Opinion guest column

The struggle to democratize MIT

Undemocratic committees won’t stop unethical financial partnerships

The MIT administration’s cultivation of a financial partnership with Jeffrey Epstein — at the time, a convicted sex offender — was not simply a “mistake of judgment” by a few individuals as claimed. It was the logical consequence of a plutocratic system working as intended. This system, which has allowed at least two faculty members to cultivate partnerships with Epstein, burnishing his reputation within elite academia in exchange for at least $7.5 million in gifts, continues to work unabated. Those who made unethical decisions for personal and institutional gain continue to do so without accountability, enabled by MIT’s entrenched system of top-down, closed-door decision-making. Under this system, top administrators have repeatedly approved unethical funding from numerous sources — not only Epstein, but also the benefactor of climate change denial David Koch, the authoritarian Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and many more. Now, the same administrators want to create the appearance of reform while holding onto their uncontested authority.

On Tuesday, Oct. 15, the MIT administration announced its plan to create two ad hoc committees that “will examine MIT’s external engagements and review its policies and processes on soliciting and accepting gifts.” But this plan does not create the possibility of meaningful accountability or structural change. All of the committees’ members are selected by the provost and the chair of the faculty, both of whom work closely with President L. Rafael Reif and other top administrators. Like all other faculty committees, they are merely consultative, i.e., the faculty appointees can only make recommendations, but not any final decisions. And although funding decisions also impact the students and staff who perform research, the committees are composed exclusively of faculty and administrators. Through this plan, top administrators retain final say over all funding decisions, and there is no reason to expect they will change the system that brought Jeffrey Epstein onto MIT’s campus.

Before this plan was announced, a coalition of concerned students, staff, faculty, and alumni presented an alternative proposal called Democratize MIT. We propose a deliberative body that has three fundamental differences from the administration’s appointed committees. Democratize MIT calls for a body that is:

Democratically elected, not appointed. Representatives should be chosen through a fair and open process that is independent of the MIT Corporation, the President, and other administrators. The elections must be regular and open to all faculty, students, staff, and alumni.

Deliberative and binding, not merely consultative. Usually, appointed committees are tasked with making recommendations or producing reports, which may then be accepted or rejected by the administration. Democratize MIT calls for a deliberative body with the binding power to make final decisions regarding the ethics of funding. The elected body is intended to complement, rather than substitute, other bodies of financial review and oversight. The body’s main task should be to decide particularly controversial cases involving large amounts of money.

Inclusive of students, staff, and alumni; not exclusive to faculty and administratorsAll constituencies should have voting power in the election and representation in the elected body. The body should have access to information about all donors, funding sources, gifts, and research contracts at the Institute — whether sponsored or non-sponsored, existing or proposed. Any MIT affiliate should be able to observe the meetings, express concerns, or propose that the elected body consider a particular gift, research contract, donor, or funding source.

On Friday, Oct. 11, a group of students and staff organizers met with President Reif and formally presented the Democratize MIT proposal. We urged Reif to consider the proposal before moving forward with plans for appointed, consultative, exclusive committees. At the meeting, Reif agreed to consider and respond to the proposal. Shortly after, the administration officially announced the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Guidelines for Outside Engagements and the Ad Hoc Committee to Review MIT Gift Processes. These announced committees are unlikely to produce meaningful institutional change, because they will operate within MIT’s unusually undemocratic structure of governance. At most universities, democratic governance is conducted through a faculty senate, an elected body that advocates for faculty perspectives and creates academic policy independently of the administration. MIT is unusual in that it lacks such a body. Instead, MIT faculty participate in governance through multiple standing, ad hoc, and presidential committees, composed of both faculty and administrators, and sometimes a few students.

A former chair of the faculty, Rafael L. Bras, outlined the problems with MIT’s committee system in 2004. Less than 10 percent of MIT faculty serve on standing committees, and fewer still consistently influence academic policy through them. The President appoints all members of a committee tasked with nominating faculty members to serve on standing committees or as faculty officers. Then, the officers and standing committee members are elected, from the nominees, in a monthly meeting of the faculty at large. This faculty meeting is chaired by the president, who also sets the agenda. The meeting is poorly attended, partly because many faculty believe that “all decisions are effectively made before they reach the floor of the faculty meeting and hence their influence is very limited.” An MIT Faculty Newsletter editorial described the faculty meeting as “one of the weakest forms of democratic governance.” Apart from standing committees, important policy recommendations are made through presidential and ad hoc committees, which are generally appointed directly by the administration. This patchwork of committees creates the appearance of a faculty governing body, ostensibly performing a governance role similar to that of a faculty senate. But unlike a faculty senate, these committees are closely tied to the MIT administration, both in their creation and their ability to influence academic policy.

At the faculty meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 16, nine faculty members presented a motion to establish a more democratic ad hoc committee, which would be elected, include representation of students and staff, and operate independently of the administration. The stated goal of this committee was to “draft a statement of MIT values and standards ... and the procedures to be followed by the Institute in receiving outside funding.” The motion had commonalities with the Democratize MIT proposal, but did not include the provision of binding power because this would require a change to the bylaws of the MIT Corporation, which the faculty meeting cannot make. The motion had been on the agenda for a month, since the previous faculty meeting on Sept. 18. Thus, when the administration unilaterally announced its plan for appointed, consultative, exclusive committees without any deliberation or vote, it was fully aware of the more democratic alternatives being proposed in the faculty motion and by the Democratize MIT coalition. The motion was defeated by a wide margin, after the mostly senior faculty in attendance voted to cut the discussion short. One of the arguments against the motion was that its elected committee would overlap and potentially conflict with the appointed committees that the administration had just announced.

The creation of temporary ad hoc committees has long been an administrative tactic to avoid more permanent forms of accountability. In 1975, MIT arranged with the Shah of Iran to provide graduate training in nuclear engineering for 54 Iranian students sent by the Shah’s government in exchange for $1.4 million. The Tech reported that students were “concerned about nuclear proliferation, repression in Iran, and the nature of the Iranian government,” while faculty “expressed serious concern with the issues of selling or degrading MIT degrees or academic admission slots.” Despite much opposition from students and faculty, the administration moved forward. A faculty motion, which proposed to create a standing committee to review guidelines for international commitments, was defeated by another to create an ad hoc committee to consider “the possibility of a standing [faculty] committee.”

This ad hoc committee was appointed by President Jerome Wiesner. Months later, its chairman proposed the creation of “a standing committee with broad powers to investigate and review international research, education, and service agreements,” but the faculty voted against the proposal, instead creating yet another ad hoc committee “with curtailed authority to review projects for a year before reporting again to the faculty.” When the administration announced faculty appointees, a graduate student noted that “the committee is already loaded with people with strong viewpoints — pro-US government and pro-MIT’s international programs viewpoints.” The second ad hoc committee, like the first, did not establish a permanent mechanism of review and oversight.

When the faculty has taken bolder policy positions, the top administration has chosen to appoint committees on its own. In 1986, as campus mobilizations called on MIT to divest from the apartheid regime in South Africa, the faculty voted to urge the MIT Corporation “to take every step possible to [end apartheid], including the divestment of holdings in those firms doing business in or lending to South Africa.” But the Corporation kept the decision entirely under its own auspices. The “Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility,” appointed and led by Corporation members, rejected the divestment call and claimed to have “not seen any evidence that the MIT divestment will hasten the ending of apartheid.” Even by 1990, President Paul Gray still maintained the Corporation line. The MIT administration’s position clashed with that of Nelson Mandela, who later credited the successful divestment efforts at other universities — including the University of California in 1986 — with helping to end apartheid. MIT’s role in this history is clearly shameful today.

More recently, there have been multiple cases of appointed, consultative, exclusive committees that have failed to produce meaningful change. In 2015, after faculty, students, and staff mobilized for divestment from fossil fuel companies, the administration appointed a “Climate Change Conversation Committee.” According to an editorial in the MIT Faculty Newsletter, “substantial debate was relegated to special forums where the faculty had no power to move a resolution, censor a position, or take any other form of effective action.” The committee issued some important recommendations, including one in favor of divestment from coal and tar sands. However, the administration’s Climate Action Plan chose to ignore these recommendations, “instead focusing on a repackaging of largely pre-existing programs and a close relationship with the fossil fuel industry.”

In 2018, after the state-sponsored assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Reif solicited input from the MIT community on the Institute’s engagements with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A subsequent report by Associate Provost Richard Lester states that 74 percent of MIT faculty who submitted comments — alongside 76 percent of non-faculty commenters — either strongly objected to or leaned against continuing engagements with Saudi Arabia. Reif appointed an ad hoc committee to consider international engagements and to “report to the MIT administration by this coming September.” No report has been published so far, and the administration has decided to continue to accept funding from the Saudi Arabian government and government-controlled sources at the level of $7.2 million per year.

In 2019, as the MIT community debated various ethical issues regarding the Schwarzman College of Computing, the administration appointed a consultative working group on the “Social Implications and Responsibilities of Computing.” Although the group’s report offered some helpful recommendations on pedagogy and curriculum, it sidestepped the most pressing moral and political questions about the college, namely those regarding MIT’s corporate and military ties. The group’s appointees included Joi Ito, who later resigned from MIT due to the revelation of his financial partnership with Epstein.

Yet again, the MIT administration’s latest announcement of appointed, consultative, exclusive committees serves only to avoid a more democratic process. Little will change so long as the administration continues to keep decision-making power away from the rest of the MIT community. Students, staff, faculty, and alumni cannot let the administration continue to repeat its history of complicity. We must democratize MIT.

Join us: democratizemit.org

Rodrigo Ochigame is a graduate student in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society. 

Alan Lundgard is a graduate student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. 

Alonso Espinosa Dominguez is an undergraduate student in Mathematics. 

Edmund Bertschinger is Professor of Physics and a faculty affiliate in Women’s & Gender Studies. 

Gabrielle Ballard is an alumna in Computer Science and Anthropology. 

Jonathan Zong is a graduate student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. 

Mani Mengiste is a graduate student in Chemistry. 

Ruth Perry is Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of Humanities. 

Sally Haslanger is Ford Professor of Philosophy and Women’s & Gender Studies. 

The authors are organizers and supporters of Democratize MIT.