Letters to the Editor
CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The author of the Feb. 27 letter “Threat of Eminent Domain Overstated” is Kelley Brown MCP ’84, not ’04.
MIT Alumni Object to Extreme Misrepresentation of Judaism
The organizers of the recent event entitled “Foreign Policy and Social Justice: a Jewish View, a Muslim View” abused their academic right to free speech to spread horrible lies, hurting the MIT community and staining the good name of the Institute. As Jewish alumni, we are disgusted that Dovid Weiss was invited to present a “Jewish” view, despite the fact he is rejected across the Jewish spectrum for his unethical politics and his disgraceful warping of the history of the Holocaust.
Judging by its title, last Thursday’s event sounded laudable. It claimed to bring together “scholars” from Judaism and Islam to address issues of social justice in a region of the world significant to each faith and central to modern international relations. Such discussion is fitting and necessary in an academic institution producing its share of future world leaders. However, this discussion must be an honest one if the community is to gain any greater understanding of different cultures and the struggles across the world. The organizers of Thursday’s talk failed horribly in this regard. The speaker who presented “Judaism” in 10-250 belongs to a fringe cult ostracized by the Jewish community because of the cult’s unacceptable actions and social “values.” Dovid Weiss betrays the Jewish people in his words. The organizers of Thursday’s event betrayed MIT by painting Weiss as holding a Jewish view.
Some may be quick to counter that Judaism is known for its diversity of opinions, and that Weiss’s claims must be viewed as one opinion in many. However, Jews across the spectrum, from secular to traditional, condemn Weiss’ cult “Neturei Karta,” for attending and lending support to the Holocaust denial conference in Iran. The Jewish world viewed this action as a disgrace to the memory of the six million Jews killed. In the Jewish perspective, no rationale can justify standing at any event that is predominantly (if not entirely) filled with speeches denying the extent or the existence of the Holocaust. Many traditional rabbinical authorities have joined together to place the cult in “cherem,” the Jewish equivalent of excommunication, for these and similar actions.
Dovid Weiss does not represent any valid form of Judaism. Inviting him to provide “a Jewish view” is tantamount to asking a de-frocked priest, banned from the Church, to give a lecture on Catholicism. Indeed, his cult is as poor a representative of Jewish values as the Ku Klux Klan is of American values.
In light of Neturei Karta’s nearly-universal banishment from Judaism, last Thursday’s event is an insult to the idea of the pluralistic forum — far from the “auspicious” ideal so falsely advertised. Neturei Karta regularly employs religious rhetoric and flaunts the “Orthodox” appearance of its members to present its heretical views as “authentic” Judaism. In the guise of free speech, a small, misguided group of MIT students and organizers have joined in the lie.
There are many students on MIT’s campus who have not been exposed to the many nuances of Judaism, the complex history of its culture, and how the Jews as a people have adapted to the modern world, embraced science, and have engaged themselves in the greater society. Dovid Weiss does not conform to any of the norms of Judaism in the world. Publicizing him as representing the Jewish people to the MIT community was an action misleading those who do not understand Jewish culture (i.e., those targeted by the event), as well as deeply insulting those people who are a part of Jewish culture.
Thursday, Feb. 22, was a dark day for the MIT community. We hope those misinformed by the liar Dovid Weiss will turn to Jewish students and community members to learn more about the diversity of REAL Jewish views on social justice, in Israel, in the Middle East, and in the world at large. We hope those with sufficient knowledge of the many valid Jewish opinions will come forward to present them to the community. And, above all, we hope this is the last time a small number of MIT community members abuse their freedom of speech to spread serious misunderstandings to the broader community. As future and current leaders in science, technology, policy, and countless other areas of society, we must strive for honest communication to improve our world.
Benjamin D. Cooper ’06
Tal M. Fishman ’02
Matya Y. Gilbert-Schachter ’05
Andrew M. Goldsweig ’03
Howard E. Katz ’78
Joshua S. Katz ’06
Sam N. Korb ‘04
Daniel D. Leeds ’05, ’06
Reuven M. Lerner ’92
Stuart L. Litwin ’81
Eva Lemann Moses ’04
Isaac E. Moses ’02, ’05
Rachel R. Parke-Houben ’03
Benjamin Pick ’02
Samuel L. Raymond ’06
Alex Sherman ’99
Maxim Shusteff ’03
Michael J. Star ’07
Daniel J. Thumim ’93
Threat of Eminent Domain Overstated
Justin Wong’s column, “Eminent Domain, Imminent Danger,” appearing in The Tech on Feb. 20, certainly captured the disruption and perceived unfairness of many property acquisitions through the powerful government tool of eminent domain. On the other hand, it omitted some important facts surrounding eminent domain and American law that might let us step back from the sense of imminent danger proclaimed in the column’s headline.
Most of the column is devoted to describing the varieties of disruption that property owners are subject to in eminent domain — replacing a home or successful business or reproducing the happiness that has been accrued by the ownership of one’s own home. A couple of slippery slope arguments are also advanced — the potential chilling effect on investment and economic growth of the threat of the loss of one’s business property to the government and even the loss of free speech and press if the means of production (to borrow a phrase) of such free expression are subject to arbitrary seizure by the government. However, any eminent domain action, even for undisputed public purposes, like road construction, could have all these negative effects. It is not likely that we would want to throw away such an important tool for creating obvious and necessary public benefits for an advanced urban society, but it does speak to the need for careful procedures for using such a tool and for fairly compensating those harmed by its use.
What brings us to this parade of horrible scenarios the column adduces is the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London. This decision was by no means “an expansive new interpretation of ‘public use.’” Eminent domain for public purposes, including for economic development purposes, has been supported by the Supreme Court for more than 50 years (see Berman v. Parker, 1954, and Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff, 1984). In these decisions, the court confirmed that “public purposes” satisfied the “public use” requirement of the Fifth Amendment. The Kelo decision also notes that in Midkiff the court had “long ago rejected any literal requirement that condemned property be put in to use for the general public.”
According to Brian W. Blaesser, a land use attorney with the law firm of Robinson and Cole:
The majority based its conclusions that the city’s economic development plan [and the property takings incidental to it — KB] served a public purpose on three principle reasons...(a) the plan was an integrated, comprehensive plan; (b) The plan was thoroughly deliberated prior to adoption; and (c) The private developers were required under contract to carry out the provisions of the plan. (Planning & Environmental Law, September, 2005, Vol. 57, No. 9/p.4)
This is the biggest omission in the column: the body engaged in the eminent domain action is not a black box or a deus ex machina — it is the locally elected city government, circumscribed by the need to make findings and publicly deliberate a comprehensive plan for redevelopment, with numerous opportunities for citizens and their elected representatives to comment and approve or disapprove the plan. The local government takes these actions subject to the framework and authority granted to it by the state, which is itself subject to the restrictions inscribed in state and federal jurisprudence.
It certainly appropriate for our elected state governments to decide that promotion of economic development, per se, is not a necessary or sufficient governmental purpose to allow the use of eminent domain in its execution. Many states, prior to Kelo, and some new ones since, have taken this tool out of the hands of local authorities trying to turn around an ailing local or neighborhood economy in which the workings of the private market are unlikely to produce an economic revival necessary to prevent further degradation of the lives and property of the residents. But to suggest that the Kelo decision and the continuing use of eminent domain by local authorities is some kind of new and revolutionary assault on American rights is not correct.
Suspicion of Unfairness in Sherley Case
I was heartened by MIT’s Feb. 16 pledge to address “the effects that race may play in the hiring, advancement and experience of under-represented minority faculty”, to “ensur[e] that our grievance processes are comprehensive, fair and timely”, and to “continue to work toward resolution of our differences with Professor Sherley.” Yet I remain troubled by MIT’s subsequent repeated claims that the grievance process has worked perfectly well in Prof. Sherley’s case.
In a 1994 faculty motion about MIT’s ill-defined grievance procedures for faculty, Prof. Judith Thomson argued that MIT’s ad hoc procedures are unlike “procedures of a kind that are in force in the other major universities across the country” and that “… a faculty member should be entitled, as a matter of right, to present his or her complaint to an elected, standing, Faculty Grievance Committee. …”. Our grievance procedures still do not provide for elected members of the faculty as a standing committee with “institutional memory” that would allow “all like cases [to] be treated alike”.
Per Prof. Thomson’s unsuccessful motion: “… the wheel that squeaks loud gets the grease. Faculty members with high status, or with friends with high status, squeak loud; faculty members without high status, and without friends with high status, make a barely audible squeak, and it is not for them that ad hoc mechanisms are established. Perhaps MIT’s decisions about whether to establish ad hoc mechanisms are always made fairly, but it would be no surprise if a suspicion of unfairness remained. …”
Lower-status faculty have included many female and minority colleagues. There’s at least one case where the tenure evaluation was marred by sexism and where “friends with high status” (in this case, then-President Paul Gray) had to personally intervene and reverse a tenure denial (The Tech, Feb. 2, 1988). I myself know from my own tenure review that it does help to have “friends with high status” and with courage in order to reverse through ad hoc means an unfair tenure denial. In at least one other case, the previously-unsuccessful candidate — this time, a non-female and non-minority colleague — was awarded tenure in another Engineering unit, and is presently a “faculty member with high status.”
A “suspicion of unfairness” may have reasonably arisen in Prof. Sherley’s case as follows:
1- The previous Provost, who started handling Prof. Sherley’s grievance in January 2005, had strong personal ties with the head of Biological Engineering (BE) and the latter’s spouse, another BE faculty — both of whom are implicated in Sherley’s complaint.
2- While the grievance was ongoing, the ad hoc grievance committee opened itself to a potential conflict of interest when its chair became Chair of the Faculty as well. The latter is ex officio Chair of the Faculty Policy Committee, he appoints Chairs for the Committee on Graduate Programs and for the Committee on the Undergraduate Programs, he sits on the Committee on Campus Race Relations, and is ex officio member of the Faculty Newsletter Editorial Board.
3- Such choice of the grievance-committee chair as Chair of the Faculty was made by a Nominations Committee headed by a senior BE faculty. At that time, another senior BE faculty was already Associate Chair of the Faculty.
4- The Associate Chair of the Faculty co-signed, along with 19 other BE faculty, a 2/5/07 statement claiming that “race did not play any role” in Prof. Sherley’s tenure review.
5- The Provost’s Jan. 23, 2006 and Dec. 22, 2006 summaries of the grievance committee’s reports contain factual inaccuracies and apparent contradictions. (“Plea for fairness at MIT”, The Tech, Feb. 6, 2007.)
6- Confidentiality was breached by the Provost on 12/18/06, when he delivered his negative decision to Prof. Sherley in the presence of an observer who had not been previously involved in the grievance review, who was a stranger to Sherley and who was included in the meeting without prior consultation.
7- Since January 2007, the administration has publicly and repeatedly pronounced itself against Prof. Sherley’s complaint, thus removing any neutrality on its part.
Any subset of facts 1-7 may well be divorced from any instance of actual unfairness. Yet, their cumulative effect warrants “a suspicion of unfairness” of the sort that the Thomson motion warned against.
The administration should admit that our grievance procedures may not be fair and should start working in truly good faith with Prof. Sherley toward a fair resolution of their differences. Such steps will contribute to increased fairness for all at MIT, including those who usually “make a barely audible squeak”.
Department of Linguistics and Philosophy
From Racial Antipathy and Apathy to Racial Sensitivity
On Feb. 16, 2007, on the apropos occasions of MIT’s 33rd Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast Celebration and the conclusion of Professor James Sherley’s 12-day fast, the Institute issued a landmark statement on race issues. For the first time, the terms “racism” and “MIT” were finally written in the same breath into Institutional archives beyond its boilerplate. The statement reaffirmed MIT’s responsibility for ensuring that all members of its diverse community feel welcome and respected and that its grievance processes are comprehensive, fair and timely.
“[Sherley] has raised issues that reach beyond any single individual or any single institution,” commented President Susan Hockfied.
These political gestures, taken at face value, cast a ray of hope against a bleak backdrop of the quintessentially monolithic, monochromatic or at best apathetic ethos on campus. Just two days earlier, Paul E. Gray ’54, former chief executive of the Institute and MIT golden jubilee alumnus and career professor, crashed the protest site personally and openly criticized Sherley’s hunger strike as “unwise.” Then, chemistry professor Keith A. Nelson vehemently condemned Sherley’s comparison of himself to the victims of the civil rights struggles as “sickening”, adding that he did not consider any of his colleagues “dishonest or outright evil….however racist [their] motivations”.
An editorial of The Tech, while acknowledging that an offense might have been committed against Sherley, summarily dismissed Sherley’s racism complaints as lacking evidence by mistakenly putting the burden of proof on him, urging that “the Institute owes it to our entire community not to follow the path of appeasement.” Another column in The Tech later amplified this sentiment, denouncing Sherley’s complaints as “race-baiting” and his reference to the civil rights struggles as “racial hyperbole” and vowing not to “kowtow to the fear of being called a racist”. Earlier that week, Chairman of The Tech Michael P. McGraw-Herdeg conceded to The Harvard Crimson that “there had not been too much student reaction to Sherley’s protest”.
Why such a gaping disconnect between the principals involved and the rest of the campus? For one thing, most casual bystanders could hardly fathom all the complicated facts of the matter, let alone their legality. In fact, under Massachusetts SJC’s established three-step burden-shifting test for cases alleging discrimination2, once a complainant establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden shifts to respondents to articulate a reason for their adverse employment decision, before the burden returns to the complainant to show that the respondents’ reason is discriminatory. Now, a prima facie case of discrimination has been laid out in “A Plea for Fairness at MIT” dated Feb. 6, 2007. Therefore, the ball is in respondents’ court to articulate a legitimate reason for such unfair treatments. As The Tech put it, “MIT owes Mr. Sherley a true and open response to all of his allegations.” Until then, the burden of proof remains with the respondents instead of Sherley.
According to a Feb. 6, 2007 editorial in Boston University’s Daily Free Press, “Sherley [claimed] he overheard [then MIT provost Robert Brown] say he did not want to grant lab space to a black man.…[Brown] should offer a brief but personal refute to the racist allegations against him.….to counter the attacks”. So far, Brown has remained tightlipped.
As President Hockfield rightly emphasized that morning, the spirit of the MIT statement goes beyond the MIT administration and Professor Sherley and “reaches into the larger MIT community … We will only move ahead if we do so together.” If there is any validity to her comment, she will have her work cut out to instill, install, and enforce across campus the new spirit of racial sensitivity behind the MIT statement.
Principal Research Scientist
Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology