MIT Entanglement with Saudi Monarchy
Requires Independent Evaluation
The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi ruling family, as well as the role of the Saudi Arabian military in the loss of civilian life from their campaign against Yemeni groups, have been widely reported. This has called attention to the MIT administration’s meetings and agreements made last spring with Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, and now the de facto head of the Saudi state as well as Saudi entities such as Aramco. Bin Salman launched the campaign in Yemen that has resulted in the death of tens of thousands from starvation, cholera, and collateral damage from indiscriminate aerial bombing (New York Times, 28 August, 2018).
Even before these events we expressed grave concern over MIT shoring up one of the world’s last absolute monarchies, with a track record of suppression of rights of women, human rights activists, and religious minorities, as well as propagating an obscurantist and militant interpretation of Islam (“MIT Should Not Be Supporting the Saud Monarchy,” MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXX No. 4, March/April 2018). The ethical and human rights implications of such partnerships with Saudi Arabia and others are explored in the article in this issue by Balakrishnan Rajagopal.
Associate Provost Richard Lester has reported that MIT will investigate these agreements, certainly a necessary step, which should have been taken before the agreements were made. However, having a committee constituted by the administration, to investigate the administration’s actions, is clearly not adequate. We need a committee that is independent of the administration. Unfortunately, MIT has no faculty senate or related governance body, and all standing committees are joint committees of the faculty and administration.
The agreements with bin Salman were not broadly shared with faculty, and proceeded without prior faculty input on such international cooperation. MIT has an International Advisory Committee, (appointed by the President), which contributed to organized discussions of the Russian and Singapore initiatives before they were finalized. No open faculty engagement took place prior to the spring meetings with Mohammed bin Salman.
We suggest that the Secretary of the Faculty ask the faculty members of the Faculty Policy Committee to join with some of the faculty members of the International Advisory Committee to serve as an ad hoc committee to investigate and report to the faculty on the agreements made with bin Salman, Saudi Arabian universities, agencies, and companies.
As the Institute prepares to investigate the agreements made with Saudi monarch bin Salman, it may be useful to review other cases where MIT dealings violated norms and principles that ought to be held by academia.
In 1975, MIT and the Nuclear Engineering Department arranged with the then Shah of Iran to provide graduate training in nuclear engineering for a cadre of more than 50 Iranian students sent by the Shah’s government, for $1.4 million from the Shah’s government. This was considerably different from the Shah’s government providing financial support to students admitted according to MIT standards and processes. The issue was intensely debated at faculty meetings and among students, and an ad hoc committee was established to look into the issues raised. Though students voted against the program, the vote at a well-attended faculty meeting was in support, and the program went forward. In 1979, when the Shah’s absolutist regime was overthrown, there were still a dozen Iranian students in the Nuclear Engineering program.
During the apartheid regime in South Africa, a group of MIT faculty, staff, and students formed the Coalition Against Apartheid, calling for the divestment of the Institute’s endowment investments in corporations that did business with the brutal apartheid government. The energetic effort, including building a model shanty town on the campus, was part of a national divestment campaign. Numerous other colleges and universities had divested, as well as states and municipalities. President Paul Gray was at the helm and steadfastly resisted the divestment call, laying out the Corporation’s position in an open letter (April 3, 1990). The decision, though debated in faculty meetings, was not referred to any committee or group of the faculty but was maintained under Corporation auspices. With the fall of the apartheid government in the early 1990s and election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, the issue became moot.
In 1994, Prof. Nancy Hopkins organized an ad hoc group of senior women who began documenting inequities in the treatment of women faculty. As the evidence mounted, they were able to win the establishment of a formal Commission on the Status of Women, with the support of President Charles Vest and Dean Bob Birgenau. The report by the Commission was published in a special issue of this Faculty Newsletter, documenting the structural inequities in the treatment of male and female faculty. This led to significant improvements in administration policies resulting in increased equity between male and female faculty. The report remains valuable today.
These past incidents show the way forward but also caution us about the new challenges in forming partnerships and collaborations with increasingly authoritarian, violent, and opaque governments and entities around the world.
The track record of MIT’s response to criticism of deals and cooperation agreements that ignored ethical and human rights issues is spotty at best.
Let us hope that the planned investigation, analysis, and evaluation of the agreements reached with Mohammed bin Salman and his regime, and other entities, as well as the subsequent action taken will not be of the band-aid character, but will take the human rights and ethical questions seriously and set directions for future MIT engagements.
College of Computing
The Institute recently announced the establishment of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. The "College" aspect of this initiative implies a significant change in the relations of the different disciplines represented at MIT with each other. Three articles in this issue, by Susan Silbey, Bernhardt Trout, and Haynes Miller, address important aspects of the new College. As noted by Prof. Silbey, most of the details of the new organizational form have not yet been defined. Will the association of computer science with an independently funded "College" subtly lower the value of other disciplines outside the College? Will the responsibilities and assignments of faculty within the College be the same as those without? Who will choose which faculty are included and who are not? We need to ensure that the College's organizational structure is such that it will reflect its mission and lift up all of MIT, rather than generating divisions and building new walls.