At Meeting, Faculty Vote Not to Restrain MIT Press Releases

Admins Ask Department Chairs for Support

Over 200 people attended the Dec. 19 faculty meeting to discuss a motion that asked MIT to limit its public statements about community members facing criminal investigations. The original motion was sparked by an MIT press release, calling Star A. Simpson ’10 “reckless” on the day of her Sept. 21, 2007 arrest at Logan Airport.

After hours of acrimonious discussion, including allegations by Professor Patrick H. Winston that administrators had asked department chairs for their faculty’s votes, the original motion was defeated by a 31-36 vote. The faculty also voted against two alternate proposals.

Some faculty members said none of the proposals adequately captured their feelings, and others said they felt that policy should not be shaped by a single event. (See page 12 for full text of the motion and amendments.)

At a lunch meeting in early December between Institute administrators and department chairs, the chairs were asked to participate in the Dec. 19 faculty meeting at which the motion would be discussed. “It was clear that the upper administration was worried about the motion,” said Anne E. McCants, chair of the history department, who attended the lunch meeting.

On Sept. 21, 2007, Simpson was arrested at Logan Airport for wearing a shirt that had wires, a battery pack, and light-emitting diodes on it. She was charged with possession of a hoax device. MIT issued a widely-quoted press release calling her actions “reckless.” (See right for the full statement.) It is still not clear who wrote that press release; McCants said that, at a Committee on Student Life meeting, Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 was asked who wrote the release, but he declined to respond.

At the Oct. 17 faculty meeting, the next monthly meeting after Simpson’s arrest, Winston and Professor Kenneth R. Manning introduced a motion expressing their discontent with the MIT press release.

That motion was tabled after about an hour of inconclusive discussion; the November faculty meeting was cancelled because it fell near the Thanksgiving holiday; and the faculty continued discussing the resolution at its next meeting on Dec. 19.

At that meeting, Manning said he heard about the events at Logan in an airport as he was on the way back to Boston, and that he was outraged to hear on CNN that MIT had called Star’s actions “reckless.” He said that, when MIT’s statement was released, “the mood around me turned uglier … the public saw Star as reckless in part because MIT had said so.”

Manning said that he was concerned MIT’s statement may influence or prejudice a court’s decision on whether Simpson’s actions were reckless.

Winston said at the Dec. 19 meeting that his concern extended beyond Simpson’s arrest to other recent events where MIT gave public statements, including the resignation of Marilee Jones and the Institute’s lawsuit against architect Frank O. Gehry.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with the particular incident or person,” Winston said in an interview. “It has to do with observing community values that have been cherished at MIT for a very long time, and those community values have to do with leaders taking care of their people with a view towards making MIT a better place than it was when they became leaders. It’s ultimately about how the leaders at every level think about the people who report to them.”

Professor Bish Sanyal, chair of the Faculty Policy Committee, said in the Dec. 19 meeting that the FPC had met with Clay to discuss the faculty’s concerns about MIT’s public statements. Sanyal said he was “ultimately convinced that the administration was listening and making an effort.”

But another member of the FPC, Professor Helen Lee, was not satisfied with the administration’s response. She said at the Dec. 19 faculty meeting that “the committee was critical of the administration’s actions in the Star Simpson case and of Clay’s principles,” and she said that she did not think the committee’s “concerns had been allayed.” In a later interview, Lee said that she had not attended the final FPC meeting at which the motion was discussed; she noted that she had been sick that day and that the motion had not been on the meeting’s agenda.

During the discussion, Winston called the meeting an “offensive environment where department chairs ask their faculty to vote in particular ways without a secret ballot.” He likened the meeting’s atmosphere to harassment.

In an interview, Sanyal said he was concerned by the lack of civility at the faculty meeting. Former MIT president Paul E. Gray ’54 was interrupted while trying to speak by faculty who questioned whether he had the right to speak.

Chancellor Clay proposed an alternate motion to amend and replace Winston and Manning’s. Clay’s motion listed five principles that he said MIT had adopted after hearing complaints about the way it commented on the Simpson case. Clay said those principles would let MIT speak out when doing so might help students. He said that Winston and Manning’s motion was overly broad since it offered a blanket prohibition on public statements.

A heated two-hour discussion followed Clay’s proposed amendment. Though Clay’s amendment was quickly defeated, faculty continued to speak out about the wording of the motion and the wisdom of forming policies based on a single problem. “Bad cases make bad law,” said Institute Professor Sheila Widnall ’61.

Most of the speakers said that while they opposed MIT’s statement about “reckless” actions, they thought the proposed resolution did not properly express their sentiments. Associate Professor Shankar Raman ’86 said that “the problem is that the resolutions are ambiguous,” speaking of both Clay’s amendment and Winston and Manning’s original motion.

Ultimately, the Winston-Manning motion was voted down, with 31 in favor and 36 in opposition. Another alternate proposal, offered by Professor Peter A. Diamond PhD ’63, said only that the faculty disapproved of the original press release. Diamond’s proposal was also voted down.

President Susan Hockfield moderated the discussion.

Winston said in a later interview that although the motion was defeated, he felt the point had been made. “We felt that we had to make a powerful statement. We made that statement. I felt that it was made in a way that the statement was heard, and now it’s time for us all to start working together to make MIT a better place.”