Opinion open letter

Democratize MIT coalition replies to President Reif

Student debt subsidizes sponsored research for fossil fuel companies

Dear President L. Rafael Reif,

On Oct. 11, we presented you with the Democratize MIT proposal, calling for a democratically elected body with the binding power to make decisions regarding the ethics of funding. Shortly thereafter, your administration appointed merely consultative ad hoc committees instead. In your official response to Democratize MIT on Oct. 31, you wrote, “I find many of your arguments logical and your suggestions well-intentioned.” We wish that we could say the same of yours.

First, in opposition to our proposal for democratic oversight of controversial financial partnerships, you argue, “Donors often wish to enable student learning without the suggestion of an implied debt ... donors fund scholarships to promote growth — supporting a young person’s education with a gift free of strings or expectations.”

But your argument is misleading. While you claim that “declining federal investment in academic research institutions like MIT has forced us to seek support from other sources,” it is not “a young person’s education” that requires support from external financial partnerships. Because of MIT’s high tuition and fees ($51,832 per academic year), educating students in fact produces a surplus in the Institute’s budget. Instead, as with most universities, it is MIT’s research activities that produce a deficit requiring external support. As vice president for research Maria T. Zuber noted in 2017, MIT’s indirect cost rate is 54.7 percent and most research sponsors do not cover all indirect costs, so “MIT subsidizes every research grant that it receives.” This subsidy comes largely from endowment returns and student tuition. Therefore, it is absolutely not the case that MIT needs to partner with fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Schlumberger to fund the education of its students. The perverse reality is just the opposite: it is student debt that helps to subsidize sponsored research for ExxonMobil and Schlumberger. Meanwhile, you sit on Schlumberger’s board of directors and personally own at least $1 million in shares.

While individual gifts like Jeffrey Epstein’s also subsidize research, they constitute a much smaller fraction of the budget. Even with MIT’s current practice of accepting these gifts regardless of ethical concerns, all “gifts and bequests for operations” amounted to a mere six percent of operating revenues in fiscal year 2018. Such gifts are hardly necessary for funding the bulk of the Institute’s operations and often come at a cost to moral and scientific integrity. Sometimes, the gifts serve to influence research agendas and priorities, even if this influence may be less direct than sponsored research. Sometimes, the gifts burnish the reputations of individuals like Epstein.

Second, in opposition to our proposal for curtailing anonymous donations, you argue that doing so would violate the privacy of benevolent donors — that “if MIT required open debate about a donor’s worthiness or the merits of every gift, even our alumni and friends would go elsewhere, simply out of concern for their own privacy.” You give the example of gifts made in the 1910s by George Eastman (under the pseudonym “Mr. Smith”), who “sought neither attention nor credit, wanting only to do something meaningful to help our young institution grow.”

We disagree. The Democratize MIT proposal does not preclude the possibility of anonymous gifts. Nor does it require open debate about every gift. As stated, the democratically elected body’s main task should be to decide particularly controversial cases involving large amounts of money. For example, the elected body could have access to the identities of potential donors first, and would reveal an identity publicly only if the body deemed the case controversial and if the potential donor agreed to proceed with a de-anonymized donation. A democratic body is perfectly compatible with mechanisms of transparency and accountability that maintain the privacy of non-controversial and small donors.

Moreover, your historical example is inaccurate, even if handpicked and more than a century old. According to his biographer, Eastman actually “derived great pleasure from the ensuing speculation in the newspapers and in society as to Mr. Smith’s true identity,” which was publicly revealed in a celebratory banquet in 1920. As a life member of the MIT Corporation, Eastman influenced Institute policy to focus on “research for industry,” and his company gained privileged access to MIT-produced intellectual property through the “Technology Plan” of 1919.

Your idealistic depiction of purely benevolent anonymous donors is not the rule and does not even fit your own example. It certainly does not fit Epstein, a convicted sex offender who used his partnership with MIT to burnish his reputation in recent years, rather than a century ago. Nor does it fit the benefactor of climate change denial David Koch, the authoritarian Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and many others. It is important to recognize that gift giving — anonymized or not — is a way to build and affirm ongoing relationships. It presupposes some form of reciprocity. It is this basic observation that concerns those of us who raise our voices in opposition to the Institute’s financial partnerships with autocrats, plutocrats, and sex offenders.

Third, in opposition to our proposal for a democratically elected body, you argue, “In considering appointees, we endeavor to ensure broad representation — in viewpoint, discipline, gender, race, ethnicity, and much more. We also seek colleagues and students with relevant expertise, experience, or interests. There is simply no guarantee that a democratically elected committee would balance these important factors.”

Of course, there is no guarantee that autocratically appointed committees would balance these important factors either. While you claim that your administration’s appointees will ensure broad representation in viewpoint — better than a democratically elected body would — there is already evidence to the contrary. After a group of senior women faculty members published a widely-circulated letter “to share [their] deep distress over the MIT/Epstein revelations and [their] profound disappointment in learning of the apparent complicity of administrative leadership,” your administration did not appoint a single one of the more than 100 faculty signatories, over 70 of whom were senior women. (The only faculty signatory serving on your committees had already been appointed before signing the letter.) If the exclusion of dissenting women’s voices is what you mean by “balance” and “broad representation” in viewpoint, then autocratic appointments are no doubt a better means of ensuring it.

Finally, your emphasis on the good will of those in your administration seems to reflect an inadequate understanding of democracy. Democracy is preferable to autocracy and oligarchy even if those in power are benevolent. Oligarchy tends to produce apathy and discourage creativity: the pathetically low attendance at faculty meetings, where thirty faculty members are supposed to vote to represent more than one thousand, substantiates this. Oligarchy also risks becoming insular, accepting only those who share the same perspective and values. The homogeneity of the backgrounds of those in MIT’s higher administration — disproportionately from engineering — is a case in point. Oligarchy becomes even more problematic when it is the face of a background plutocracy. This is not uncommon under the conditions you describe: we are dependent on the wealthy to achieve our worthy goals. Democracy is a check on those risks. Of course, democracy also brings its own risks, but risks worth taking. Our resistance to the Institute’s current governance structure is not a condemnation of individuals. It is a call for a more reasonable and just form of self-government.

For all these reasons, we remain committed to our proposal to democratize MIT. We agree that “we must respond thoughtfully, carefully, and responsibly.” Unfortunately, your opposition to a more democratic Institute stands in the way of this purpose.


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.
Alice Pote is a staff member in open learning.
Gabriel Fields is an undergraduate student in electrical engineering and computer science.
Husayn Karimi is a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science.
Jonathan Zong is a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science.
Robert C. Berwick is a professor of computational linguistics.
Ruth Perry is the Ann Fetter Friedlaender professor of humanities. 
Sally Haslanger is the Ford professor of philosophy and women’s and gender studies.

The authors are organizers and supporters of Democratize MIT.