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MIT students, faculty afraid to speak their minds on sensitive issues, report says

The campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.Cody O'Loughlin/NYT

According to a new survey, many students and faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology worry that saying what they think about sensitive topics could damage their careers. But large numbers of students also approve of protests aimed at preventing controversial speakers from being heard.

“MIT students show worrying signs of intolerance, and MIT appears to be failing to teach them the value of academic freedom,” said the report produced by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, an organization cofounded by Boston civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate. At the same time, the report said that “faculty are mostly supportive of academic freedom and would like the administration to do its part to improve the climate for free expression at the institution.”

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The FIRE report surveyed 195 MIT faculty members and 250 students in May and June of 2022, in the aftermath of the university’s 2021 cancellation of a public lecture by University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot. Abbot had publicly criticized programs aimed at increasing racial diversity at colleges. The cancellation drew national media attention and dismayed many faculty members who considered it an attack on intellectual freedom. Earlier this month, the MIT faculty voted to adopt a statement of principles that promises broad protection for students and scholars who express controversial opinions.

FIRE noted that the canceled Carlson Lecture, sponsored by MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, was intended for high school students, including many from racial and ethnic minority groups. “There was reason for MIT’s EAPS faculty to be concerned about the psychological impact of having Dorian Abbot deliver the Carlson Lecture,” said the report, because some students of color “may have been discouraged from attending and engaging with Abbot, even on the unrelated topic of geophysics.”

But the report added that the university could have dealt with this concern by informing students that Abbot’s speech would have nothing to do with his political views. “Instead, the EAPS faculty and MIT administration sent the message that people with certain views cannot speak to certain people,” the report said.

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In a statement to the Globe, MIT president Sally Kornbluth said, “It’s critical that at a university people can open their minds to a wide range of ideas, understanding that attacking the idea is not the same thing as attacking the individual.” (An MIT spokesperson declined to comment on the FIRE report.)

People ate lunch on the MIT campus in October.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The survey found that just over half of the MIT faculty members polled thought it was wrong to cancel Abbot’s speech. In addition, 60 percent said faculty members should not face disciplinary action if they refuse to participate in diversity training programs.

Meanwhile, 38 percent of the faculty said they doubted the MIT administration would defend faculty members if they came under fire for expressing a controversial opinion. And 40 percent said that since 2020, they had become more likely to hold back from saying something that might get them into trouble.

The report also suggests that students at MIT hold somewhat different views from their peers at other schools. A recent FIRE survey of 45,000 students at over 200 US colleges found that 60 percent were uncomfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic; at MIT, it’s 68 percent. In the national survey, 63 percent of students worried about damaging their reputations because someone misinterpreted their words or actions. At MIT, 68 percent worried about this.

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But MIT students also strongly support the practice of shouting down speakers to prevent others from hearing them. The FIRE survey found that such actions were supported by 62 percent of students nationwide; 77 percent of MIT students were in favor. Also, just over half of the MIT students said it was acceptable to block other students from attending a controversial speech, compared to 37 percent of students nationwide. And 35 percent of the MIT students said using violence to prevent a speech might be acceptable in some cases, compared to just 20 percent of students in the national survey.

“This is another example of the really awful trajectory of speech and ideological tolerance in American higher education,” said Silverglate, who added that he is running for a seat on the board of overseers at Harvard University in order to help defend intellectual freedom at that school. “You can’t have scholarship and research if people are afraid to come to unpopular conclusions. It’s that simple.”


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeTechLab.