Opinion editorial

The hypocrisy in MIT’s moralizing

MIT’s silence on war and exploitation reveals that convenience is central to its ethics

A visit to the Media Lab from Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on March 24 prompted a protest outside Lobby 7 and an online petition calling for the visit’s cancellation that received over 6,000 signatures. The objectors had a strong case backing them: in the past several years, MBS has built up an extraordinary record of human rights violations and war crimes. Saudi authorities actively suppress political dissidents and discriminate against religious minorities and LGBTQ individuals. Between March 2015 and March 2017 alone, while bin Salman was the minister of defense, Saudi-led airstrikes and ground conflicts in Yemen displaced more than three million civilians and killed over 5,900. Many of these attacks amounted to war crimes by targeting homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques, and killing civilians.

The Yemen crisis has been dubbed by Amnesty International “the forgotten war,” so perhaps it is fitting that MIT conveniently experienced some amnesia regarding Saudi-led injustices as it leapt at the chance to build high-profile, and likely profitable, connections with a foreign power. This most recent controversy surrounding MIT fits a foul pattern which has come into relief in an era featuring increased emphasis on morality and social duty: the MIT administration has reliably commented on political matters when it is easy to do so, but it has strategically chosen to remain silent on matters of injustice for which it shares culpability.

The administration has made clear its support of DACA students, ensured that high school students could peacefully protest without jeopardizing their chances of admission, spoken out against President Trump’s early-2017 travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, and criticized the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA. Yet, in the case of MBS’s visit, MIT has not publicly justified its decision to hold this forum in the face of the online petition or in-person protest, instead only publishing a news article praising the potential of the forum to expand Saudi Arabia’s economy. Many people have speculated that MBS is using his trip to the U.S. to rebrand himself as a positive, transformative force for Saudi Arabia and consequently pave over his human rights violations. By holding this forum and further developing its relationship with Saudi Arabia, the MIT administration is sending the signal that it not only approves of MBS’s rebranding mission, but it is even willing to actively participate in it. The administration is demonstrating that it is open to building relationships that empower war criminals, as long as it can expand its global influence in the meantime.

The MIT-Saudi relationship itself is far from new. One of the MIT Energy Initiative’s co-founders and member companies (companies which provide the initiative with its funding) is the Saudi Arabian nationally-owned oil company Saudi Aramco. Further, MBS’s non-profit foundation MiSK recently became a member company of the MIT Media Lab, a title which requires a minimum $250,000 donation per year.

Both of these partnerships raise questions about potential financial motives that MIT may have in building a relationship with Saudi Arabia. While it is obviously necessary for MIT to find its funding somewhere, it must also come to terms with the fact that accepting funding from foreign leaders or businesses with questionable economic and political goals inherently means that it is at least somewhat bound to these questionable goals as well. This financial linkage could very well explain MIT’s willingness to help Saudi Arabia develop its economy in spite of the country’s human rights violations, as well as its convenient silence in response to student criticisms of this growing relationship.

However, the veil of silence surrounding MIT’s controversial relationships goes further than just Saudi Arabia. Although news organizations churn out frequent stories on U.S. war crimes in the Middle East (between 737 and 1,551 civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia), the Institute actively works to support this rampant militarism through the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Defense research center that operates on a billion-dollar budget to develop military technology. The website for the Office of the President contains documentation of President Reif's letters to the community, op-eds, and speeches, and it seems to indicate that Reif has released numerous statements praising MIT's military contributions for serving the national interest, but none recognizing their ability to inflict harm on civilians. For example, a March 2017 letter to the community regarding federal research funding contained a link to a congressional testimony by Vice President of Research and National Science Board chair Maria Zuber, which begins by praising the role of MIT’s physics research in developing the atomic bombs that arguably facilitated the Allied victory of World War II. Regardless of whether or not this research ultimately played a positive role in the war, it would be disingenuous for MIT to claim credit for aiding in the victory without acknowledging the detrimental and lasting effects that Japan has faced as a result of the nuclear bombing. In the same way that MIT and other universities are now working to explicitly acknowledge their histories with slavery, they should also work to explicitly acknowledge their contributions to human suffering in international conflicts.

Recently, Facebook, whose chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg is set to be MIT’s 2018 commencement speaker, has gotten embroiled in a privacy scandal due to the company’s software allowing third-party consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to obtain users’ data (sometimes without permission) to assist right-wing U.S. political candidates and pro-Brexit organizations. Facebook has been criticized for its data-hungry business model that facilitated the scandal, a model that Sandberg, in no small part, masterminded. The company’s actions have shown blatant disregard on a vast scale for user privacy, which is regarded more and more in our increasingly technology-centered world as a basic human right. MIT has, predictably, not commented on the scandal.

At the previous commencement, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave an address in which he spent (perhaps too much) time overtly touting his company as an exemplary workplace where he was able to “serve humanity.” It is a well-documented fact that Apple products are built through the exploitation of laborers in foreign factories, who must work deplorable hours for pitiable wages. MIT’s act of shamelessly and uncritically lauding Sandberg’s and Cook’s corporate successes by inviting them to be commencement speakers not only serves to condone the scandals and exploitation associated with these individuals, but also sets a bad standard for the many MIT students who will go on to work for companies like Facebook and Apple, potentially even reaching positions of power like Sandberg and Cook.

The administration’s silence on these issues demonstrates a form of hypocrisy in its ethics, in that it is only willing to speak out against injustice when doing so doesn’t interfere with its strategic interests. It is easy for MIT to offer support for students protesting for gun control because doing so wouldn’t directly damage its financial interests, and it is easy for MIT to criticize a white supremacist rally because such an event is unquestionably vile. On the other hand, it is far harder for MIT to condemn a violent foreign ruler with whom it wants to build an economically beneficial partnership or to condemn a tech company with whose leader it has developed a high-profile relationship.

The MIT administration cannot only concern itself with ethics when doing so is convenient. Rather, being ethical often requires confronting difficult questions and putting aside hopes for economic or social gain. Although the solutions to any of MIT’s controversies are far from clear, a prerequisite to developing any solutions is an increase in transparency by the MIT administration on the relationships that it is building with business and political leaders. MIT students and faculty have the right to understand what institutions and goals they are supporting through their work and thus hold the administration accountable when those institutions and goals stray too far from MIT’s core mission to use science and technology to resolve global issues.  

Thus, we urge the MIT administration to, at a bare minimum, respond to the criticisms outlined in this editorial and provide the MIT community with clearer information about both the positive and negative impacts of the initiatives that the university is pursuing. In order to truly be a force for good in the world, MIT must more seriously confront the ethical implications of the work that it does and the relationships that it builds.

Editorials are the official opinion of The Tech. They are written by the Editorial Board, which consists of Chairman Karleigh Moore, Editor in Chief Emma Bingham, Executive Editor Patrick Wahl, Contributing Editor Vivian Zhong, and Opinion Editors Steven Truong and Fiona Chen.