Additional Recommendations

Additional Recommendations

The MIT Free Speech Alliance proposes additional recommendations that can assist MIT in developing proper policies, and ensuring a proper culture and institutional safeguards for support of freedom of speech.  The placement of these recommendations here is not meant to diminish their importance, but to acknowledge that not all changes can be done at once, and so some prioritization is necessary.

The American College of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has published a Gold Standard for Freedom of Expression.  We find this to be a helpful framework for organizing the various actions needed on the part of an educational institution such as MIT to foster free speech throughout its activities, institutes, and among all its members.  Its five general guidelines are:

1.    Commit to a culture of freedom of expression
2.    Foster civil discourse
3.    Cultivate intellectual diversity
4.    Break down barriers to freedom of expression
5.    Advance leadership accountability

Further details regarding each of these can be found at ACTA's website. We propose our own MIT tailored measures within this framework.

Group 1: Commit to a culture of freedom of expression

  1. Have the MIT Corporation formally endorse MIT’s Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom. It is important that MIT’s commitment to freedom of expression be endorsed and supported at the highest level of MIT governance.

  2. Display the Statement in various places: Institute and Department websites, student recruitment and application materials, course syllabi and other course materials. The Institute’s policy needs to be reinforced with persistent repetition.

  3. Include the Institute’s free speech policies among any policies that students are required to review and sign.  MIT already requires its students to review and acknowledge the policies that are important to their becoming a member of the MIT community. It is equally important that students should acknowledge their obligation to support freedom of expression for themselves and others, tolerate diverse viewpoints, and engage in disagreements with civility and respect. Students should also acknowledge the Institute’s time, place and manner regulations on public expression.

  4. We applaud MIT for establishing clear and reasonable Time-Place-Manner regulations regarding protests and demonstrations. MIT should follow through on implementing its regulations by communicating the policy to relevant parties, monitoring adherence to the regulations and applying proper consequences for violators in a consistent manner.

Group 2: Foster civil discourse

  1. Establish an ongoing series of extracurricular issue debates on campus covering contemporary and controversial topics – scientific and technological, philosophical, economic, etc. (Including free speech and viewpoint diversity itself).  MIT is already modeling its tolerance for discussion of controversial topics and proper behavior for engaging in public debate; MIT needs to expand students’ exposure to these practices, which many will find novel and unfamiliar.

  2. Create an optional course on Free Speech and Dissent in Science. This course would cover disputes in science, with special attention to cases where prevailing wisdom was proven wrong. Topics might include the historical struggles faced by scientists like Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, as well as more modern controversies up to and including the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea would be to inspire students to understand the role of debates and dilemmas in scientific progress, to develop a better ability to dissent from the mainstream when it is appropriate to do so, and to think independently about what they are taught. This course should be eligible for credit towards the undergraduate Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS) requirement.

  3. Create an optional course on the history and philosophical foundations of liberal society, including free speech, particularly as it relates to science, the scientific method, and the advancement of scientific knowledge.  This course could review the major philosophic defenders of liberal society – Aristotle, Bacon, Locke, Smith, Mill, Montesquieu, Say, and others, as well as opponents of liberal society - Plato, Hobbes, Marx, and others. The philosophical arguments for and against free speech in these writers might get special attention, as well as the impact they had on various political movements, such as the founding of the U.S. This course should be eligible for credit towards the undergraduate Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS) requirement.

  4. MIT’s policies, including the time-place-manner regulations, should be strictly and uniformly enforced for individuals or groups who disrupt speakers or any similar act of speech suppression. In order for the MIT community to be secure in planning and hosting events and discussions, individuals and groups must be secure that MIT will protect them from the heckler’s veto.

  5. Classrooms should adopt the Chatham House Rule, that nobody should attribute by name any remarks any student or professor makes in a classroom. This practice is adopted in academic settings so everyone feels comfortable about speculating and voicing heterodox ideas and viewpoints.

  6. MIT’s time, place, and manner regulations should establish clear policies regarding when student organizations or living groups can invite outside speakers, and what procedures they must follow.  These regulations should mirror MIT’s normal administrative notification process and should not create any undue burdens.

  7. Include, as part of Student Life services, training and mentorship to students and other members of the MIT community on how to debate and verbally disagree with respect and civility, and how to tolerate people with radically different values and beliefs.  Too many students come to MIT unprepared to engage in direct scholarly discussions and to consider different viewpoints that are different from their preconceptions. MIT needs to employ a broad range of measures, including this recommendation, to help students be able to fully benefit from their college education.

Group 3: Cultivate intellectual diversity

  1. Include a commitment to free expression as a criterion for presidential searches and evaluations. University presidents must have a wide array of skills and abilities to be successful. One of those needs to be the ability to actively guide and manage the culture of the greatest STEM university in the world to enable it to conduct research and educate scholars at the highest level. MIT needs presidents who can restore its previous culture of freewheeling, passionate and respectful discourse to be able to maintain its distinctive excellence in its STEM disciplines.

  2. Make intellectual diversity a stated goal in faculty hiring, evaluation, and promotion. The more recent emphasis on identity group diversity has overshadowed the underlying goal of assembling a high performance faculty that have diverse ideas, viewpoints, and approaches to STEM research and education. MIT needs to clarify that the primary goal of diversity is to assemble a community with diverse ideas and viewpoints.

  3. MIT should ensure that political, social, or ideological positions, including   diversity, equity, and inclusion statements, are kept out of administrative decisions, such as hiring, promotions, tenure, admissions, funding, and facilities assignments. This recommendation requires a number of actions.  Most centrally, it is a matter of setting culture in the various departments throughout the Institute to not focus on and consider candidates’ political, social, or ideological positions.  It also helps with the goal and recommendations to ensure that no formal statements of such beliefs are required in applications.  

Group 4: Break down barriers to freedom of expression

  1. MIT should establish a policy that it will not administer any training programs that limit or suppress free speech or viewpoint diversity. Some of MIT’s training programs cross over into ideological propaganda or programming, without permitting expression of other perspectives. This type of training encourages self-censorship.

  2. MIT should ensure that its faculty, students, and staff are free of any administrative action on any speech that is protected by First Amendment case law, provided their actions fall within MIT’s time, place, and manner regulations and MIT’s code of conduct.  It is essential for a culture of free speech that individuals feel free to speak their minds and engage in peaceful debates and discussions on any topic or viewpoint whatsoever.  This should include any speech on and off campus, including any speech on social media, and it should apply to all faculty, students, and staff.

Group 5: Advance leadership accountability

  1. Any on-boarding and on-going training that is required of supervisory staff (e. g., Deans, Chairs) must include training on the Institute’s Statement on Freedom of Expression, as well as its policies and guidelines for encouraging freedom of expression and discouraging self-censorship. As with the recommendation above, explicit and repeated training on the goals and purpose of freedom of expression on campus is needed to drive the needed cultural transformation.

  2. Conduct annual climate surveys of students, faculty, researchers and staff on their perceptions of the Institute’s support for free speech, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom, as well as their experience of self-censorship, in their area of the MIT community. MIT should assess the state of these values on campus annually, and monitor over time the change in the community’s embrace of them.  This function can be done internally by an Office of Open Expression, or the Institute can contract an outside agency, such as Campus Pulse. MIT knows better than other universities that desired outcomes must be measurable in order to be achievable. This also applies to culture and attitudes. While FIRE provides an annual survey of undergraduates that enables universities to be compared, MIT may want to develop its own targeted survey to track its success in restoring a culture of open and tolerant expression. Annual monitoring of perceptions and attitudes towards free speech should cover faculty, staff and graduate students as well as undergraduates.

  3. Address any problems found in annual climate surveys. Guided by the results of annual surveys of the MIT community’s perceptions and attitudes towards freedom of expression, MIT should prepare an annual action plan to remediate divergences from the spirit of MIT’s Statement.