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Actions this morning

MIT President Sally Kornbluth

Dear members of the MIT community,

At my direction, very early this morning, the encampment on Kresge lawn was cleared. The individuals present in the encampment at the time were given four separate warnings, in person, that they should depart or face arrest. The 10 who remained did not resist arrest and were peacefully escorted from the encampment by MIT police officers and taken off campus for booking. 

I write now because this is an unprecedented situation for our community, and you deserve a clear explanation of how we arrived at this moment.

But let me start by emphasizing that, as president, my responsibility is to the whole community: to make sure that the campus is physically safe and functioning for everyone, that our shared spaces and resources are available for everyone, and that everyone feels free to express their views and do the work they came here to do. As you will see, in numerous ways, the presence of the encampment increasingly made it impossible to meet all these obligations. 

A timeline of key events

Here’s a quick timeline, familiar from my past notes to you:

  • The encampment began on Sunday, April 21, in violation of clear Institute guidelines well known to the student organizers. It slowly grew. Though it was peaceful, its presence generated controversy, including persistent calls from some of you that we shut it down. While we asked the students repeatedly to leave the site, we chose for a time not to interfere, in part out of respect for the Institute’s foundational principles of free expression.
  • Last Friday, May 3, we were able to contain a significant rally and counter demonstration through a very extensive coordinated effort, including with the City of Cambridge, which shut down Mass. Avenue. Among other measures, we set up high temporary fencing around the encampment to help maintain separation between the groups. This event drew several hundred people from outside MIT in support of each side.
  • On Monday, May 6, judging that we could not sustain the extraordinary level of effort required to keep the encampment and the campus community safe, we directed the encamped students to leave the site voluntarily or face clear disciplinary consequences. Some left. Some stayed inside, while others chose to step just outside the camp and protest. Some chose to invite to the encampment large numbers of individuals from outside MIT, including dozens of minors, who arrived in response to social media posts.

    Late that afternoon, aided by people from outside MIT, many of the encampment students breached and forcibly knocked down the safety fencing and demolished most of it, on their way to reestablishing the camp. In that moment, the peaceful nature of the encampment shifted. Disciplinary measures were not sufficient to end it nor to deter students from quickly reestablishing it.
  • Wednesday, May 8, was marked by a series of escalating provocations. In the morning, pro-Palestinian supporters physically blocked the entrance and exit to the Stata Center garage though they eventually dispersed. Later, after taking down Israeli and American flags that had been hung by counter protestors, some individuals defaced Israeli flags with red handprints, in the presence of Israeli students and faculty. Several pro-Israel supporters then entered the camp to confront and shout at the protestors. Throughout, the opposing groups grew in numbers. With so many opposing individuals in close quarters, tensions ran very high. The day ended with more suspensions – and a rally by the pro-Palestinian students.
  • Thursday, May 9, pro-Palestinian students again blocked the mouth of the Stata garage, preventing community members from entering and exiting to go about their business, and requiring that Vassar Street be shut down. This time, they refused directions from the police to leave and allow passage of cars. Their action therefore resulted in nine arrests. 

Sustained effort to reach a resolution through dialogue

As we all, know, the current conflict on campus stretches far beyond MIT. From the beginning, we have watched with great concern what has happened on other campuses. We have been determined to avoid violence, and I have been strongly opposed to using the threat of arrest to resolve a situation that should be mediated by discourse. 

We tried every path we could to find a way out through dialogue. In various combinations, senior administrative leaders and faculty officers met with the protesters many times over almost two weeks. This sustained team effort benefited from the involvement of at least a dozen faculty members and alumni who have been supporting and advising the protestors, and, in the final stages, a professional mediator who was meeting with the students.

Reaching a solution hinged on our ability to meet the students’ primary demand, which we could not do in a well-principled way that respected the academic freedom of our faculty. Yet though all of us working with the students were hopeful, the students would not yield on their original demand, and negotiation did not succeed. 

Irresolvable tensions, and a tipping point

And thus we arrived at this morning’s police action – our last resort.

For members of our community who may remember or even have participated in past protests, at MIT or elsewhere: This situation is fundamentally different. Why? Because this is not one group in conflict with the administration. It is two groups in conflict, in part through us, with each other.

The encampment had become a symbol for both sides. For those supporting the pro-Palestinian cause, it symbolized a moral commitment that trumped all other considerations, because of the immense suffering in Gaza. For the pro-Israel side, the encampment – at the center of the campus where they are trying to receive an education and conduct research – delivered a constant assertion, through its signs and chants, that those who believe that Israel has a right to exist are unwelcome at MIT. 

As a result, the encampment became a flashpoint. MIT sits at the center of a major metropolitan area that features a large population of college-aged students. Our campus is easy to reach and wide open. 

The escalation of the last few days, involving outside threats from individuals and groups from both sides, has been a tipping point. It was not heading in a direction anyone could call peaceful. And the cost and disruption for the community overall made the situation increasingly untenable. We did not believe we could responsibly allow the encampment to persist.

The actions we've taken, gradually stepped up over time, have been commensurate with the risk we are in a position to see. We did not take this step suddenly. We offered warningsWe telegraphed clearly what was coming. At each point, the students made their own choices. And finally, choosing among several bad options, we chose the path we followed this morning – where each student again had a choice. I do not expect everyone to agree with our reasoning or our decision, but I hope it helps to see how we got there.

Finally: Our actions today had nothing to do with the specific viewpoints of the students in the encampment. We acted in response to their actions. There are countless highly effective ways for all of us to express ourselves that neither disrupt the functioning of the Institute nor create a magnet for external protestors. As the ad hoc Committee on Academic Freedom and Campus Expression recently observed, “while freedom of expression protects the ability of community members to express their views about the current situation in the Middle East, it does not protect the continued use of a shared Institute resource in violation of long-established rules.”

*  *  *

Our community includes people who lost friends and family to the brutal terror attack of October 7, and people with friends and family currently in mortal danger in Rafah. It includes individuals whose families have struggled for years under the strictures imposed on Gaza, and at least one faculty member – an alumnus who has made his home at MIT for more than 70 years – who lost his whole family to the Holocaust. And of course, MIT includes people who hold a spectrum of views beyond those expressed by the encampment and by its fiercest opponents.

We all have a stake in this community. And we all have an interest in being treated with decency and respect for our humanity. That interest comes with a responsibility to offer each other the same consideration. We must find a way to work through this situation together; I pledge to work on that with anyone who will join me.

I have no illusions that today’s action will bring an end to the conflict here, as the war continues to rage in the Middle East. But I had no choice but to remove such a high-risk flashpoint at the very center of our campus.


Sally Kornbluth