Skip to content ↓

Video transcript: Tensions on campus

MIT President Sally Kornbluth

View the video.

Hello, everyone.

The profound ongoing tragedy in the Middle East is having painful repercussions on our campus. 

I know that all of us feel deep sorrow over all the terrible human suffering that has occurred, and that continues. 

However, some people in our community are in serious tension with each other because they see the current situation from starkly opposed perspectives. For them, the arguments and sentiments expressed by the other side feel deeply to be a zero-sum existential threat. And I understand that.

Because MIT is and must be committed to protecting freedom of expression, the intractability of the opposing viewpoints puts us between a rock and a hard place. 

We have been asked repeatedly to take sides. We have been told that not taking sides is tacitly endorsing one side or the other. Perhaps most concerning is that some of our actions have been interpreted as side-taking. (And I would acknowledge here that many haven’t taken a side but have sympathy for all parties – and don’t want to be forced to take a side.) But let me emphasize: I am not adjudicating these issues – the whole world is grappling with them.

Our role is to find a way to steer the Institute through this fraught passage – to keep our campus safe and functioning.

We’re here together to pursue MIT’s great mission of discovery, invention, problem-solving, teaching and learning. 

To live up to that mission, we need a campus community where we can all express our views. But we also need MIT to be a place where we all feel safe and free to live, work, and study.

And that is not where we are right now.

I want to make crystal clear that our response to last week’s protest is absolutely not a comment on the content of the views expressed. Our response is the result of students having deliberately violated MIT’s policies against disrupting the functioning of our campus. 

MIT is, at its heart, an educational institution. It’s a place of learning, where complex and sensitive subjects can and should be debated and discussed. Because we staunchly support the right to free expression for everyone at MIT, student activism and protests are perfectly appropriate features of campus life. 

And that’s why – as the community has seen repeatedly over the past weeks – even protests and demonstrations that many find deeply offensive have been allowed to proceed. In the United States, what many people instinctively think of as “hate speech” is actually protected by law.

However, we naturally have policies in place to keep the community safe and allow the Institute to function and, as the MIT Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom makes clear, “the time, place, and manner of protected expression, including organized protests, may be restrained so as not to disrupt the essential activities of the Institute.”

In addition, as I have said many times, it is just not acceptable to target individuals, and we have received multiple reports of such targeting.

When activism crosses such fundamental lines, we need to hold people responsible for their actions. In a world with so many channels for communication, imposing this basic accountability is not equivalent to “silencing.”

I would recommend that you take a look at the FAQs sent along with this video to understand what happened, what we did, and why.

More broadly, I need to talk with you about the state of our community and about how we treat each other – all of us – not just students, but faculty, staff, parents and alumni. I know I’ve said this many times, but please hear me: 

I need to ask that you work with me to repair some things that are broken.

Right now, at least on the surface, the campus feels pretty normal. And we’ve stepped up campus security to keep things safe.

But I know some people are feeling fearful. And there is some awful behavior. 

No one in our community should have to feel afraid to walk on campus wearing a Star of David, or a yarmulke, or a hijab – or any other emblem of their faith. No one in our community should feel ostracized in their dorm or their lab, or denied a place in a study group, or intimidated in a hallway because of their nationality, their religion or their political views. And no one should be disrupting our classrooms by chanting slogans of any kind. 

Let me say this loud and clear: No one has a right to interrupt the education of our students. The classroom is sacrosanct. (Classroom disruptions have only occurred a handful of times – though unfortunately viewed millions of times on social media – but we’re providing instructors with updated guidelines to handle them.) And it is also out of bounds to disrupt the essential work of our faculty and staff in our offices and labs. 

Now I want to say a word about antisemitism.

Antisemitism is real, and it is rising in the world. We cannot let it poison our community. 

Working with faculty leaders, Chancellor Melissa Nobles will lead a new Institute-wide commission called “Standing Together Against Hate.” A group within it will spearhead efforts to combat antisemitism at MIT, and we'll announce the leaders soon. Elements may range from local group discussions with trained interlocutors, to speaker series, to curated reading lists, to programming in our student residences. 

Although antisemitism will be our initial primary focus, this effort will ultimately be broader, and will include efforts to address prejudice and discrimination against Arabs and Muslims. We cannot let these issues fester on our campus either.

And beyond this, I'm working on new idea to create a “corps,” that would challenge people to step up, in service to the well-being of the MIT community. More about that as the contours take shape.

But in the end, we cannot succeed against these insidious toxic forces with administrative actions and educational programs alone. We can only do it as a community of human beings who – whatever our differences – are committed to treating each other with decency and respect. We need to find a way to live together.

Last Thursday was a low point for our community – because we lost the capacity for listening and learning. 

Is that really what we want MIT to be? With students shouting each other down, and pushing and shoving each other, to the point that we had to intervene because we feared a serious altercation? Do we want things to escalate even further, as we’ve seen on other campuses? 

Should our community – so deeply analytical and committed to facts – become a place where people spend their time repeating rumors and half-truths on the internet? Where we say things that we know make other people afraid?

I trust and expect that we can do better than that.

  • For instance, I’ve heard of nascent efforts by students to facilitate communication across difference.
  • Two Sloan faculty members are launching a podcast called “The We and They in Us.”
  • And I’m particularly grateful that a group of Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern and North African faculty are showing us the way, through direct outreach to students and to their colleagues.

The people of MIT have tremendous intellectual and creative gifts. We have a great deal to offer the world – at a time when the world urgently needs our special skills and expertise. 

Let us strive to be a community that can offer the world the wisdom of our example. 

Thank you.