Celebrating war criminals at MIT’s ‘ethical’ College of Computing
MIT claims that ethical considerations will be central to College of Computing’s work, but its actions have suggested otherwise
On Feb. 26–28, MIT will celebrate the opening of the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, named after the CEO of the Blackstone Group (the largest private equity firm in the U.S.). Schwarzman, who has a net personal worth of over $12 billion, invested $350 million in the initiative.
MIT claims “ethics” are integral to the college’s mission. MIT President Rafael Reif declared that, “As computing reshapes our world, MIT intends to help make sure it does so for the good of all.” Schwarzman said that “attention to ethics matters enormously” to him and that “we will never realize the full potential of these advancements unless they are guided by a shared understanding of their moral implications for society.”
However, the MIT administration’s conduct has been anything but “ethical.” First, there is MIT’s willingness to accept Schwarzman’s money, for which it has already been criticized. Concerns about Schwarzman are far ranging, from being an advisor to Donald Trump to heading the Blackstone Group that spent millions opposing an affordable housing ballot measure in California. Last spring, Schwarzman hosted the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) — a war criminal in charge of a repressive monarchy — after Blackstone received a $20 billion investment from his government. All the while, millions of Yemenis are suffering from starvation and disease as a consequence of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition’s assaults. MBS also has an extensive record of human rights violations at home, jailing and silencing activists (including women fighting for the right to drive). His government also persecuted Saudis across the globe who speak out against his policies (or who simply attempt to seek asylum elsewhere).
Schwarzman’s alliance with the Saudi crown prince represents an agenda of profit at any cost, a far cry from the pious statements about “ethics” pronounced in public. Schwarzman’s vision is perhaps better captured by his 2011 remarks equating the Obama administration’s plan for a minor increase in corporate taxes (raising the “carried-interest tax”) to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
We should note that it is not just Schwarzman who has ties to MBS. Last spring, MIT officials also received MBS as an honored guest and extended numerous partnerships with his government. The upcoming celebrations only add insult to these injuries.
One of the slated featured speakers for Feb. 28 is Henry Kissinger, whom MIT invited — and whom Schwarzman sees as a role model for U.S. foreign policy — despite his role in multiple atrocities worldwide. During his long career, Kissinger backed Indonesian dictator Suharto who, aided by U.S. intelligence, murdered up to a million of his own people. With Kissinger’s backing as U.S. Secretary of State, Suharto also invaded East Timor in 1975, which led to the deaths of over one hundred thousand East Timorese. In Chile, Kissinger spearheaded the Nixon administration’s successful efforts to topple the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and install Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military dictatorship.
In addition to his well-known role in prolonging the Vietnam War, Kissinger also orchestrated secret bombing campaigns in Cambodia and Laos. More bombs were dropped on Cambodia and Laos in those years than the Allies dropped on their enemies during all of World War II. To this day, unexploded bombs threaten the lives and livelihood of people in these regions. However, Kissinger remains unrepentant for his role in bloody invasions, bombings, and coups.
For the MIT administration, as for Schwarzman, money trumps concerns for human rights and economic justice. It is only fitting, then, that political commentator Thomas Friedman was also invited to speak at the upcoming event — as Friedman’s writing was pivotal in creating MBS’s image as a “reformer” in the media. This narrative distracted from MBS’s responsibility for atrocities in Yemen, which mainstream U.S. media only started seriously covering after columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder by a Saudi hit squad. In spite of criticism from students, faculty, and the local community, the MIT administration has refused to cut ties with the Saudi government or acknowledge the depth of the harm in its continued relationship. Similarly, regarding the Schwarzman College, the administration has also failed to address numerous questions from students and faculty about the college’s direction and focus. Rather than engaging with the community, the administration adopted an uncritically “celebratory” tone towards the college’s opening that caters to donors.
But how can we celebrate a college claiming to lead ethical, thoughtful research when war criminals such as Kissinger are invited to speak? When the college is funded by the CEO of a company that accepts billions of dollars made by waging devastating wars on civilians? When MIT invites former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who famously dismissed the very idea of privacy and the abusive powers of surveillance, to help guide “ethical” computing research? Or when MIT, in the height of cynicism, picks Thomas Friedman to moderate a panel on “Computing for the People?” How can we believe that this new college will take justice, ethics, or morals seriously, given the figures MIT has chosen to represent the endeavor?
Underlying the whole of this is MIT’s growing quest for private sponsorship, military contracts, and the wrong kind of prestige. Rather than promoting thoughtful discussion about the direction of the university, the administration stages Davos-like spectacles, of which the Schwarzman College celebrations are a prime example.
For all these reasons, we are calling on MIT’s administration to cancel the February celebrations for the new college and issue an apology for inviting Henry Kissinger. If they are not canceled, we urge the MIT community to boycott these celebrations.
Since this won’t be sufficient to address the deep structural flaws of our Institute and especially the Schwarzman College, we invite everyone to an alternate event at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 26, organized by students and other members of the community, to discuss these systemic issues and the direction of the university. Finally, we ask faculty to support and enable participation in the alternate event Feb. 26 and in the urgent discussion it seeks to foster.
Email MIT.CoC.firstname.lastname@example.org to receive updates about the alternative event.
Alonso Espinosa Domínguez, Class of 2020
Remy Bassett-Audain, Class of 2020
Husayn Karimi, Class of 2019
Berenice Estrada, Class of 2019
Claire Isabel Webb, PhD Candidate
Ruth Perry, Professor
Sally Haslanger, Professor
Jonathan King, Professor
Kevin Leonardo, SB 2018
Sarah Aladetan, SB 2018
Agnes Fury Cameron, MAS 2019
Yarden Katz, PhD 2014
Andrew Bolton, PhD 2014
Lauren Surface, PhD 2014
Kade Crockford, MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow
Katherine McConachie, Manager, MIT Media Lab Learning Initiative
Subrata Ghoshroy, Research Affiliate, STS
Alice Pote, Software Engineer, MIT Open Learning