Issues & Insights

The Search For A New MIT President: The Key Considerations

The incumbent president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. L. Rafael Reif, will step down at the end of 2022, and a search committee has been formed to name his replacement. What qualities should his successor have, we wondered?

To answer that, we must first ask: What is MIT’s history, and what should it be now? We, two alumni who graduated decades ago, remember MIT as a mecca of cutting-edge science and technology. Two of the professors who taught us were Nobel laureates; and others boasted achievements like being the pioneer of strobe photography; another was the “father of molecular medicine,” for having discovered the mutation that causes sickle-cell anemia; and several had worked on the Manhattan Project, which created the atomic bombs that ended World War II. Students could often work for these professors, in addition to getting a rigorous world-class technical education. (And we do mean rigorous.) Perhaps most critical of all, we learned problem-solving, an integral part of our coursework from day one, and of our lives post-graduation.

MIT should also be a place where intellectual ferment routinely takes place, where new and different ideas are welcomed and debated openly, and where every person is treated equally based on his or her abilities, achievements, and effort. Unfortunately, MIT has drifted away from this ethic. It is imperative that the new president address this.

What are the symptoms of this drift? The most obvious is an internal poll of MIT faculty taken in fall of 2021. In that poll, well over 50% of faculty answered yes to the question, “Do you feel on an everyday basis that your voice, or the voices of your colleagues are constrained at MIT?”

The responses to another question were even more chilling: Are you worried given the current atmosphere in society that your voice or your colleagues’ voices are increasingly in jeopardy?  More than 77% answered “Yes.” If even 10% of your faculty answers either of these questions affirmatively, you have a problem. The fact that over half did so indicates an emergency. And yet the current administration sputters on as if nothing is wrong and, in fact, doubles down on demanding and enforcing “wokeness” and political correctness.

Students have the same concern. A quote from a student of our acquaintance: “I know there were several people who were upset about the circumstances under which Father Moloney left the Institute, and their voices more or less got trampled by the predominant voices, from my humble perspective.”  (See the details of the Moloney saga below.)

And this from another student: “Whether in class or in the dorms if you voice disagreement with the agreed upon liberal narrative, you will be ostracized socially and targeted for being someone who uses ‘hate speech.‘”

How did it come to be this way? It has been a long and tortured path, with roots going back decades but becoming much more virulent only recently. It is the mudslide of wokeness that now suffocates every action and policy put forth by MIT. It is framed as a benign “awakening” to the fact of prior discrimination, particularly against blacks; but beneath that façade lie several fundamentally pernicious and counterproductive tenets. These include the substitution of “equity” for equality; “cancellation” of any person or idea that does not adhere to the Woke Narrative; and a theology which holds that all of society and indeed even science and mathematics are fundamentally racist and must be torn down and re-made in some new anti-racist mold.

How do “equity” and “equality” differ, and why is it critical? Here is an explanation from the MIT Mechanical Engineering webpage:

The goal of equity is to ensure fair treatment. It differs from the principle of equality in that equality affords everyone the same treatment, while the principle of equity acknowledges existing inequalities and adjusts and tailors resources to afford everyone equal opportunity … we measure equity based on outcome rather than intent. If a policy, program, activity, building or other physical structure contributes to inequities, then it is unjust and must be modified to ensure all members of the community can thrive.

It could hardly be stated more clearly, and it is evident that equity and equality are polar opposites. According to the Mechanical Engineering department’s screed, if test results, grades or rates of graduation are not evenly distributed along race and gender lines, they are unjust and invalid. Think about that … would you drive on a bridge designed by someone who failed his mechanical engineering exams but passed with “modified,” or “enhanced,” grades?  Would you prefer that your brain surgeon was licensed based on her individual merit or on her membership in a disadvantaged group?

Examples of “cancellation” include the infamous rescinding of an invitation to lecture on climate change by University of Chicago professor Dorian Abbot because he had co-authored an article opining that merit, fairness, and equality were superior criteria for determining college admissions than diversity, equity, and inclusion. This cancellation was opposed in a letter to the president of MIT signed by over 70 professors. But to no avail.

But at least professor Abbot kept his job. Not so for Father Daniel Moloney, who sent to the university’s Catholic community a letter about his understanding of the circumstances of the death of George Floyd. That letter was a sincere, heartfelt, and entirely factual examination of conscience from a person whose job it was to examine conscience. Yet it resulted in his immediate dismissal. No wonder that both professors and students alike fear cancellation for simply expressing views that do not conform to the Woke Narrative.

And what is the Woke Narrative? Fundamentally, it is that everything in society is based on racism, genderism, or some other hateful prejudice; and that you are not defined by your individual talents and accomplishments but rather by the groups to which you belong. Examples include new MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles, who recently coauthored an article titled, “Science must overcome its racist legacy.” In it, she states, “The enterprise of science has been – and remains – complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices and amplify marginalized voices.”

This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of science. Science deals in facts, theories based on those facts, and certain methods for validating or discarding those theories. You will search in vain for racism within relativity, quantum physics, molecular biology, or any truly scientific subject, because facts are not racist. This misunderstanding is perhaps understandable, since professor Nobles is not herself a scientist – her background is history and “political science.”  She was formerly dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS). And what has her tenure at SHASS brought to MIT? As an example, here are the words of Sally Haslanger, the Ford professor of philosophy in the SHASS Department of Linguistics and Philosophy:

It is not that reason is inherently objectionable, but allowing ourselves to be preoccupied with the significance of reason reflects a bias towards men, or the ‘masculine,’ which feminism ought to challenge … But the core idea is that a rational stance is itself a stance of oppression or domination, and accepted ideals of reason both reflect and reinforce power relations which advantage white privileged men.

This seems to us more appropriate to a late-night discussion in a pot-infused undergrad Berkeley dorm or a Babylon Bee spoof than from the occupant of an endowed chair at MIT.

How many of you cis-sisters out there would agree that reason must be challenged because it is the province of men? Can you think of anything that is more fundamentally insulting to women? (Or more asinine, for that matter?) For any who still doubt the pervasiveness of wokeness at MIT, there is the “DEI Statement” required for new tenure positions, the mandatory MIT student DEI indoctrination test, and the course offerings on erotic vomiting, but you get the idea.

There are many, many more examples, but the bottom line is that MIT is afflicted with wokeism, which is embodied under the rubric DEI, for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Note that diversity in this construct refers exclusively to race, gender, or other superficial identity characteristics; not to diversity of ideas, which is what is needed for intellectual advancement. We have already discussed equity, the polar opposite of the equality that was the goal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the entire civil rights movement – and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

There are now more than 70 faculty and staff involved with overseeing and advancing the DEI narrative and objectives – slots that, in MIT’s hallowed tradition, could otherwise be populated with the glitterati of science and engineering, doing actual research and teaching. As with all overstaffed bureaucracies, the DEI parasites will undoubtedly seek to expand their influence.

That gets us back to the challenges the next MIT president will face. In addition to the eternal requirements of scientific vision, effective leadership, and financial acumen; there is also a new one: unshackling MIT from the chains of DEI. With a 70-1 disadvantage, this will be a huge challenge. But if he or she fails to meet it, MIT will fail in its essential mission of intellectual ferment and achievement and will increasingly produce generations of “Stepford” graduates indoctrinated with the approved opinions of the Twitterati, never having had their beliefs challenged, and intolerant of dissenters. That is antithetical both to MIT’s traditional excellence and to the greatness of American democracy. The question is, will MIT overcome this Plague of Wokeists?

Tom Hafer developed systems for neutralizing rockets and drones. He currently coaches teenage robotics teams. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was a research associate at the NIH and the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. They were undergraduates together at MIT.

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1 comment

  • It is valuable to have two distinguished alumni from MIT point out these problems, but they are both retired and outta’ the game. Few at MIT are likely to hear their clarion call and fewer still will rouse themselves to action.

    A dozen years ago I found myself in a similar predicament. No one in the school would resist the predations of a bad president in any productive way. To the contrary, many in the faculty advised cooperating with him. A few just sniped from safe places. I quit a good-paying appointment to run for the governing board — it cost me quit a lot of money immediately and more every day as my retirement is smaller than it would have been. Doing something productive sometimes requires taking risks and losses.

    Some high profile people at MIT are going to have to do something courageous to correct its problems, and it has to be something that will gain publicity and cause the Trustees or Reagents or whatever the governing board at MIT calls itself some heartburn.

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