A response to “Breaking Silence”

Last week in the pages of The Tech, a young MIT graduate shared her anguished account of being raped as an undergraduate at MIT by someone she thought she could trust — her friend, coworker and research colleague, a man ten years her senior.

The suffering she describes breaks my heart. And — as we know from years of campus reporting about sexual assault and from the comments posted on her letter — she is not alone. That such betrayals occur in our community makes me profoundly sad and angry. Nothing could be further from our ideal of a community founded on respect, decency, sympathy, and kindness.

I admire her bravery in breaking the silence for all rape survivors in our community. Just as important, she has brought this topic to the center of our public conversation.

As Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart begins her new role, I have asked her to make the subject of sexual assault a central priority. The community deserves a rigorous assessment of the nature and extent of the problem of sexual assault at MIT. We all need to be aware of what MIT is doing as an institution to try to prevent sexual assault, to respond with understanding and fairness, and to provide survivors with the help they need. And we need to decide where we should do more. I have asked the Chancellor to deliver a report to me by the end of the spring semester, so we can take any needed action.

Over the last several years, the staff of Violence Prevention & Response, the Division of Student Life, MIT Police, the Office of the General Counsel as well as others at MIT, including Institute Community and Equity Officer Ed Bertschinger and many students, have done important work together to raise awareness of sexual assault and harassment and to improve our support and other assistance for survivors.

I am proud of and grateful for their work, and I believe we should use this moment to improve and expand our community efforts further still.

Every one of us in the MIT community — faculty, post-docs, graduate students, undergraduates, alumni and staff — can contribute to the solution. We need to care for each other, and listen to each other with compassion and respect. We need to intervene when we see a friend, student or colleague in a vulnerable situation, or when we sense an abuse of trust and power. We should all take the time to understand what constitutes sexual misconduct. We must make sure that those who suffer sexual assault know that they have the full support of this community — and we need to create a culture and environment that minimize the instances of such assaults in the first place. Most important, we must all treat sexual assault as a fundamental violation of our values that will not be “normalized,” glossed over or tolerated at MIT.

At MIT, we hold ourselves to high standards in many realms. I believe we should do the same in how we treat one another.

Please join me in rising to this challenge for our community.

If you have thoughts on this subject that you would like to share with me privately, feel free to respond by email: reif@mit.edu. I will respect your wishes regarding confidentiality.

L. Rafael Reif
President, MIT

James Herms over 9 years ago

Dialogue about sexual assault can be valuable for establishing boundaries, as Barnhart points out. But it doesn't appear to work well for protecting students from drug-facilitated assault.

In 2007, test kits for detecting date-rape drugs were distributed at Harvard and MIT by Brittan Smith (Harvard '09); her effort won that year's Dru Award. The project was cosponsored by Harvard College Student Life and the MIT Crime Club.

A local "drinkware" startup is introducing new technology this fall.


Dean G. Kilpatrick et al., Drug-Facilitated, Incapacitated, and Forcible Rape: A National Study; Dawn Witlin, "Win $$ in Local Competition to Combat Violence," Cantabrigia; "Dru Award," FAIR Fund ("college students test drinks they suspect could be laced with 'date rape drugs'"); Nadja Popovich, "How Your Straw Could Help You Stay Safe," Guardian.

-Herms, MtE '87

Susan Murcott over 9 years ago

Having been a mentor to a MIT student over the past year who was raped (not at MIT) and who has not made her circumstances public, yet who has suffered academically and emotionally, I am delighted that President Reif and Chancellor Barnhardt have had the compassion and leadership to highlight this issue. I am commmited to working with the MIT community to put a stop to this form of violence.

anonymous coward, sorry over 9 years ago

It is still fairly easy for me to say that things that have happened to me were understandable, or that since I wasn't really bruised up I must not have really fought. But when I imagine the young men and women I now mentor saying the same, I'm horrified.

So it is only now as a graduate student that I have started coming to terms with being raped as an undergraduate at Caltech. I never told anyone before participating in Project dxdt with a few immensely courageous and inspiring MIT undergraduate women.

If any place can do better, it's MIT.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

President Reif, MIT executive leadership, deans, etc.: Culture change does not occur unless championed from the top. I hope your commitment is serious. If you don't change the culture, you are continuing to damage your own product.