November/December 2023Vol. XXXVI No. 2

An Open Letter From Faculty & Staff Regarding Freedom of Expression and Student Safety at MIT

November 14, 2023

Dear President Kornbluth,

We, MIT faculty and staff[1] are writing to you to voice our growing concerns about the safety of the MIT community.

We have watched with disappointment and unease over the past five weeks as the Institute has reacted disproportionately to student activists, as it stifled the voices of our student community members, and as the Coalition Against Apartheid’s guest posts on the MIT Student Life Instagram page led to the page being shut down within hours, all despite Israeli flags lining the windows of the Engineering Building along Massachusetts Avenue for weeks before they were removed.

We think back on MIT’s historic responses to student activists engaged in other human rights protests. On MIT’s deployment of the Cambridge Police against students protesting the South African apartheid regime in the 1980s and 1990s. On its deployment of the same police against Vietnam War protestors in the 1960s and 1970s. On its treatment of student activists throughout the Iraq War. And we find the parallels alarming.

We remind the MIT administration per the Faculty’s Statement on Freedom of Expression[2] that the Institute values “civility, mutual respect, and uninhibited, wide-open debate,” and “even robust disagreements shall not be liable to official censure or disciplinary action.” Given the deeply disturbing responses by many universities in the United States and Europe to student groups over the past weeks, including our own, we insist that the Institute administration confirm and support our right, as faculty, students, and staff, to non-violent assembly and to free expression without retribution or threat.

It is striking that the administration felt it necessary to send out an emergency alert regarding the anti-war demonstration that crossed the Mass Ave. Bridge yesterday afternoon, warning the MIT community to “please avoid the area.” The use of the emergency alert system for non-emergency situations such as street closures increases the likelihood that members of the MIT community will ignore messages about true emergencies that occur at our institution such as regular chemical spills and other laboratory mishaps. Misusing the emergency alert system to warn the community away from a peaceful protest fosters a culture that fears freedom of speech.

As an educational institution at the forefront of global science and technology, MIT holds a unique position. To quote the MIT Faculty Newsletter, “with 42% of our faculty, 43% of our graduate students, and 65% of our post-docs hailing from countries other than the U.S., and 151 countries represented on our campus, MIT is truly ‘of the world.’” It is crucial for our institute to honor the diverse experiences of our students, staff, and faculty, and to equip our future leaders with the ability to navigate a global community. Honoring those experiences requires every member of our community to be empowered to speak out on issues of import, without fear of retribution that may endanger not only their academic careers but their visa status. MIT has an opportunity to serve as a leader for other universities globally on how to treat their students with respect and dignity as they exercise their right to free speech.

We understand the complexity of the situations you inherited upon assuming your role as president, particularly given the unique tensions of a global institute. We encourage the administration to engage in open communication with the MIT community to find solutions that prioritize the well-being of the students while ensuring that MIT continues to uphold its commitment to free expression and the open exchange of ideas.

Thank you for your time and your willingness to engage productively with the MIT community.


101 concerned faculty and staff members

(This is a living letter, to add your name, please complete this form.)

[1] We are signing as individuals. Listed affiliation does not constitute an endorsement on behalf of any DLCs.

[2] This statement was originally adopted by MIT faculty in 2022 and officially adopted by the Institute in February 2023.