Opinion open letter

A call to step up in response to Reif’s most recent letter

MIT needs strong leadership from its members and administrators in light of the recent Media Lab scandal

Dear Rafael,

In the spirit of Mind, Hand, and Heart, we as proud members of the MIT community were astounded to read your words: “I apparently signed this letter on August 16, 2012, about six weeks into my presidency. Although I do not recall it, it does bear my signature.” These words do not encompass the moral authority that we have entrusted in you as our president and provost of MIT. For the sake of academic, moral, and business integrity, you can set a better example. MIT has always set the highest standard, and thus we do not take signatures lightly on engineering drawings or business contracts; your signature is not exempt. In addition, we have a $16.4 billion endowment fund, so it is absurd to flirt with questionable sources. These decisions include, but are certainly not limited to, the acceptance of research funding from Saudia Arabia and from Jeffrey Epstein. Because both events are not singular in nature, we cannot treat them as outliers in how MIT decides to conduct its business, but more so as a reflection of moral absence. We tried to hide it. We keep saying we know what ethics means, but MIT never actually spends the time and effort to conduct meaningful leadership and ethics training that corporate America, the military, and everyone else does on a regular basis (on a mandatory level and more than just during the on-boarding process).

We need to better address the current situation from a leadership perspective. We appreciate you hiring a third-party source; however, fact-finding is not the main issue for our community. Perception is reality. Whether or not we know for sure exactly what happened doesn’t matter. What matters is refocusing our culture, and there are specific ways of doing so such as having all of us come together to discuss, heal, and learn as a community. This effort requires a champion from the top.

Joi’s failures are ripe opportunities for lessons learned that should be shared openly and taken to heart by the rest of the community. Joi should come back to lead the discussion to dive deep into the issues; “I resign” is simply not enough. This is a critical time that should be handled with care (e.g. mandatory discussions, case studies, student involvement, professor involvement), not just a legal investigation. Imagine a video made by you addressing the nuances, lessons learned, and reinstating of core values. Better yet, imagine a massive MIT-wide gathering in Killian Court of circles of students and faculty debating on what holds the most importance in making science impactful. Imagine faculty digging into the hard questions and being made accountable to their peers and students, since the professors are the premier cultural leaders of MIT. These conversations need to happen personally and locally; these are lessons that need to hit home and cannot be shoved under the rug in favor of fighting media fires, conducting a legal investigation, securing funding, or publishing a paper. That all can wait. An “all-stop” called by Rafael Reif would be a wake-up call for our community to look within, and for professors to take ownership of leading their students in a deep-dive in what it means to be a researcher, academic, and operator in the wider world. We need this “stop” in the whirlwind we’ve found ourselves in, to find our direction again. 

I hope you recognize that this is not a separate problem of Joi’s failures but a reflection on the wider culture at MIT. The current culture has reduced the importance of academic integrity and personal ethics in favor of rankings, volume of research papers, and fame. We need to return to that guiding light of what led us all here to come to MIT to the first place.

What exactly is our guiding light? We don’t have a statement of ethical principles nor a set of priorities that would state, for example, that we value human safety over technological advancement; or that we value inclusiveness of all humankind moving forward rather than a few representing mankind landing on the moon. These are debatable topics; the world is gray. Most of us think we know what “ethics” means but never lived through a tough decision nor had the empathy to try to understand the process by which leaders make their decisions. It is important that we guide these discussions so that students form and voice their thoughts, as this process is critical for building a corps of future leaders who will be facing the same decisions that Joi made. Dissenting opinions and hashing out real-world problems are critical to this process. After all, we can write down Maxwell’s equations, but if we don’t struggle with problem sets, build a circuit, and then blow it up by accident, how well do we really know them?

To be human is to make mistakes. To be human is also to face it all with courage and openness, so we do better next time. Let’s all make ourselves better people together. 

At the end of the day, it is you, President Reif, who will give us the ultimate words of wisdom of what it means to be a member of the MIT community. We rely on you to inspire us, hold us accountable, and lead us.

Kim and Laureen

Kimberly Jung and Laureen Meroueh are graduate students in MITs department of mechanical engineering.