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Video transcript: MIT Community Message from President Kornbluth

MIT President Sally Kornbluth

View the video.

Hello, everyone.

As you surely know, campus communities across the country are struggling to cope with strongly contending views on the war in the Middle East – and MIT is too. 

So I want to let you know what I see here, and what I believe is at a stake.

Last Sunday night, 30 or so students set up around 15 tents on the Kresge lawn. They also put up signs – some deeply critical of Israel, some expressing their support for the Palestinian people and their demands that MIT cut research ties with Israel. They have repeatedly stated their commitment to these views. 

From the start, this encampment has been a clear violation of our procedures for registering and reserving space for campus demonstrations – rules that are independent of content – rules that help make sure that everyone can have freedom of speech.

Over the course of the week, several more tents have been added. The students have sometimes been noisy – but the situation has so far been peaceful. For instance, after the first day, the demonstrators agreed not make noise after 7:30 pm, as students across campus are focused on end-of-semester assignments. 

That said, there have been rallies that include bullhorns and loud chanting. Some of these chants are heard by members of our community as calling for the elimination of the state of Israel. More pointed chants have been added that I find quite disturbing.

I believe these chants are protected speech, under our principles of free expression.  But as I’ve said many times, there’s a distinction between what we can say ­– what we have a right to say – and what we should say as members of one community. 

But this is what makes this situation different from past protest movements, and uniquely difficult: the fact of two opposing groups on campus, both grieving, – and both painfully at odds with each another. These opposing allegiances extend to faculty and staff as well.

As you’d expect, to avoid any further escalation, we’re working closely and constantly with our Student Life team, the faculty members who are advising the students, and our own campus police. Out of an abundance of caution, at my direction, the MITPD is on the scene 24 hours a day. 

The situation is not static, of course, but that’s the current picture.

I and other senior leaders have also spent hours in intense meetings with people across a broad range of views. We’ve received scores of messages from students, alumni, parents, faculty, and staff. 

We are being pressed to take sides – and we’re being accused of taking sides. We’ve been told that the encampment must be torn down immediately, and that it must be allowed to stay; that discipline is not the answer, and that it is the only answer. 

I can only describe the range of views as irreconcilable. 

Under the circumstances, what I must continue to do, here on our campus, is to take every step in my power to protect the physical safety of our community – and to strive to make sure everyone at MIT feels free to do the work they came here for.

In support of that goal, I want to be clear about certain aspects of how we operate at MIT, and about guardrails that will allow us to live together.

  • First: I appreciate very much that the situation has so far been peaceful. But this has not been the case at several schools across the country where different groups have clashed. 

    To be clear to everyone concerned: violence and threats of violence on our campus are utterly unacceptable. Anyone who breaks that trust should expect serious consequences.
  • Second: Rules have already been broken. Those who break our rules – including rules around the time, place and manner of protest – will face disciplinary action.
  • Third: I am not going to compromise the academic freedom of our faculty, in any field of study. Our faculty represent a wide range of viewpoints that are appropriately expressed in a university dedicated to broadening our students’ minds.  And faculty routinely work with colleagues around the world, including in Israel – and all sponsored research on our campus is openly shared, publishable, and freely available to investigators everywhere. 

MIT relies on rigorous processes to ensure that all funded research complies with MIT policies and with US law. Within those standards, MIT faculty have the fundamental academic freedom to pursue funding for research of interest in their fields. 

In an open academic community, it is certainly acceptable to ask questions about someone’s research and funding sources. But that should never rise to the level of intimidation or harassment.

  • Fourth and finally, I want to speak directly about the encampment. 

We have heard the views of our protesting students. The grief and pain over the terrible loss of life and suffering in Gaza are palpable.

Out of respect for the principles of free expression, we have not interfered with the encampment. 

But it is creating a potential magnet for disruptive outside protestors. 

It is commandeering space that was properly reserved by other members of our community. 

And keeping the encampment safe and secure for this set of students is diverting hundreds of staff hours, around the clock, away from other essential duties. 

We have a responsibility to the entire MIT community – and it is not possible to safely sustain this level of effort.

We are open to further discussion about the means of ending the encampment.  

But this particular form of expression needs to end soon.