November/December 2023Vol. XXXVI No. 2

MIT Values and the Protests in Lobby 7

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

Social movements and social protests come in many forms and have different purposes. In the face of a global crisis, one important purpose of protests is to give individuals an opportunity to join together to express a deep moral concern and influence action. Moral integrity demands of us that we express our moral sentiments. In some cases, this can be done individually in prayer or other rituals, but not everyone finds prayer meaningful. And even those who find meaning in individual expressions of grief or rage also find value in connecting with others who share their moral concern, especially when the goal is to influence events. Collective expressions of moral sentiments can be both affirming and healing.

There is a long history of organizing non-violent demonstrations to meet the need for collective expression of moral outrage and bring about social and political change. Sometimes such demonstrations use civil disobedience – violating norms, rules, or laws – to call attention to their message. Given the depth of feeling, it is often difficult to maintain the commitment to entirely civil protest. This is why careful organizing, training, marshals, and observers are involved.

Having spoken to participants, witnesses, marshals, and faculty observers about the demonstration in Lobby 7 on Thursday, November 9, there is compelling evidence that the protesters were engaged in a peaceful demonstration of their values. They created paths where those going about their business could pass unimpeded, and marshals made special effort to be sure that the paths were wide enough for wheelchairs to pass. They had signs and banners, but when asked, put away their amplification devices. Many of them were simply sitting and working on p-sets and talking quietly.

However, there was a disruption in the morning when counter-protesters entered the space and became extremely provocative, shouting and violating the personal space of some of the protesters. When this occurred, organizers made efforts to protect the protesters from the confrontation and to keep violence from erupting. And the efforts were successful. The protesters did not respond to the counter-protesters’ provocation in violent ways, in spite of the counter-protesters’ aggressive approach.

Nevertheless, the administration has decided unilaterally to punish the protesters. We find this deeply problematic, especially given MIT’s values – not just the value of free speech, but also the commitment to fostering integrity and well-being. We not only allow but encourage our students to live lives with moral purpose. Therefore, punishing students for peacefully expressing their moral concern in circumstances of crisis is unacceptable.

We have several more specific questions and objections to the way the administration responded to the protest.

  • The administration initially threatened students with suspension from MIT without fully considering the ramifications of this for international students. Such threats are not consistent with MIT’s values, and to threaten students in this way without engaging in adequate examination of the potential consequences is highly irresponsible. While the administration later clarified the suspension would be from non-academic activities, the harm done to international students stands. It appears that “suspension from non-academic campus activities” has been imposed on students. Does the president have the authority to impose this discipline on the students unilaterally? Do the students have no right to due process or to defend themselves? What is the MIT policy that describes the grounds for suspension and how they are enforced, and is this decision in conformity with such policy? Who is on the Ad Hoc Response Team, and how are they selected? Is the suspension already in effect, or will it await hearings to provide some due process? None of this is transparent.
  • The basis for the “suspension” from non-academic activities has not been given adequate justification.
    • Lobby 7 is a public space for the MIT community. The usual protest guidelines do not say that Lobby 7 may not be used for protests. We understand a sudden change of guidelines was emailed to students the day before the protest. There is reason to believe that this change was explicitly prompted by the planned protest, for the organizers had been working with faculty who interfaced with the administration. The new guidelines required permission to protest, and ruled out the use of Lobby 7. However, the email provided no process for requesting permission. And students from other groups have recently (and historically) used Lobby 7 without complaint. To impose such constraints less than a day before the protest was scheduled, and then punish students for violating constraints that they couldn’t realistically meet, is unfair. Because the urgency seemed to be due to the content of the protest, it also appears biased. Further, the new guidelines only allow protests in outdoor spaces, which severely limits protests during the winter months and raises issues of accessibility.
    • As indicated above, the protest was peaceful and was not disruptive until the counter-protesters appeared; it continued to be peaceful after the counter-protesters left. The protesters were not the ones to initiate disruptive behavior. Why should the protesters be punished for non-violent resistance to aggressive tactics? Will the counter-protesters also be “suspended”?
  • The move to a “suspension” from non-academic activities is confusing, and the motivation is unclear.
    • How are “non-academic activities” defined? Of course, eating and sleeping in MIT housing aren’t academic activities, but thankfully (unlike at Harvard) students have not been evicted. Is there a clear line between academic and non-academic activities? According to the Graduate Student Union contract, RA and TA activities are categorized as non-academic activities. Was this taken into account when the decision was made that “suspension” would involve being barred from non-academic activities? Will RAs and TAs be allowed to continue their work? Again, it does not seem that the administration is doing adequate preparation in considering the consequences of their decisions.
    • How will this general ban be monitored
    • Importantly, isn’t MIT trying to educate the whole person? And doesn’t this happen outside of the classroom as well?
  • The administration seems to be putting in restrictions on academic activities as well as non-academic activities.
    • For example, the organizers of the protest had planned an all-day teach-in on Friday, November 10. It was open to the public, included guest speakers, and was not organized only by “suspended” students. The organizers had received permission for this, and had scheduled Room 10-250. However, when students showed up, they found police stationed outside of the room, and were told that the teach-in could not be held there. And yet other groups, opposed to the stance of the protesters, have recently been allowed to hold teach-ins without being policed. Who made this decision and on what basis?
    • Blocking students from engaging in planned activities contradicts MIT’s commitment to “cherish free expression, debate, and dialogue in pursuit of truth” (from the Values Statement). We spent months last fall discussing the importance of being allowed to share controversial and uncomfortable ideas. It is extremely disturbing how fast the values we agreed to cherish have been so blatantly violated.
    • We understand that there are members of the MIT community who have expressed fear and experienced hostility. We agree that MIT should be a community where everyone can work and study without fear. We condemn acts of aggression, hate speech, and intolerance. However, we are concerned that the actions that have been taken to protect students are overly punitive and are not fully justified, that they are biased, and that the process is not transparent or fair.

Our concern is the well-being of all of our students – whether protestors or counter-protestors – as they peacefully exercise their right to express a moral stance about what is happening in their world, and seek to influence it. We believe in our duty as educators to ensure that they are not unduly penalized for expressing their beliefs or acting to change the world – what we at MIT teach them to hold and to cherish. And we believe the administration must also uphold these values, despite the pressures to forsake them; it must treat all students equitably, and with understanding.

Editorial Subcommittee