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Rifts amongst faculty laid bare in closed-door meetings amidst interim student suspensions and heightened campus tensions

Faculty remain divided following two mid-May executive sessions on the Institute’s response to interim student suspensions.

Publisher’s Note: The two faculty meetings described in this article on May 15 and May 17 were held in executive session as closed-door discussions. The information presented is a synthesis of several interviews held with attendees of the meeting and other individuals familiar with the situation. These accounts were corroborated by additional documentation obtained by The Tech.

Following hours of deliberations and speaking sessions spread across two closed-door faculty meetings on May 15 and May 17, the faculty body, in a 154-191 vote, abandoned a motion calling for the lifting of over two dozen interim suspensions of pro-Palestinian student protestors.

The suspensions were first issued by the administration on May 8, following a protest earlier that week on May 6 which saw hundreds of spectators and demonstrators taking over the Student Center plaza. That day marked a drastic shift in the already-tenuous relationship between the administration and the pro-Palestinian campus movement, where pro-Palestinian student protestors stormed the Kresge Oval space and tore down a facilities-placed metal perimeter amidst an evacuation order by the administration.

The administration had touted the possibility of suspensions for months but only began issuing them to specific students in connection with the May 6 encampment takeover. Separate articles from The Tech detail the events from that day and the resulting aftermath.

During an interview with The Tech on May 15, President Sally Kornbluth declined to give a specific count on the number of interim suspensions issued, but noted that there were “more than 30 interim suspensions... which include both academic suspensions and full suspensions.”

The split vote highlighted divisions amongst the faculty regarding recent events on campus. Of note was the historically high turnout for the meeting. 

 

Background of the motion and premises of the vote

The motion was proposed by members of the Alliance of Concerned Faculty (ACF), a group of over 80 faculty whose primary aim is to provide support for students facing disciplinary action relating to the protests. The motion’s goal, described as “reasonably narrow” by members of the ACF who spoke with The Tech, related specifically to punitive actions executed without traditional due process.

This proposal came after 150 faculty members signed an initial letter presented to the administration to call on due process to be enacted for the suspended student protestors.

According to individuals familiar with the situation, the vote effectively constituted an official position of the faculty on a given matter but was not strictly binding to the administration or any other offices outside the purview of faculty-related matters.

“As we were told very early in the meeting, the vote is basically kind of like a suggestion,” an individual familiar with the situation said in an interview with The Tech. “We heard something actually quite puzzling, which is that the Chair of the Faculty [Mary Fuller] said, ‘we’re going to vote. But there is no obligation for us to take that vote back to the administration.”

“Basically, it’s like: we just want to hear how you guys feel, but we don’t have to do anything with that vote,” the individual added.

 

Wednesday, May 15 — The initial faculty meeting

Deliberations on the suspensions began days earlier at around 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15, following the conclusion of the prepared agenda for that day’s Institute faculty meeting which began at 3:30 p.m. The meeting up until that point, held in 10-250 and which offered a virtual attendance option over Zoom, had been attended by about a hundred people in-person and another hundred virtually. The attendance held a mix of faculty members, students, and other interested community members. 

During the course of the Wednesday meeting, as faculty discussed various topics, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian demonstrators silently passed out documents to the in-person attendees. 

One document, titled “How Jewish and Israeli students experienced the encampment at MIT,” detailed the results of a survey shared among the Jewish and Israeli student community in which the 72 survey respondents reported feelings of fear and discomfort due to the encampment and overall campus climate. Pro-Palestinian students self-identifying as Jewish or Israeli, notably members of the MIT Jews for Ceasefire, later claimed to have been excluded from the list of potential survey-takers. 

The other document, passed out by pro-Palestinian student demonstrators, titled “Campus Events During a Genocide,” mimicked the format of an FAQ distributed via email by the Office of the Chancellor the day prior, answering each of the questions addressed in the administration’s document from the perspective of the encampment organizers.

No major disruption was observed during the course of the meeting in its open portion.

As President Sally Kornbluth, who chaired the Wednesday meeting, called for an executive session to begin a closed-door debate on the student suspensions, a dissenting faculty member Professor of Linguistics Michel DeGraff, called for the meeting to remain open for non-faculty members. This motion was ultimately rejected in a 75–123 vote. With that, many non-faculty members, including pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrators, were asked to leave and the meeting went into executive session. 

The Faculty Governance website notes that in addition to full faculty members, “faculty emeriti, professors of the practice, students with speaking privileges, and senior staff whose work directly touches current campus tensions” were able to remain.

“We’re going to discuss how we’re dealing with them [the suspended students]; we should have the courage to do it in front of them,” DeGraff later said in an interview with The Tech.

A similar motion for executive session was passed during a previous faculty meeting on February 21, in a 22–21 vote, immediately preceding a presentation by the ad-hoc Committee on Academic Freedom and Campus Expression.

At the same time as the Wednesday, May 15 meeting, a pro-Palestinian rally headed by the Graduate Student Union began to form on the steps of Lobby 7. Protestors later marched to Building E1, commonly known as the President’s House.

 

Faculty perspectives and discussion

Having transitioned into an executive session, the meeting held an open-mic discussion among attendees on their perspectives regarding the student suspensions. Each faculty member was limited to a two-minute speech.

Attendees with varying perspectives and viewpoints — some of whom spoke on behalf of organizations such as the MIT Israel Alliance, a pro-Israeli affinity group, and the ACF — spoke at length.

“Backing down from this interim action will set a dangerous precedent. What would happen if every subgroup with a grievance set up ‘mostly peaceful’ encampments, shout in our hallways, and incite against others?” Professor of Physics Or Hen said in a prepared speech during the meeting, based on a script of the speech he later shared with The Tech.

Other faculty discussed how the interim suspension punishes suspended students without allowing them their due process, noting how the suspension takes effect before students “even have a chance to defend themselves in front of the faculty Committee of Discipline.”

Some faculty members who had routinely visited the encampment spoke on behalf of the “egalitarian,” “open” community fostered in the Kresge Oval space; others described acts of aggression and violent rhetoric used by those within the encampment.

A staff administrator part of the Division of Student Life reportedly corroborated on observed acts of hateful speech, saying that “we witness[ed] students shouting at [a] faculty member, swearing at [a] faculty member, shoving, whipping down fences... The interim suspension was taken immediately to pause the behavior.”

The meeting was moderated by the administration, with President Kornbluth and other administrators at times offering answers to questions posed by attendees and explanatory statements during times of confusion. Discussion was paused at times as administrators stepped in to clarify details of the campus protests and the ongoing interim suspension process.

The administration reiterated a commitment to safety above all else.

“[Our] responsibility is broader than simply to allow people to express their views — it’s to keep them safe,” Kornbluth reportedly said.

The meeting continued on until 5:30 p.m., and further debate was tabled to a secondary special faculty meeting scheduled for the morning of Friday, May 17. After the meeting’s conclusion, the administration reportedly received emails from many faculty who wished to share further discussion. 

Email communications by Professor of Medical Anthropology and Urban Studies Erica James addressed to President Kornbluth, obtained by The Tech described a perspective regarding “being able to speak with some of the [pro-Israeli] counter-protestors about their reasons for demonstrating... and their sense of ethics.”

In subsequent conversations with faculty members, The Tech noted many were disappointed by the outcome of the meeting; some described a frustration that not more of their colleagues voiced support for the suspended students, while others were dissatisfied by a lack of concern by some faculty on the hurt faced by Jewish and Israeli students on campus.

“There is a deep hypocrisy I wanted to have unveiled at that meeting,” DeGraff said to The Tech. “The threats [by the administration] are presented as if they [the suspended students] are asking something which is in violation of academic freedom; they are being presented as being bullies, being unwilling to negotiate, imposing demands on the Institute.”

 

Friday, May 17 — Special faculty session

The second faculty meeting began at 8:00 a.m. on May 17, and was held entirely virtually over Zoom.  The meeting reportedly reached the 500 participant limit set by the platform; not all of the attendees had voting rights and served as non-voting observers and commentators.

According to individuals familiar with the situation, many of the speeches from the Wednesday meeting were in support of the motion to lift the student suspensions or criticized the administration for enacting the suspensions, and accordingly Chair of the Faculty Mary Fuller had reportedly tried to select individuals with opposing views (those who were not in favor of the motion).

In addition to the debate, attendees representing the ACF read testimonials from Students Against Genocide Encampment affiliates that had been collected in preparation for the meeting.

Individuals familiar with the situation described a strong level of mediation by administrators during the meeting; reportedly, administrators frequently interjected in response to faculty commentary.

At one point in the meeting, Provost Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 reportedly likened the interim suspension mechanism as it was being used on the suspended pro-Palestinian students with cases of sexual assault; this was later criticized by faculty members in subsequent meetings with The Tech as well as by others familiar with the situation.

“This is what I’m finding extremely disturbing — there is no empirical basis to make that comparison between the SAGE [Students Against Genocide Encampment] students and potential rapists,” a faculty member shared in a later interview with The Tech. “The cruel fact is that students of color, they’re black and brown students, are being compared to potential rapists. That’s sickening.”

Ultimately, despite a strongly vocal contingency of those supporting the motion, the vote failed. With a total of 1,089 faculty members on staff, about 30% of voting-eligible faculty were present in the meeting. 

 

Responses to the failed vote

Still, many faculty members who had supported the motion remained hopeful about the result.

“The fact that [154 faculty members] did vote against the administration, it’s like a vote of no-confidence against Sally Kornbluth,” DeGraff later said to The Tech. “That’s huge — so I think that the debates [on Wednesday and Friday] did have an impact.”

DeGraff then added, “We saw people coming out and speaking in favor of the students, in favor of the students’ right to speak and not to be harrassed by the administration.”

Some faculty pointed to the diversity of voices speaking out on behalf of the suspended students during the meetings, having observed faculty who were not ACF members and those who identified as Jewish and Israeli speaking out.

“I hope that what has changed in response to these two hours of debate is the understanding that many of these students were really mistreated by our administration,” a faculty member said in an interview with The Tech.

 

Administration and faculty governance

Other faculty members, in later discussions, raised issues reaching beyond the scope of ongoing campus tensions. They detailed a trend in the administration’s increasing visibility in faculty matters at the Institute.

One faculty member described a perceived biased stance being taken by the administration during the May 15 and May 17 meetings. 

“What came out very clearly, very quickly, from the very beginning of Kornbluth’s video series is that the administration was very much siding with the [pro-Israeli] faculty,” DeGraff said. “After [the Wednesday meeting], it was clear where Sally Kornbluth stood.”

Another faculty member criticized the administration’s role in Institute faculty meetings as a whole. “So much of faculty governance is run by the administration, and not by the faculty themselves,” they said.

In contrast with other universities, MIT does not have a faculty senate; meetings are instead presided over by President Kornbluth alongside other senior administrators. The faculty body is not a unionized organization, unlike graduate student workers which are represented by the Graduate Student Union and governed by the Graduate Student Council. The undergraduate community is, to an extent, governed by the Undergraduate Association.

“There’s very little governance that we can control,” a faculty member said.

Some faculty expressed distrust with administrators’ handling of the disciplinary process. “A lot of faculty really don’t know, I think somewhat intentionally, what was going on,” Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science Marzyeh Ghassemi said.

 

Outside of closed-doors: faculty respond to campus tensions

Faculty members have continued to engage in mediating the campus climate in various ways outside of the meetings.

Faculty aligned with the ACF have stepped in to assist during the suspended students’ disciplinary proceedings, serving as advisors and attending Committee on Discipline hearings. During rallies and protests, ACF members have worn pink armbands to signify their presence.

Pro-Israeli faculty have often accompanied pro-Israeli student counter-protestors in holding counter-protests, such as entering the encampment during its occupancy on Kresge Oval and attending and speaking at pro-Israeli rallies.

Faculty with opposing viewpoints have also engaged in discourse and debate with one another even outside the bounds of the faculty meetings. 

In one case, a Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence faculty meeting held on May 16 reportedly involved a video presentation of students in the Kresge Oval encampment chanting in Arabic, with a frame showing a named list of student protestors. 

At the time of this article’s publication, there have been reports indicating that a number of suspensions have been lifted by the administration. The Tech has not yet been able to verify the authenticity of these claims. Five other erroneously-issued suspensions have also been lifted. Individuals familiar with the situation have noted that the suspensions of at least two student organizers have not been lifted as of Tuesday, May 28.

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June 7, 2024 (5:07 PM): Background information regarding the student suspensions and administrative response in the weeks leading up to the faculty meeting has been added at the beginning of the article. Other minor typographical corrections and clarifications were made across the article.