Alumni town halls held to discuss freedom of expression and community at MIT

Discussion at town halls will be shared with ad hoc working group

The MIT Alumni Association held two hour-long town halls over Zoom to discuss “Freedom of Expression and Community” Nov. 22, with one at 12 p.m. and one at 8 p.m.

The town halls began with comments from three speakers: Alumni Association President Annalisa Weigel PhD ’02, Provost Martin Schmidt PhD ’88, and Alumni Association Chief Executive Officer Whitney Espich.

Weigel prefaced by saying that the focus of the town hall was not meant to be the cancellation of the Carlson Lecture but rather “how to sustain freedom of expression and cohere as a community even when we disagree with the judgement calls sometimes necessary.”

Following the introductory remarks, attendees were divided into breakout rooms for the remainder of the town hall to discuss five questions: “As alumni, are you concerned about matters of free expression at MIT? If so, why?”, “Are there conditions or issues on campus or in the larger world that you believe are affecting how MIT handles free expression issues? If so, what conditions or issues?”, “In your mind, are there any limits to MIT’s obligation to protect freedom of expression on campus? If yes, what are those?”, “Many students, faculty, and alumni do not see the recent Carlson Lecture situation as primarily being about free expression. What values do you think are inspiring this thinking?”, and “What might be some guidelines you would recommend to help ensure that freedom of expression remains a fundamental value of MIT?”

Each breakout room included a facilitator and staff from the alumni association.

The discussions in each breakout room were recorded, so that anonymized versions of the comments could be shared with senior leadership at MIT and an ad hoc working group working to address freedom of expression and community values at MIT.

Attendees who did not wish to have their comments recorded in the breakout rooms were also invited to fill out an online survey with the same five questions.

Approximately 50 alumni attended the 12 p.m. session of the town hall, in addition to around 20 facilitators and staff.

Many attendees were members of the newly-formed MIT Free Speech Alliance — a group of alumni, faculty, students, and friends of MIT created to promote and defend free speech and expression, viewpoint diversity, and academic freedom and open scientific inquiry at MIT. In particular, the alliance hopes that MIT will adopt the “Chicago Principles,” a statement on free speech and academic freedom created at the University of Chicago.