Embracing freedom of expression in the life of MIT

February 16, 2023
Sally Kornbluth, President |

Dear members of the MIT community,

In January 2022, a faculty-led working group began to develop a statement of principle around freedom of expression as well as a set of supporting recommendations. The faculty approved a final version of the statement by vote in December – and yesterday’s faculty meeting declared the process officially complete.

For the perseverance, thoughtfulness and care this work demanded, I offer enthusiastic thanks to the Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression and their partners, the faculty officers, and the faculty as a whole.

Today, I’d like to underscore the value of the statement and let you know what’s next.

You can find the MIT Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom here. As I have stated publicly before, I’m a firm advocate for freedom of expression. I strongly endorse the final statement, which is confident, nuanced and alive to the subject’s inherent complexity and tensions.

No statement can predict, prevent or automatically resolve every future friction or conflict around free expression. Though we can and should be guided by the statement’s wisdom, in real situations, we will all still need to use our judgment. But I hope MIT’s new statement inspires us to remember that the right to freely express our own positions is so precious that it demands our protection – which also requires that we protect it for those whose views we reject.

Vital to the shared mission of our community

Why is free expression so vital to the mission of an academic community like ours? The world counts on MIT for pathbreaking intellectual inquiry and problem-solving – and we just can’t live up to that standard unless we not only permit but encourage open, honest disagreement, debate and dissent. What’s more, as an educational institution, it’s our responsibility to develop broad-minded, rigorous thinkers who can hear ideas or information from all corners. That process requires, from each of us, a willingness to encounter opinions we don’t like.

Out of respect for our own right to free expression, however, I hope all of us can find ways to express our views without negating the right of others to express theirs. And to be clear: the right to free expression does not license bullying or harassment.

I also want to emphasize that a culture of respectful speech can live alongside a strong endorsement of free expression. If we’re going to live together, work together and learn from each other, we need to strive for mutually respectful and open dialogue across a wide spectrum of viewpoints. We need to not only tolerate these differences but celebrate the rich diversity of opinions and backgrounds that typify a thriving creative community. As MIT’s values statement reminds us, “decency, kindness, respect, and compassion for each other as human beings are signs of strength.” So I hope we can work with each other in that spirit, as members of one community pursuing a great shared mission.

What to expect from here

In addition to its draft statement on freedom of expression and academic freedom, the working group produced a thoughtful report. Arguing that “changes in an institution’s educational culture hold more promise than statements on paper,” it offers a range of “suggestions aimed at addressing some of the misunderstandings that have arisen over the purpose and place of free expression on our campus.” The report also notes that – from labs and lecture halls to cafeterias, class discussions and conference rooms – free expression has different impacts in different settings, and it stresses that people across MIT are very “interested in talking about how to have difficult conversations in a civil and productive way."

In other words, for this statement to truly take root in and advance the interests of our community, we can’t just post it and hope for the best.

I have therefore asked Provost Cynthia Barnhart, Chancellor Melissa Nobles and Faculty Chair Lily Tsai to lead us in:

  • Reviewing our existing policies on academic freedom and free expression (in Policies and Procedures and the Mind and Hand Book) according to our standard processes and determining what changes if any may be necessary to bring them in line with the final statement.
  • Creating a range of different opportunities to engage and inspire all of us, across our community, to learn about, practice and model the skills to confidently, constructively, respectfully express ourselves – and listen to each other – across differences.
  • Charging a team, with broad community representation, to review and reflect on the recommendations in the working group’s report and provide a roadmap of best next steps.

With the statement now officially final and this further substantive work underway, I’m hopeful that, together, we can use this moment as a springboard to making an even more outstanding MIT.


Sally Kornbluth