Opinion letter to the editor

President Reif responds to editorial on MIT’s moralizing

This is a response to last weeks editorial, “The hypocrisy in MIT's moralizing.”

Your editorial of April 5th points to serious, difficult questions we must ask when developing relationships with outside parties, including what qualifies or disqualifies a potential collaborator, and how we can gauge whether our choices serve the long-term best interests of MIT.

With all our institutional engagements with foreign governments, MIT’s senior leaders ask just such questions, and we consult with faculty leaders. We followed this same approach when we learned that the Saudi Crown Prince was interested in visiting our campus.

Let me offer some context for how we think about these issues.

As a starting point, we strongly favor a strategy of engaging with the world, and of opening the doors to collaboration. However, favoring engagement sometimes requires wrestling with complex choices, as when we are invited to work on subjects of important shared interest by parties whose values and actions in other areas we reject. In each case, and repeatedly over time, we make our best assessment and form a judgment: By engaging, do we see a significant opportunity to do some good or drive some progress, in areas that matter to our faculty and students?

If yes, we seek to work out a carefully focused relationship. In the Saudi case, over time this path has led to Saudi Aramco’s sustained support for MITEI’s renewable energy research, and to the Ibn Khaldun fellowship, which has already brought 27 Saudi women PhDs to our campus and which the signing at the recent forum extended for a decade.

We could instead choose a strategy of refusing to engage. In most instances, however, it appears to us that our not engaging neither creates nor encourages significant positive change. I recognize that, in each case, this is a matter of judgment. These decisions are rarely clear cut. Members of our community may disagree, in general or in certain cases, or may conclude that particular relationships are unacceptable to them. I certainly understand such positions.

Your editorial also suggested that when I write to the community on matters of public policy, I have chosen subjects that were easy to speak up on. Since they have not felt that way to me, I would like to briefly describe why I have taken such public stands.

MIT is an American institution with a mission of national service and a long record of constructive partnership with the US government. Therefore, federal policy changes that threaten our mission or members of our community come as a shock. In my judgment, they require an urgent institutional response, and part of marshalling that response is making sure that our community understands the threat and what we plan to do about it. For a research-intensive university that receives 67% of its campus research funding from the federal government, publicly criticizing federal policy carries real risks. In each case – the travel ban, the withdrawal from the global climate accord, DACA, the changes to the tax code that threatened our graduate students and our endowment – my goal was not to scold, nor to score moral points, but to take a stand in defense of our community and its mission. But I’m prepared to hear that I did not get the balance right.

Making a better world is a grand aspiration. I believe we should aim that high – and that living up to that mission means seizing opportunities to do the most good we can. Yet defining what that means in practice clearly leaves room for serious discussion and a wide range of views. I’m grateful to hear your perspective, and I appreciate the opportunity to explain our approach.

L. Rafael Reif is the 17th president of MIT.