Priority Recommendations

Priority Recommendations

MFSA proposes five highest priority recommendations that are essential for putting the MIT’s Statement on Freedom of Expression into practice. These recommendations complement the AHWG recommendations and should be implemented with a higher priority than our other recommendations.

Recommendation 1. Protect the reputation of the Institute and the diversity of viewpoints by adopting an institutional neutrality policy such as the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report.

In recent years, university leaders have faced mounting pressure to take public stands on political or cultural issues, and the desire of university leaders to do so can be sympathetic. The events of recent months, however, have made painfully clear the high cost this can have for institutions, and the unwinnable positions leaders find themselves in wading into fiercely contested issues. We don’t think it is a coincidence that in today’s increasingly polarized climate more institutions have begun following The University of Chicago’s lead in maintaining a neutral institutional position that works better in the long term in fostering the fullest exchange of views on campus.  In addition to protecting the Institute’s reputation, this will also save valuable administration time and energy from being diverted from MIT’s core functions.

Recommendation 2. Develop an institution or body within MIT that is responsible for addressing concerns around free speech and for organizing the various activities necessary to foster a culture of free speech.

A sentence in the AHWG Report says:

Resources and support, similar to what the Institute has made available to combat harassment, also should be available to empower responses to hateful speech.

This comes at the end of a paragraph that starts:

We commend the efforts of MIT resources including the Division of Student Life, the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response Office, and the Institute Community and Equity Office, to address cases of harmful but protected speech.

Thus, it seems there are three offices already that are available to empower responses to hateful speech. What offices or institutions are available to address cases of suppression of protected speech?

It is important that members of the MIT community who experience suppression of their speech, or retaliation for speech, have a place to go to submit their concerns, and have administrators and faculty who can help them manage the situation.  A dedicated institution is also vital for organizing a range of necessary activities.

This institution can take one of several forms. It could, for instance, be modeled after the MIT offices and divisions cited previously, but with a particular focus on protecting free speech. An alternative structure would be to elevate CAFCE to the status of Standing Committee of the Faculty, or to create a new Standing Committee of the Faculty in a similar mold once CAFCE fulfills its mandate. The latter approach may prove beneficial in that it would ensure faculty are central to discussions and debates on free expression, in keeping with their traditional role as stewards of free expression and academic freedom.

Whatever form the office or body takes, it can have  responsibilities including the following:

  1. Publish Institute policies and prohibited conduct on its webpage as well as in the Mind and Hand and the faculty handbooks, along with associated FAQs, to ensure a centralized source at the Institute for free expression related information

  2. Participate in policymaking and adjudication for cases where it is uncertain if certain speech is forbidden or allowed

  3. Establish a formal complaint process

  4. Process and investigate complaints, and pursue appropriate remedies

  5. Consult with and appeal to designated faculty members and higher level administrators at MIT for redress of violations of the MIT policies on free speech

  6. Model the process of engagement with controversial issues by organizing debates and discussions, maintaining communications with the community when the Institute is facing pressure campaigns to censor or sanction certain expression and ensuring that such campaigns are not effective in shutting down speech, disinviting speakers, or preventing discussion of alternative viewpoints

  7. Ensure members of the MIT community are appropriately educated regarding free speech (e.g., at orientation for first year students)

  8. Participate in the crafting and application of policies that have a substantial impact on free expression, and in their messaging to the MIT community.  (A recent example is MIT’s new postering policy, discussed by President Kornbluth here:

  9. Monitor the state of free expression at MIT, and MIT’s compliance with its own policies regarding free expression (for example, by ensuring surveys are completed and followed up (see MFSA's other Recommendations for additional details))

If finding funds for this institution is a problem, we suggest that the Administration ask for donations from alumni. If our own experience is any indicator, there is no shortage of MIT alumni who care deeply about free expression at the Institute, who may find much appeal in the prospect of being able to support such an office or committee. In addressing this need, MIT has a chance to be the leader among its peers.

Recommendation 3. Include required instruction on free speech and expression and  MIT’s free speech policies for MIT students at all levels.

It is important that all students who participate in MIT’s campus and culture learn about what is permitted and prohibited speech, and about the culture of free expression at MIT. A presentation on MIT’s policies should include, at a minimum:

  1. An explanation of the policies

  2. Examples of their application and interpretation

  3. Explanation of how to complain about speech suppression incidents

  4. A reading out loud of the Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom

  5. Guidelines and coaching on how to engage in civil discourse and respectful disagreement

This session should cover a variety of common scenarios that cause difficulty, such as responding to controversial speakers, managing offensive speech, and speaking on controversial topics on and off campus. Moving beyond the policies, the session should also offer a brief introduction to the history and arguments for free speech, and why it is so important in MIT’s culture. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has a series of free-to-use modules, videos, and other resources that can be used directly or for inspiration in designing this session.

Beyond this individual session, we would also encourage MIT to schedule and support programming throughout the academic year that emphasizes the virtues of free expression and facilitates productive discourse. MIT’s ongoing Dialogues Across Difference series and the work of MIT’s Civil Discourse Project offer models for such programs.

Recommendation 4.  Educate administrative staff on the importance of free expression and viewpoint diversity.

Appreciation of the benefits of free expression has deteriorated throughout the university, and it is influenced by and affects all players, including faculty, students, and administrative staff.  The faculty have begun correcting their involvement, as evidenced by their work on the AHWG and the CAFCE, among other actions. Some of our other recommendations and recent activities focus on students – including such activities as sponsored debates and required education.

On the other hand, the administration has not been the focus of most actions thus far. Yet MIT has a large number of staff – over 8,500 individuals, of which around 4,000 are in management or administration. The proliferation of non-academic administrators at MIT mirrors larger trends in higher education, with profound implications for free expression. Administrative staff have a far larger role in shaping the student experience than they did in decades previously, and have also assumed many of the traditional campus roles that were once the domain of the faculty. Their professional training often does not give them a strong foundation on free expression and academic freedom issues; worse, some professional disciplines actively devalue the importance of free expression in higher education. Many members of the administrative staff do not have a background in STEM education, are not knowledgeable about the scientific method, and are not familiar with MIT’s culture.

Thus it is important that some deliberate effort is made on the part of MIT to ensure that administrative staff are educated on MIT’s free speech policies and the importance of such policies in a healthy campus culture. We believe that this can include much of the same content as would be provided to students.

Recommendation 5. Reform the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response office to ensure proper transparency as well as to limit its actions towards members of the MIT community which serve to inhibit free expression.

Background:  MIT’s Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response Office (IDHR), currently accepts anonymous complaints about concerns as vague as campus climate which we believe, if not curtailed, can lead to an atmosphere of campus surveillance inhibiting protected free expression.

Both IDHR and the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards (OSCCS) utilize incident reporting software provided by the Maxient national database system, which can lead to the establishment of permanent records unknown to students.  These can be subject to leaks, hacking, or unauthorized transmission.  MIT must obviously maintain databases of student records.  However, the current system runs the risk of creating false or malicious records of students’ behavior without their knowledge based purely on a complainant’s aversion to another’s free expression, which can have later disciplinary or employment consequences.

Specifically, we think the following reforms must be made:

  1. MIT must clearly establish that any speech protected by the First Amendment cannot be the subject of a complaint to IDHR.

  2. MIT must institute a requirement of prompt notification to students whenever negative information is reported about them, as well as the right of rebuttal to such information.

  3. MIT students must have a right to conveniently access all files they have with IDHR, OSCCS, or other administrative offices as required by the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).  At present they are required to apply to separate offices through the Registrar.

  4. IDHR currently recruits students to assist in implementing their programs.  As such students can be assumed to have an interest in reporting perceived IDHR violations by others. These students should be publicly identified on the IDHR website.

  5. MIT must publish the guidelines for what constitutes actionable discrimination and harassment, with explicit emphasis that only such actions will be reviewed and that incidents purely involving speech will not be reviewed and should not be recorded. A webpage with these guidelines must precede access to the web form for submitting complaints.

  6. MIT must publish the IDHR office policies for reporting, recording, triage, investigation, adjudication and appeal.

  7. The IDHR office must report regularly on summaries of recorded cases, alleged infringements, status at each stage of the process, and remedies pursued.

  8. If the target of an investigation agrees and wishes the details to come out, do release them, appropriately redacted for the privacy of witnesses and complainants.

Secret record systems contribute to a culture of fear in expressing unpopular viewpoints, because individuals are unaware of when their words are recorded and how they might be used in the future.  A culture of free speech must include a general respect for openness in communication without undue fear of retribution for spoken statements.