In 2023, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) released a report on MIT’s Institutional Health, the first such report FIRE has issued comprehensively evaluating the culture of free expression at a particular institution. The report is the product of a mixture of qualitative and quantitative evaluation, examining, for instance, the report issued by MIT’s Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression, as well as survey data evaluating both MIT student and faculty views on free expression at the institution.
FIRE conducted a survey of 195 MIT faculty for the report, finding a high degree of concern for free expression at the institution. 52% of the surveyed faculty believed that it was wrong to cancel Dorian Abbot’s delivery of the 2021 Carlson Lecture. Faculty also were unsure of the MIT administration’s commitment to free expression, with 38% believing that it was unlikely to defend controversial expression. FIRE also found a high degree of self-censorship among the faculty, with 40% saying they were more likely to censor themselves on campus than they were two years previously.
FIRE also examined the responses of the 250 MIT students whose opinions were reflected in its 2022-23 College Free Speech Rankings. Similarly to the MIT faculty in FIRE’s survey, a significant portion of students (32%) were unclear about the MIT administration’s commitment to free expression, and 41% believing it was unlikely the administration would defend controversial speech. Students also exhibited a worrying level of support for campus censorship, with 77% finding it acceptable to engage in some form of the heckler’s veto.
Among the report’s notable findings was that the topic students rated by far as the hardest around which to have an open conversation was affirmative action – rating significantly worse than their peers nationally. Given the prominence of the cancelation of Dorian Abbot’s lecture, this is unsurprising, as opposition to his delivery of the lecture was driven by opposition to his critiques on Affirmative Action.
FIRE’s report also outlined a number of recommendations for the MIT administration to take to improve its overall culture of free expression. Fortunately, MIT has already acted on one of its primary recommendations – with President Sally Kornbluth endorsing the Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom passed by the MIT faculty in 2022.