Ad hoc working group charged to review MIT’s position on free expression

Charged following Carlson Lecture cancellation, working group will present first findings by end of Spring 2022

The Institute has charged an ad hoc working group on free expression, according to a Jan. 27 email to the MIT community from President L. Rafael Reif. 

Co-chaired by Professor of Biology Sallie “Penny” Chisholm and Professor of Urban Studies and Planning Phillip Clay PhD ’75, the working group’s membership also includes the President-Elect of the MIT Alumni Association Stephen Baker MArch ’88 and President of the MIT Alumni Association and member of the MIT Corporation Annalisa Weigel PhD ’02, along with additional professors, Institute staff, and students.

The working group is expected to present its preliminary findings by the end of the Spring 2022 semester.

The creation of the working group was prompted by controversy over MIT’s decision to cancel the 2021 Carlson Lecture sponsored by the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences over statements made by the planned speaker, University of Chicago Professor Dorian Abbot. According to Reif’s email, the cancellation caused “significant concern and contention” within MIT’s community over issues of censorship and free expression.

Charged by Reif, Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD ’88, Chancellor Melissa Nobles, and Chair of the Faculty Lily Tsai, the working group will review MIT’s existing statements on the free and open exchange of ideas; consider relevant scholarship, cases, and statements on free speech-related issues, particularly at institutions of higher education; and review input gathered from faculty, alumni, staff, students, and Corporation members through emails, reports, and forums.

In addition, the working group will work with MIT’s Values Statement Committee to incorporate input that the committee has received from the community.

The working group will also address four questions written in its charge: “Does MIT need to revise or update its statements regarding academic freedom, freedom of expression, and/or pluralism?,” “How should we define these and other related fundamental principles?,” “How can we give such statements prominence in our policies and the life of the Institute?,” “What are processes for negotiating disagreements and making decisions on these and related issues so that we can accept the outcome even when we disagree with the decision?”

Following its review and consideration of these questions, the working group will recommend “any changes needed to existing Institute statements or guidance,” the charge writes. The group will also suggest principles and processes for decision making, “particularly with respect to how and when issues should be brought to or decided by the central administration.”

MIT community members can share feedback on the working group’s work by emailing