Avoiding a Rush to Judgement:
Implications of the Star Simpson Affair
The Arrest of Star Simpson
On Friday morning, September 21, Star Simpson was arrested at Logan Airport. Before Ms. Simpson, '10, was able to return to MIT to seek help following her release, MIT issued the following press statement:
“MIT is cooperating fully with the State Police in the investigation of an incident at Logan Airport this morning involving Star Simpson, a sophomore at MIT. As reported to us by authorities, Ms. Simpson's actions were reckless and understandably created alarm at the airport.”
The Manning–Winston Resolution
Shortly before October 17, Professors Manning and Winston, noting the congruence of their reaction and that of many colleagues, determined to introduce the following resolution at that day’s faculty meeting:
“In light of the Star Simpson event, we, the MIT faculty, request that the MIT administration refrain from making public statements that characterize or otherwise interpret – through news office releases, legal agents, or any other means – the behavior and motives of members of the MIT community whose actions are the subject (real or potential) of pending criminal investigation. We offer this resolution to foster mutual trust within the MIT community and to promote due process for all.”
Why We Acted
As the premier university of science and engineering, MIT has a special obligation, to the nation and to the world, to conceive solutions to complex global problems, and to ensure that tomorrow's leaders will include people technically grounded, not just technically literate.
To honor our obligation, MIT must be a place we join for high purpose, not merely a place for which people work and at which students study. We must have camaraderie and a strong sense of community. Our contributions should be understood and valued. Our opinions should be sought and considered. We must be colleagues, not cogs in a machine. And in return, we must relish the expectation that we will do great things and maintain high standards that are the envy of the world.
None of these thoughts are new, or highly controversial, or outside a century-and-a-half of tradition. What is new is that in our present century, crises seem to emerge with greater frequency, and evolve with more urgency, and draw more public attention. Accordingly, there is a greater need to understand how we translate our general principles into policies that we can fall back upon at times when circumstances demand action without the benefit of reflective thinking, thorough discussion, and thoughtful review.
We think that adhering to due process should be high on our list of such policies. Whenever any member of our community is accused of a crime, or seems in danger of being accused of a crime, we should not rush to characterize that person's actions or motives. It is inconceivable that such characterization would appear in advance of the facts.
We think that we should resist media pressures for quick sound bites. It is unthinkable that any word, especially a prejudicial world such as reckless, could be the right word to use in advance of the facts.
We think that we should resist pressures to pander to public opinion. It is wrong to issue hasty statements, ex cathedra, that could harm a person legally and further harm the morale of those in the community who see the action as an indicator of how readily fear of embarrassment drives our institution to distance itself from its people.
We do not ask our colleagues to take sides for or against anyone. We ask only that the faculty take a position on whether or not we want our administration to resist impulses leading to a characterization of the actions or motives of people in our community in trouble.
Why act? Many of our colleagues feel a chill passing through our community. They sense a shift toward a cold, corporate atmosphere, of which the triggering incident and issue are merely indicators. In the MIT tradition, we must air our views, analyze the problem, and find a solution.