Letter regarding proposed free expression statement from MIT

October 23, 2022

The following letter was sent to the MIT community today by President L. Rafael Reif and includes a letter sent to MIT faculty today by Provost Cynthia Barnhart, Chancellor Melissa Nobles, and Chair of the Faculty Lily L. Tsai. I am convinced we must be prepared to endure such painful outcomes as the price of protecting free expression – the principle is that important. Rather, the right to free expression is a tool – a sharp tool – for enlarging understanding and uncovering truth. And on those occasions when members of our community bear the cost of other people’s free expression, they deserve our respect, our understanding and our support in exercising their own right to free expression. The Ad Hoc Working Group on Free ExpressionI am therefore very pleased to share the results of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression.

The following letter was sent to the MIT community today by President L. Rafael Reif and includes a letter sent to MIT faculty today by Provost Cynthia Barnhart, Chancellor Melissa Nobles, and Chair of the Faculty Lily L. Tsai.

To the members of the MIT community,

Last fall, I asked the provost, chancellor and chair of the faculty to assemble a special working group to take up the charge of exploring, on behalf of the community, a range of profound questions around freedom of expression and academic freedom – and today I share important progress.

Free expression in the life of MIT

As I wrote at the time, for an institute devoted to advancing knowledge and educating students, freedom of expression has always been, and must remain, a fundamental MIT value. We must ensure that different points of view – even views that some or all of us may reject or find offensive – are allowed to be heard and debated on our campus. I am convinced we must be prepared to endure such painful outcomes as the price of protecting free expression – the principle is that important.

Making room for the full range of thought and expression is not an end in itself. Rather, the right to free expression is a tool – a sharp tool – for enlarging understanding and uncovering truth.

As members of a community grounded in mutual respect, that fact demands responsibility from each of us. Our shared aim must be to create an environment where all of us can speak and all of us can listen, one that enables us to learn from one another through free, open and productive conversation. This will take practice. It will take compassion and care. And on those occasions when members of our community bear the cost of other people’s free expression, they deserve our respect, our understanding and our support in exercising their own right to free expression.

Though ideas like free expression and academic freedom may seem clear enough in theory, experience on our campus and across the country has shown that people of goodwill can have substantial disagreement about how to apply them in practice. We saw this last fall with the wide range of views around the Carlson lecture. The sometimes bitter national debate on these issues continues to underscore the practical value of establishing, for our own community, a clear shared understanding of and commitment to free expression and academic freedom.

The Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression

I am therefore very pleased to share the results of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression. With outstanding leadership from Institute Professor Penny Chisholm and Professor Phil Clay PhD '75, its members arrived at this proposed statement of principle on freedom of expression and academic freedom. They summarize their process and thinking in this thoughtful report.

I am greatly encouraged that the working group’s statement of principle reflects such a strong commitment to openness, and I am hopeful that the faculty can agree to endorse a statement in that spirit. Taking a broad, forward-looking approach, the working group’s report and its recommendations offer balanced guidance that will help the MIT community successfully navigate a wide range of scenarios in the future.

Next steps

This afternoon, Provost Cynthia Barnhart, Chancellor Melissa Nobles and Faculty Chair Lily Tsai asked the entire MIT faculty to consider the proposed statement of principle – and to join in a process of reflection and discussion. You can find the text of their letter below.

Ultimately, the principles and commitments that the statement puts forward must serve our whole community. We invite you to share your thoughts with the faculty officers as soon as possible at freexresponses@mit.edu.

With appreciation for everyone who has contributed to this important work,

L. Rafael Reif

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The following letter was sent to MIT faculty today by Provost Cynthia Barnhart, Chancellor Melissa Nobles, and Chair of the Faculty Lily L. Tsai.

Dear colleagues,

Last fall, debate around the handling of the Carlson Lecture spurred our community to focus on important questions on freedom of expression and academic freedom. As part of that process, President Reif asked the provost, chancellor, and chair of the faculty to assemble a special working group to explore these questions.

The Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression

The members of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression pursued their charge through extensive research, outreach, reflection and debate. This included several forums last fall; substantial feedback received by the MIT Values Statement Committee; direct community input via email; and outreach to seek the views of students, staff, postdocs, alumni and MIT Corporation members.

We are tremendously grateful to the working group – and to its co-chairs Institute Professor Penny Chisholm and Professor Phil Clay PhD '75 – for taking up this challenge with such seriousness and care.

A proposed MIT Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom

Today, we share the statement of principle that the working group developed on freedom of expression and academic freedom – and we invite you to engage in deliberation and discussion of this statement.

As the working group’s report explains, its members sought to create a statement of principle to be endorsed by the faculty and that would become a lasting touchstone for our community. To allow for focused discussion about the statement, we will host two online forums for faculty on Thursday, September 8th from 3-4:30 PM and on Thursday, September 22nd from 8:30-10 AM. The working group co-chairs expect to be present. Like the forums last fall, this session will consist mostly of faculty-to-faculty conversation in small, randomly assigned breakout groups.

Online Faculty Forums
Thursday, September 8th
3-4:30 PM Eastern

Thursday, September 22nd
8:30-10 AM Eastern

If you can’t attend either of the forums, please share your thoughts with the faculty officers as soon as possible at freexresponses@mit.edu. A separate letter this afternoon will invite the rest of the campus community to provide comments by email, too.

As President Reif wrote in January, “Because faculty have direct and enduring responsibility for stewarding MIT’s core academic values, principles and practices, including academic freedom,” faculty members have taken the lead on this process thus far.  These responsibilities constitute the foundation of what we do, and we urge the whole faculty to attend to them at this important juncture.

Freedom of expression in an inclusive community

Earlier today, the entire campus community also received the MIT Strategic Action Plan for Belonging, Achievement, and Composition, a document that outlines and coordinates plans across the Institute on subjects often referred to with the shorthand expression, “DEI.”

The strategic action plan and the report on free expression followed their own distinct paths to this moment.  We have a strong conviction that these efforts can thrive in concert with each other, and that both are essential to a thriving future for MIT.

Sincerely,

Cynthia Barnhart, Provost
Melissa Nobles, Chancellor
Lily L. Tsai, Chair of the Faculty

The source of this news is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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