Harassment, discrimination and the quality of our community
To the members of the MIT community:
I write for two reasons – one official, one personal. Officially, I share MIT's updated policy against discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment. Thanks to thoughtful insights from many people, this revision now offers more concrete examples and is clearer about boundaries and consequences.
None of us, however, loves the MIT community because its policies aspire to be excellent. What we love is that the energy, creativity, standards, principles and values that we each contribute make a magnificent whole – a precious shared home.
So I offer a few personal observations on our MIT community, and why it matters, especially now.
We live in a moment when, in our public conversation, familiar standards of decency and open, respectful discourse can no longer be taken for granted. These unwritten rules of a healthy society are especially significant in a community like ours; at MIT, our differences of opinion, perspective, training, identity and background, and our ability to navigate and learn from those differences, are essential to our creative excellence. These shared values have even greater importance in this charged time, when incidents of discrimination across the country have left many members of our community uneasy about their own safety.
In that context, I would like to try to articulate a few of our unwritten rules, so we can reflect on them together.
At MIT, when our community is at its best, bigotry and discrimination are out of bounds, period. Diminishing or excluding others on the basis of their identity – whether race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, social class, nationality or any other aspect – would be unthinkable. It's also out of the question to bully others, period. Such behavior is simply beneath us – because we value each other as members of our community and respect each other as fellow human beings.
The mission we pursue together is too important and too difficult for any of us to spend time erecting artificial barriers to anyone else's achievement; we need to welcome and embrace all the great talent we are fortunate enough to attract. Intellectually, we are a community where prejudice – pre-judging – is anathema. In the MIT community I love, our personal interactions benefit when we behave as we do in our intellectual work: Assume less and ask more, to learn more. Refrain from jumping to conclusions on superficial evidence. And listen as closely and as much as we can.
At the same time, free expression of ideas is a fundamental MIT value. In my experience, valuing free expression at MIT means accepting each other's right to express deep disagreement and candid criticism, sometimes in very strong terms, whether the subject is science or philosophy or politics. As long as such arguments are governed by mutual respect, they are part of how we make each other smarter. The capacity to listen to each other through passionate disagreement is an indispensable tool for learning; we shouldn't trade or compromise that for anything.
I believe our magnificently diverse community can and must be part of making a better world. Through that work, we speak clearly and proudly for our community's deeply American ideals. And we do that best if we succeed in living out those values here at home: if we remember always that all of us are here on our merits and by choice, and that we need each other and benefit and learn from each other. In striving to accomplish this, we might even offer a model of human possibility.
For the privilege of belonging to this community, each of us has a responsibility to live up to its values, to care for it – and to make it better. I have said that I would like MIT to be famous not only for what we know, and what we know how to do, but for being a community where we treat one another with sympathy, humility, decency, respect and kindness. We may not be there yet. But thanks to the sustained loving effort of many individuals, I believe we are on our way.
In these unsettled times, let's commit ourselves – mind, hand and heart – to achieving this aspiration.
With gratitude for what we have accomplished together and with high hopes for the future,
L. Rafael Reif