New steps for a new year

January 3, 2024
Sally Kornbluth, President |

Dear members of the MIT community,

Seeing MIT up close for a year now, I’ve come to value something I could not fully appreciate from the outside: the matter-of-fact problem-solving ethos, the willingness to name a problem, measure it, design a solution and keep iterating until it’s right.

The Israel-Hamas war continues to cause deep pain for many around the world, including at MIT, and is an ongoing source of tension in our community. Here on campus, its repercussions have pressure-tested some long-standing systems and assumptions, presenting challenges to our community and to fulfilling our mission of research and education.

A close look at some key systems

We have been listening to our community and working steadily for many weeks to identify the issues that most urgently need our attention. As we begin this new year, I want to name the challenges I’m seeing and hearing about, and put us on a path to solving them together.

To achieve substantial progress by the end of this semester, we’re taking four immediate steps:

1. Benchmarking and improving student disciplinary processes

MIT’s long-established student disciplinary processes were designed to be fair, proportionate and confidential. Those qualities are vital. However, recent events have spurred some frustration in the community with respect to the timeliness, accountability and transparency of our disciplinary system.

In keeping with MIT’s standard practice for reviewing and improving its systems, MIT Corporation Chair Mark Gorenberg and I have asked the Corporation’s standing Risk and Audit Committee to assess our current approach to handling complaints of student misconduct and to see where benchmark standards from across higher education may suggest practical improvements. The committee will consider pivotal questions, such as if we’re striking the best balance between confidentiality and transparency, and between speed and fairness; and whether there are ways to achieve more consistent application of policies. The work will begin shortly, in consultation with staff, faculty and student leaders. The committee will share any recommendations with faculty leadership.

I’m also hearing that some in the community feel unclear about how claims of misconduct are reported, reviewed and resolved. To clarify how complaints are being handled in the current situation, the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response (IDHR) office has published a very helpful explanation.

2. A shared understanding of the rights and responsibilities of free expression

In response to a speech controversy in 2021, the faculty approved the MIT Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom in late 2022 as the foundation for a strong campus culture of free expression. In its first year, the statement has been tested publicly several times: last spring with a provocative postering campaign, and in multiple moments this fall.

In practice, it’s clear that we need a better sense of how to navigate the principles of freedom of expression, which we must protect, and the need to guard against harassment, bullying, intimidation and discrimination – policy violations that must be subject to discipline.

To help advance a healthy culture that balances freedom of expression with mutual respect, Faculty Chair Mary Fuller and I are charging a new Committee on Academic Freedom and Campus Expression (CAFCE) (initially envisioned as a subcommittee of the Faculty Policy Committee). Its co-chairs, Professors Mike Sipser and Peko Hosoi, will focus the group immediately on examining these policy areas to ensure that we all understand the rules and our responsibilities as members of the MIT community.

However, we cannot expect discipline and policies to magically resolve all or even most difficulties that emerge in how we relate to each other in speech; we need to rely on each other for decency and compassion. As I have said many times, we need to lean into the idea that there’s a difference between what we can say and what we should say, as members of one community.

3. Making sure our DEI programs effectively meet campus needs

We will soon announce a new Vice President for Equity and Inclusion (VPEI). With this new role, we have an important opportunity to reflect on and comprehensively assess the structures and programs intended to support our community and create a welcoming environment.

While we address the pressing challenge of how best to combat antisemitism, Islamophobia and hatred based on national origin or ethnicity in our community, we need to talk candidly about practical ways to make our community a place where we all feel that we belong.

Vice Provost for Faculty Paula Hammond will work with the incoming VPEI to think broadly about the best approaches for advancing community, civility and mutual respect on our campus, in the spirit of our MIT Values.

4. Targeted questions in our campus climate survey

To be effective in fighting antisemitism, Islamophobia and hatred based on national origin or ethnicity on campus, we need a clear understanding of the nature and extent of the problem. To that end, we will include a set of focused questions in MIT’s Quality of Life (QoL) survey, to be sent to all MIT students and employees early in the spring semester. Responses to this set of questions will be analyzed immediately; what we learn will help us make effective interventions. Combined with incident data already reported annually by IDHR, information from future QoL surveys will help us gauge our progress.

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These Institute-level actions will help us make thoughtful, evidence-based improvements in some key systems and programs, improvements that will serve the people of MIT well not only in this difficult period but far beyond it.

But the hardest, most important work – for the administration and for everyone at MIT – is the challenge of listening seriously, rebuilding trust and caring for our community.

  • We continue to join with faculty and staff experts to work directly with the students most affected by the conflict in the Middle East.
  • The faculty-led Unity Across Differences group and the Third Way lunch series are finding ways – person to person – to foster respectful, informed dialogue.
  • Standing Together Against Hate, the community-led effort we announced in November, is offering a suite of lectures, discussions, classes and community-building efforts, rolling out through January’s IAP and beyond.
  • And the Center for Constructive Communication is launching discussions in student residences to foster appreciation for each other’s humanity, even across deep differences.

I’m working to use every lever available to address conflict on our campus, enhance the tenor of our discourse and help us find improved ways to live and work together here at MIT. I hope you will each reflect on what you can do to help.

I look forward to working with you to face these challenges to our community with urgency and seriousness so we can all have the strength and energy to support friends and colleagues who are suffering, and the freedom and confidence to pursue MIT’s critical mission of service and the work we each came to MIT to pursue.


Sally Kornbluth