Outside Engagements Survey closed amid controversy

Survey asked students to choose between donors based on factors including controversial activities, criminal history, donation amount

The Student Committee on Guidelines for Outside Engagements closed its Outside Engagements Survey amid controversy June 12.

The committee released its Outside Engagements Survey in a June 11 email asking students and recently graduated alumni to share “what values you consider important in MIT accepting outside engagements, including financial donations.” To encourage participation, respondents would be entered in a lottery for monetary prizes.

The committee wrote that the survey results would inform the committee’s final report, which would be released “later this summer.” The committee also wrote that the survey data would be “treated as confidential” so that “individual respondents cannot be identified.”

The survey method used conjoint analysis, a market research technique used to measure the value respondents place on specific attributes of a product or service. The survey contained six questions each asking students to choose between two hypothetical donor engagements based on the donation amount, “MIT’s recognition of the donor,” the “donor’s intended use for the money,” and the donor’s controversial activities, criminal history, and conviction history. 

The survey also asked students to rate each engagement “on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 indicates that MIT should absolutely not accept the engagement and 7 indicates that MIT should definitely accept the engagement.”

“It is entirely plausible that you might prefer both or not prefer either of the engagements,” the survey wrote, adding that the donor attributes were “based on randomized lists of qualities constructed by the student committee and are predominantly informed by the vignette discussion open to all students conducted in the fall.”

The survey wrote that the hypothetical engagements were “not meant to resemble any specific past or future potential donors.”

Examples of donors’ controversial activities in the survey included having a criminal background, denying climate change, supporting “stricter voter registration policies/registration purging,” funding “anti-LGBT organizations,” lobbying for “fossil fuel industries,” having a “history of anti-semitic and/or islamophobic comments,” developing “spyware intended for use on US citizens,” or funding the “development of weapons used to harm civilians in another country.”

Examples of donors’ criminal history in the survey included non-violent white-collar crime (such as insider trading or tax fraud), misdemeanors (such as drug possession or DUI), violent crimes (such as murder, sexual assault, or hate crimes), or “political, civil, and/or human rights violations.”

Examples of MIT’s recognition of donors in the survey included allowing in-person visits to campus, publicly displaying the donor on campus through the naming of a building or initiative, making the donor known to the MIT community, or keeping the donor anonymous. 

The survey also contained optional demographic questions about students’ gender, race, academic department, undergraduate or graduate status, and domestic or international status. 

The survey drew criticism from the MIT community, including a June 11 tweet by a graduate student criticizing the survey for asking students to choose between unethical donors. 

The committee apologized for the survey in an email to students and recently graduated alumni June 12. 

“We failed to take into account the stress we put on students by forcing an uncomfortable choice between two donors they found completely intolerable, and in some cases represented threats to their safety and wellbeing,” the committee wrote. “It was a mistake on our part to not include warnings in advance of the sensitive topics that would be presented, or let students skip questions they found harmful.”

The committee also wrote that the timing of the survey in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism failed to “respect the wellbeing of students.” The committee is currently “rethinking the timeline of our report so that it allows for feedback from all members of our community and does not compromise the mental health of students in the process.”

“We have closed the survey to allow time for us to revisit how best to proceed with this survey, and to discuss other possible survey methods,” the committee wrote.They added that in the future, students will be able to provide feedback on outside engagements in “contexts that are safe and allow you to contribute only as much as you’re willing.” Furthermore, “the survey was never meant to be the only method for engaging students, nor will it be the only data informing our report.”

The survey “was not intended to suggest that the committee or MIT condones selecting donors based on which are the lesser of two evils,” the committee wrote. “The conjoint analysis survey method was intended to empirically understand how some of the attributes of potentially controversial engagements are employed in choosing whether or not to accept them.”

The committee wrote that they should have asked for feedback on the survey design process and been more “transparent” about the survey design and usage of survey results. However, the committee emphasized that they “would never have designed the survey this way without consulting researchers familiar with conjoint or without obtaining approval from the Committee on the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects.”

The Undergraduate Association and Graduate Student Council created the Student Committee on Guidelines for Outside Engagements in October to address MIT’s core values in engaging with individual, corporate, and government entities. The committee is composed of six undergraduate and six graduate student members.

The Student Committee on Guidelines for Outside Engagements did not respond to The Tech’s request for comment.

Students can send suggestions or comments to the Student Committee on Guidelines for Outside Engagements at