for Peace, Ethan Signer and David Baltimore, were major figures in the development of molecular genetics and cell biology. If this history is any evidence, we should be hesitant to see protest, even direct confrontation, as a barrier to research and learning.

However, the path of progress faced significant obstacles. Industries such as tobacco aggressively sought to undermine research linking carcinogens in cigarette smoke to lung cancer; the lead industry worked hard to suppress the relationship between lead intake and retarded intellectual development. (This included attacks on academic scientists, such as Dr. Herbert Needleman at the University of Pittsburgh.) The Koch brothers financed efforts to suppress teaching about Evolution and Climate Change. Furthermore, the fight against systemic sexism and racism within academia underscored the enduring presence of backward views and entrenched interests among some faculty and administrators, stressing the need for continuous vigilance and action.

We recognize the many valuable contributions, including philanthropic, to scientific and academic advancement made by leaders of commerce and industry. However, recent efforts by individuals like Bill Ackman to intimidate and corral the intellectual and operational dynamics of campuses, notably MIT, pose a major threat to freedom of inquiry, the integrity of research, teaching, and the institution’s capacity to solve pressing societal issues. Though Ackman was quoted as initially concerned with alleged plagiarism among the faculty, his own writings clarify  that his real concerns are with any advocacy of Palestinian rights as well as his opposition to diversity, equity, and inclusion goals and programs.

Past experiences with figures such as Mohammed bin Salman and Jeffrey Epstein have shown the importance of resistance to such efforts, in order to clarify the values at stake and protect academic freedom. It is crucial for the academic community at MIT and beyond to draw inspiration from such efforts and remain vocal, courageous, and persistent in defending intellectual and academic life against such destructive influences, especially by ensuring that efforts to undermine teaching, research, and academic freedom are identified early, challenged and rejected.

Editorial Subcommittee