Reif decides that MIT will not sever ties with Saudi Arabia

Individual faculty members conducting projects involved with Saudi Arabia can choose to disengage

MIT will not be severing its ties with Saudi Arabia, a decision that concludes an internal reassessment sparked by the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.

In a letter to the MIT community Wednesday, President L. Rafael Reif announced that he agreed with the recommendations put forward in a previous report, which concluded that there was no “compelling case” for MIT to withdraw from any of its existing relationships with Saudi private or government-funded sponsors and organizations.

However, Reif also denounced Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations in his letter.

“As many of you have made plain, in the present situation, if MIT simply continues to work with Saudi state entities without comment, we risk having our silence taken as an endorsement of the regime’s behavior — an unacceptable result,” Reif acknowledged.

“For the record then, let me be clear: MIT utterly condemns such brutal human rights violations, discrimination and suppression of dissent, including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Reif continued.

The initial report, published in December, was written by Associate Provost Richard Lester PhD ’80, who advises the administration on international affairs.

Lester opened its contents for a public comment period that ended Jan. 15, which prompted 111 comments from 123 individuals, according to a summary linked in Reif’s letter.

Twenty-four of the 42 faculty responses were “strongly opposed to a continuation of relations with the Saudi government” and another seven leaned against it. Of the remaining responses, which were submitted from a range of students, postdocs, staff, and alumni in the MIT community, 76 percent either strongly opposed or leaned against the recommendation.

However, Lester and Reif noted in an interview with The Tech Tuesday that even though the majority of responses criticized the recommendation, these comments did not amount to a community vote against the recommendations.

Reif added, “I want to listen to every point of view and I want to make sure that I’m not missing anything. But at the end of the day, I just have to do what I think is the right thing for MIT, and yes, I’m sure that quite a few are going to disagree with that decision.”

Reif emphasized that he did not want to single-handedly decide whether to cut ties with Saudi Arabia; rather, he believed the choice should be left to individual faculty. Lester concurred, stating, “The individual faculty members who are conducting these projects … should be making the decision.”

No faculty have expressed any wishes to disengage with Saudi Arabia thus far, Lester said.

According to Lester’s summary, many commenters took issue with or found “implausible” the claim that MIT’s cooperation with Saudi entities could push the country in a more progressive direction. Lester responded that without further evidence, these comments could not amount to more than just speculation.

Others believed that Lester’s cost-benefit analysis was not applicable for a situation like this because of its “special moral weight.” Lester responded that although the situation did pose “unique moral questions,” other aspects of the situation, such as the research benefits of collaboration, also carry their own moral weight.

Additionally, some believed that MIT cutting ties with Saudi Arabia would define MIT as a voice for change and create a pathway for other organizations to also cut ties with Saudi Arabia. Lester disagreed, stating that he did not believe that MIT should “advance a policy goal … unless the topic bears directly on our core academic mission.”

Some commenters agreed with Lester’s recommendations. They concurred that there was potential for social progress through joint programs and research, such as the development of King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) and other initiatives that allow students and young professionals to participate in entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, some commented that by their own experiences, they felt that Saudi Aramco was a progressive organization with Western values. Saudi Aramco provides about $5 million in funds for MIT each year and is a member of the MIT Energy Initiative.

Lester recommended in his original report that MIT should continue its engagements with Saudi Arabia, be willing to consider new engagements, and place the onus of terminating engagements with individual PIs.

After the comment period, Lester added recommendations that MIT should openly condemn the actions of Saudi Arabia, strengthen internal processes for evaluations, and “incorporate broad termination rights” in new contractual relationships with foreign entities. In his interview with The Tech, Lester noted that the costs associated with termination rights were not considered as part of his evaluation.

MIT faculty have worked with researchers at KFUPM since 2008 in a joint seven-year research and educational program to tackle problems related to the desalination of seawater and solar energy. In addition, the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship has sponsored Saudi Arabian women with PhDs to come to MIT to spend a year conducting research with MIT faculty since 2012.

According to Lester’s report, in the most recent fiscal year, MIT received approximately $7.2 million in sponsored research funding from Saudi Arabia.

Soomin Chun contributed reporting.

Update 2/7/19: The article was updated to correct that Lester did not consider termination rights as part of his evaluation. The article originally stated, incorrectly, that he did.