AHWG Recommendations

MIT Ad Hoc Working Group Recommendations

The MIT faculty Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression (AHWG) produced a 55 page report that included ten specific recommendations to implement the Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom and improve free speech and academic freedom at MIT.

MFSA endorses the ten AHWG recommendations and urges MIT to implement the remaining nine which have not yet been addressed. We also suggest some modifications to those recommendations to strengthen and improve them. We highlight the AHWG Report's ten recommendations and add our comments regarding each of them.

Note: The text of the AHWG recommendations appears in maroon to signify that MFSA is quoting directly from the AHWG report. MFSA's accompanying comments appear in black. 

Recommendation 1: MIT should issue its own Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom, to be considered and potentially adopted by the faculty in the fall term of 2022.

This recommendation has been implemented. It was adopted by the MIT Faculty on December 21, 2022 and affirmed by the new President Sally Kornbluth after her arrival in January 2023.

Recommendation 2: Using the MIT Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom as a basis, MIT should strengthen the commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom in the MIT Policies and Procedures document and in the Mind & Hand Book. . . .

We support any efforts at MIT to strengthen the commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom in any and all official documents.  The value of this recommendation, however, depends on the final chosen wording.  It is essential that the wording establish a clear principle that faculty, students, and staff are not to be punished for disagreeing with prevailing orthodoxy on campus, and that events are not to be canceled because a speaker says something controversial or even offensive.  In this regard, even the proposed wording of freedom from unreasonable and disruptive conduct is worrisome.  It is important to protect members of the MIT community from disruptive conduct, but not unreasonable conduct. No one has freedom from unreasonable conduct, and that standard is vague.  

We do not, however, support a change of wording from ‘offensive’ to ‘harmful’.  Harmful is a wide, subjective, and somewhat vague term that might imply to some readers that words, like behavior, can be directly damaging.  MIT must be consistent in the message that words, no matter how difficult to hear or how offensive, are allowed.  

We recommend the following changes.

  1. MIT should clarify that this statement’s placements in the MIT Policies and Procedures document and in the Mind & Hand book make it binding on MIT with respect to faculty and students, respectively.

  2. MIT should state explicitly that students, faculty, and staff may disagree with prevailing orthodoxy on campus and that this is not grounds for the Administration to punish the speaker.  One place for such a statement may be in Section II(9) of the Mind & Hand book, where it prohibits the tearing down of posters just because somebody finds their views objectionable.  

  3. MIT should explicitly state that events are not to be canceled just because some people find them offensive.

Recommendation 3: All Institute faculty, especially those in leadership roles, should affirm and celebrate the Institute’s commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom and seek to incorporate supportive efforts throughout the life of the Institute.

Such measures could include:

A.  Adapt the Keyser Random Faculty Dinners to serve as informal occasions for faculty to gather and practice the art of discussing hard issues in a collegial manner.

B. Invite the MIT Libraries and/or the Chancellor’s Office to organize a Friday lunch series similar in spirit to suggestion A but for undergraduates (possibly also for graduate students and postdocs) to be convened in the new Nexus space of Hayden Library.

C. For the next few years, on a trial basis, dedicate MIT’s observation of Constitution Day each September 17 (or thereabouts) to exploring and/or celebrating an issue/case/controversy/historical episode related to free expression and the First Amendment, including episodes from MIT’s own history.

D. Create a teaching award to be given each year to an instructor whose teaching, in the view of their students, best embodies the values and principles enunciated in the MIT Statement on Freedom of Expression.

E. Invite the Center for Teaching and Learning to formalize and extend the October 26, 2020 workshop it held on Teaching in a Tense Political Climate by holding periodic seminars/workshops on how to make the classroom a space in which we enable robust freedom of expression and debate.

F. Similar to departmental statements concerning our commitment to anti-racism and affirming diversity, encourage departments to post statements in support of freedom of expression.

Recommendation 3 suggests a variety of initiatives that would try to educate students in the value of free speech. This is a laudable goal.  The value of freedom of speech has to be taught again and again to every generation that enters the institution.  As the AHWG Report says,

This educational commitment is especially important in our community, which comprises students, faculty, and staff from a variety of cultural backgrounds, several dozen countries, and many passions, personal habits, and belief systems. A considerable number of our students come from backgrounds where the many styles of expression used in our community are not taught or practiced. We fail our students if they leave MIT afraid to speak up, to challenge, to defend, and otherwise to use expression respectfully as part of their personal and professional toolkits.

The Report seems to be alluding to students from foreign countries being less attached to freedom of speech than students from the United States.  However, it’s valuable to keep in mind that both foreign and American students may sometimes have reasons to care about free speech, as well as reasons why they may not sufficiently value it.  Sometimes American students may be less rehearsed in the value of free speech because it is taken for granted, or because they simply haven’t come across sufficient disagreement among their classmates, teachers, and administration in their high schools.  So there is an equal value to continue to educate all students on the reasons for tolerating alternative viewpoints.

Recommendation 4: MIT should create a FAQ webpage that succinctly addresses common questions about freedom of expression and academic freedom and refers readers to relevant MIT policies and offices.

Such a webpage should be the responsibility of the president’s, provost’s, and chancellor’s offices. Alternatively, this webpage could be the responsibility of a new Office of Open Expression. Such a FAQ webpage could reinforce and clarify policies concerning different constituencies (faculty, student, staff, etc.) as well as practical questions involving such issues as dress codes, postering, demonstrations, conversations on MIT email lists, and social media.

 Recommendation 4 would help clarify what is allowed and what is not allowed. One problem now is that there is uncertainty regarding what kind of dissenting speech can result in discipline - which itself results in self-censorship. A Frequently Asked Questions webpage, with specific examples, would force clarity on the question of what speech is considered uncivil or offensive, and whether the restrictions are time-place-and-manner or are really content-based.

 A FAQs page would help deal both with violations of free speech by individuals and policies of the Administration. Individuals could look to the FAQs page to see whether something they were thinking of doing violates MIT’s policies, and if so what penalty they might incur. The Administration could say what it intends to do in a given situation, and if faculty, students, or staff thought its policies too lenient or too severe, they could give their input in advance of an actual incident instead of having to protest after the fact.

A FAQs page would also teach individuals the appropriate time, place and manner for speech. It should say both what speech is permitted and what speech is not. For example, setting up loudspeakers at night in a dorm hallway to broadcast a political speech is not allowed, but setting up loudspeakers during the day in a courtyard could well be appropriate, depending on the exact place and time.

A FAQs page could incorporate the excellent examples of applying MIT’s free expression principles that are given in the twelve scenarios presented in the Report of the MIT Ad Hoc Working Group. Those scenarios were specifically designed to illustrate how the Statement should be interpreted and applied in lifelike situations.

We strongly endorse Recommendation 4, as it is more important than it might seem. Clarity is essential to the creation of a safe environment in which faculty, students, and staff can speak out and express their ideas without fear.  Much of the fear on campuses — both at MIT and elsewhere — arises from vagueness regarding what is permitted. If students are not sure whether they will be disciplined for speaking their mind on a particular subject, they will stay quiet — it is not worth the risk. Thus, it is especially important to use the FAQs to declare policy on uncontroversial cases of free expression.

Recommendation 5: The chair of the MIT faculty should explore how to develop a faculty-governed resource for the MIT community when contested matters of speech arise. . . . Such a committee or office would have no adjudicatory responsibilities—it would be a resource, not a court of appeal.

It is important that some resource at MIT have the power to adjudicate contested matters of speech when they arise.  As currently stated, this recommendation does not address such a need.

We believe this function is better served by a specific administrative or faculty body that is responsible for addressing issues around free speech and academic freedom. Establishing this body is among our highest priority recommendations. Among other responsibilities, this body would process and investigate complaints, and pursue appropriate remedies.

Recommendation 6: Rescinding an invitation to deliver protected speech, as defined and explained in this report, conflicts with freedom of expression.  

Recommendation 6 is a response to the Abbot cancellation, and states the obvious. Disinviting speakers—or even agitating to not invite them because of their unrelated political views—conflicts with freedom of expression.

Recommendation 7: We recommend that the faculty explore ways of infusing into the curriculum in all departments and for all students opportunities to advance expression (i.e., present and defend ideas, active listening, etc.).

We must recognize that learning to engage in dialogue concerning controversial matters is a developmental skill that can be taught, improved, and encouraged. We should not assume that all students arrive on campus equally prepared to engage in productive dialogue about controversial issues. It is certainly part of MIT’s mission to prepare our students to develop such skills. To advance this goal, the Subcommittee on the Communication Requirement could be asked to identify and encourage pedagogical practices that enhance student skills involving the exchange of challenging ideas.

We commend the intent of this recommendation, but we suggest that it is too broad and vague. There are many courses, and entire departments, where controversial or debatable cultural, ideological, and political ideas are not relevant to the material at hand. We should not expect a calculus class to have debates on DEI.  We suggest the following approach:

  1. Focus on critical thinking rather than ‘advanc[ing] expression’.  All classes in all departments should include opportunities to develop critical thinking and apply it to the curriculum and topics at hand.

  2. The recommendation should state that when a controversial cultural or political issue is relevant to the curriculum, then faculty should explore ways of including opportunities to advance expression along with critical thinking.  Attempting to advance expression without critical thinking is an invitation for students to express their prejudices without argument and without a methodology of distinguishing true arguments from false arguments.  

Recommendation 8: We recognize that students, faculty, and other members of the community may be harmed by speech or by responses to their own speech via social media or otherwise. We recommend that relevant Institute personnel actively convey and reinforce information about community values, existing laws, and Institute policies related to harassment and discrimination. We further recommend that the Institute continue to offer community members support in dealing with such harm. To this end, the Working Group commends the recent decision of MIT’s Division of Student Life to implement the principles and practices of the Sustained Dialogue Institute, which promotes dialogue as a tool for mutual understanding and conflict resolution.

As currently stated, Recommendation 8 is overly broad and actually counterproductive. It implies that speech that causes harm is in some ways not allowed or subject to punishment.  The recommendation should be modified in the following manner.

First, the recommendation should clearly delineate between harm and harassment.  Speech that causes harm, as such, should not be subject to punishment. However, there may be instances in which members of the MIT community can engage in behavior in the delivery of their speech that constitutes harassment.  An example of this would be if an MIT student engaging in protest repeatedly follows another student to express a point of view and doesn’t stop after being asked repeatedly to step away. There are also instances in which social media can be used to harass individuals.  It is important for MIT to provide information to its community on what does and what does not constitute harassment, and to offer support in dealing with harassment when it does occur.

Second, MIT should offer support to students on how to deal with speech that they do not like while maintaining an open mind.  While the methodology of Sustained Dialogue Institute sounds promising, we are not familiar enough with it to endorse it specifically.  What is most important is that MIT establish the principle that disagreements and dialogue must be mediated through reason and logic.    Any rational approach to managing disagreement and speech that sounds troubling or erroneous is to first consider the content of the speech.  The second step involves evaluating the content using reason, and then the last is to determine an appropriate response.

Recommendation 9: Because the technological landscape is continually changing with a concomitant proliferation of digital platforms on campus, we recommend periodic review of relevant Institute policies to ensure consistency with the MIT Statement on Freedom of Expression.

Recommendation 9 is a good idea.  It is easy for policies to be inadvertently buried in time, or for new practices using new technologies to undermine MIT’s principles for proper behavior. Reviewing policies periodically to ensure consistency with the values of free speech will help those values remain active in the community.  

Recommendation 10: We recommend that campus leaders undertake a promotional and educational program to advance free expression. The message should place a high value on the importance of free expression, specifically including the discussion of diverse points of view and the importance of voice as a component of education. The promotional initiative should present free expression as an important campus value. Expression should be promoted and advanced and not be viewed as a potential irritation or distraction. Various parties should be supported in advancing dialogue on critical and controversial issues.

Recommendation 10 would be useful. We should have presentations of diverse views, to show how civil debate should be conducted. Various organizations could help –-  Braver Angels, BridgeUSA, and Divided We Fall are three examples. It would not be hard to organize such debate over scientific topics relevant to MIT’s mission: climate change, COVID policy, and energy policy are all highly controversial and highly scientific.