November/December 2022Vol. XXXV No. 2

How Deep is Your Love of Free Expression?

Malick W. Ghachem

Who among us has not, at one point or another, entertained the heretical thought that MIT faculty meetings can sometimes seem like less than scintillating affairs? Let those without sin cast the first stone at colleagues who, no doubt under the pressure of long hours and many stressful responsibilities, have wondered whether our deliberations are all that consequential. After all, until a quite recent point in the Institute’s history, very few of us (myself included) have ever even attended an Institute faculty meeting.

If bankruptcy happens gradually, then suddenly (as Hemingway put it), the shift towards more widespread participation in MIT faculty governance happened suddenly, then virtually. The turning point was the September 18, 2019 meeting held to discuss the turmoil over the Epstein affair. It continued under the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid lockdown. The protracted negotiations over MIT’s Free Expression Statement this semester provide further evidence that there is a hunger for more meaningful engagement in faculty governance – with or without a Faculty Senate.

But it is fair to wonder whether this relatively newfound willingness to engage is driven primarily by highly visible controversies like the Epstein and Carlson Lecture affairs.

Over the course of the fall 2022 semester, no less than half a dozen faculty meetings will have been consumed by the unwieldy business of large numbers of faculty trying to do a group edit of a complicated document in real time. (If the Continental Congress could do it in 1776, so can we – although they did not have quite as many chefs in the kitchen as do we.) Will our engagement with free expression persist even after the statement is finalized, hopefully in time for Santa to deliver it to everyone’s inbox before 2022 is out?

If not, then there will be more than a grain of truth to the suggestion that even our well-attended meetings of the past few months have not necessarily been time well spent. Adopting a free expression statement was only one of 10 recommendations contained in the FEWG report. No matter how long we continue to debate it, the statement will never fully live up to the inflated expectations people seem to have of it. Unless the faculty have concluded that the other nine recommendations are without merit, it seems reasonable to infer that many of us are still engaged in relitigating the Carlson Lecture controversy by other means. And so long as that is the case, we cannot say that we have truly learned the lessons of that experience.

The draft statement that the Free Expression Working Group (FEWG) produced did a good job of expressing the consensus at which a diverse group of 12 professors was able to arrive on a difficult and controversial set of issues. And the faculty meetings of this past semester, under the able leadership of our faculty officers, have made a good document better. When read in conjunction with the FEWG final report, the statement ready and waiting to emerge from the cradle of our contentiousness is unquestionably superior to the much-ballyhooed Chicago Principles on Free Expression. But it is not perfect. And it will not give us an algorithm for automatically resolving the ambiguities and conflicts that arise when human beings open their mouths and allow sounds to be emitted therefrom.

That is why the FEWG report outlined nine other recommendations informed by our understanding of the history, law, and politics of free expression and academic freedom as well as community feedback. A statement has the virtue of announcing that the MIT faculty are committed to the abstract value of robust, open-minded debate against the backdrop of a collegial and respectful learning environment. The hard work of bringing the spirit of free expression to bear upon teaching, research, and administration is a different matter altogether. For this purpose, we will need at least two additional resources. The first is a willingness to reconsider one’s position or approach when someone else registers a valid objection. The second is a commitment to and understanding of the pedagogical dimension and context of free expression.

On the first point: it is impossible to change one’s mind unless you are willing to enter into conversation with people who see things differently than you. My own experience as a member of the FEWG is the best example I can give. At the outset, I believed that our free expression debate (including the FEWG itself) was essentially a rightwing movement to bludgeon MIT for embracing DEI and allegedly forsaking “merit” (that loaded buzzword of our institutional identity).

I still think that our free speech deliberations are connected at many levels to the issue of race and the unseen privileges of whiteness. But, through my interactions with colleagues on the working group, I learned to see the Carlson Lecture controversy as an invitation to think about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the broadest terms possible.

And that means accepting that the academic debate over DEI policies (which are not the same thing as diversity per se) must do a better job of incorporating the perspectives of good-faith critics of those policies, most notably with respect to the issue of transparency. The failure to do so must be held partly responsible for the imminent cancellation of diversity as a factor in college admissions – a development that will hinder our ability to maintain a climate of bona fide free expression on our campus for years to come. Sooner or later, principled libertarian critics of diversity policies will come face to face with this irony. In the meantime, let us hope that MIT as a community will be able to respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling in June with a sense of our shared interest in diversity, regardless of whether we understand that interest in terms of racial justice or free expression. We will have to conform to the letter of the forthcoming decision. But we are not powerless to invoke the First Amendment and academic freedom as a basis for insisting that university experts rather than unelected judges are best equipped to determine how to engineer academic excellence.

The second resource we will need is a willingness to think harder about what it is that we are doing as instructors in the classroom. Recommendation Seven of the FEWG Report puts it this way:

“We recommend that the faculty explore ways of infusing into the curriculum in all departments and for all students opportunities to advance expression (i.e., present and defend ideas, active listening, etc.). We must recognize that learning to engage in dialogue concerning controversial matters is a developmental skill that can be taught, improved, and encouraged. We should not assume that all students arrive on campus equally prepared to engage in productive dialogue about controversial issues. It is certainly part of MIT’s mission to prepare our students to develop such skills. To advance this goal, the Subcommittee on the Communication Requirement could be asked to identify and encourage pedagogical practices that enhance student skills involving the exchange of challenging ideas.”

How many of us would be willing to devote six or more consecutive Institute faculty meetings to working out the answer to this challenge? (To paraphrase the Bee Gees: how deep is our love of free expression?) Long after memories of the Carlson Lecture affair have faded, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page and FOX News have moved on to the next targets in the culture wars, we will still find ourselves in a classroom of students waiting to be taught. This, and not the politically cathected scene of an empty guest lecture hall in the aftermath of a cancelled invitation, is the primary arena for the work of free expression.

The classroom has a quiet drama all its own, particularly as the students are not the only ones being taught at a place like MIT. When a class goes well for me, it is usually because I have learned something interesting and important from my students, and not necessarily the other way around. If I find myself wishing that this happened even more often, it may be because I am standing in the way at times, saying more than I should, and listening less than I ought. Learning how to ask students the questions that will encourage them to speak to one another is, for me, the biggest challenge in teaching. The task of figuring out how to implement Recommendation Seven is a job for the faculty as a whole, under the leadership of our faculty officers and with the advice of the Faculty Policy Committee. But a good starting point is to observe that we cannot educate students in new ways of thinking if we are unable to imagine ourselves in the same spirit.