Ethical Obligations of Universities
in Their Transnational Engagements
In light of the apparent savage murder of Jamal Khashoggi, President Rafael Reif has called for a reassessment of MIT’s engagement with Saudi Arabia. This is a highly welcome effort, and one that echoes similar assessments being conducted by many governments and leading businesses, with many concluding that they will no longer engage with Saudi Arabia as long as the current regime is in power and there is no serious attempt to ensure accountability.
However, it did not have to take the gruesome murder of a journalist for these reassessments to happen. Credible evidence of a growing crackdown against domestic dissidents and of war crimes in Yemen committed by Saudi forces – with U.S. assistance – was publicly available, for example. Is it morally defensible for a principled university to engage with a country when it is committing war crimes and causing what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster?
What about engagement with other problematic regimes such as China, Israel, or Russia? China is running concentration camps for its minorities, while artificial intelligence is used by its secret police to control its second-class citizens, a fact well known to researchers. Israel remains in serious and continuing violation of international norms through its illegal occupation and armed conflict, while Russia too engages in massive and systematic harassment of any independent voices, while illegally annexing territory abroad. Is it normal to engage with parts of the U.S. government itself which are responsible for massive abuses and outlaw behavior, including complicity with the Saudi regime for its atrocities in Yemen or with imprisoning children at its border? More controversially, if individual faculty members publicly support or belong to supremacist or violent groups – such as the KKK or the RSS in India – is that acceptable? What are the ethical obligations of universities and of individual academics with regard to their transnational (or, for that matter, domestic) engagements?
Taking the Khashoggi travesty as a lesson, universities such as MIT will, I hope, ask: On what basis should it engage with all atrociously bad regimes and organizations, not just Saudi Arabia?
While high ethical standards are sought to be enforced for all research through IRB (Institutional Review Board) protocols, and many universities call for adherence to a code of ethics, the fact remains that there is currently no proactive due diligence or monitoring mechanism for ensuring that universities do not assist or legitimate odious regimes, organizations, and practices in their transnational engagements.
Strategic calculations about whether to engage with other countries or organizations rarely check, proactively, what their human rights records are. Credible information on human rights conditions exist globally, and many organizations – global business houses for example – increasingly engage in or are expected to comply with due diligence or establish mechanisms of monitoring their compliance with human rights law. The conversation about ethics in universities such as MIT too often stops with the ethics of research alone, as in the IRB protocols which tend to be narrowly focused. It does not have to be, and should not be, that narrow. There is no reason why a proactive due diligence process cannot be established by universities to ensure that they are not complicit with human rights violators.
There is a serious reputational risk to universities when they engage with human rights violators. Instead of welcoming every chance to accept the massive influx of money from oil-rich kingdoms, companies, and authoritarian states, universities should have their guard up and ask if there is a reputational risk in these engagements.
The reputations of universities such as MIT are among its most precious assets, built over time, but can suffer significant harm if more care is not taken in how and whether to engage transnationally in specific cases.
The evolution of recent human rights law also strongly indicates the possibility that universities, and the states in which they are located, bear legal obligations – for example under the Alien Tort Claims Act, Torture Victims Protection Act, or the recent Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). To avoid moral, and possible legal harm to themselves, it is incumbent on universities to verify whether well-documented allegations of human rights exist with regard to a country, organization, individual, or research collaborator before they sign agreements or announce joint initiatives. They should also commit to a meaningful monitoring of their relationship over time. Such a commitment to a due diligence process will in no way detract from the ability of universities to engage with a diverse set of countries and collaborators. Indeed, it will enable them to engage globally on a more ethical basis.
Individual faculty members have a right to decide if and when to engage with particular issues, collaborators, or countries, as part of their academic freedom. However, this right is distinct from the obligations that attach to institutional engagements – through labs, centers, initiatives, and the university as a whole.
As an institution, universities have a responsibility to ask if their engagements may end up bolstering those who violate universally held norms. Similarly, while individual faculty have the freedom to belong to any organization or to support cause of their choice, such choices are not entirely free of the moral obligations that are inherent in being a faculty member of a university which hosts people of diverse backgrounds and is committed to making the world a better place. Such moral obligations have to be anchored in human rights. To ensure that such obligations will amount to anything more than words, a code of ethics for faculty members which lays out the minimal obligations inherent in maintaining a free learning environment seems essential.
While the end of Mr. Khashoggi’s life is terrible, there are many regimes and entities in the region and elsewhere with equally bad or worse human rights records. I hope MIT and other universities will evolve towards a meaningful process of ethical international and domestic engagements which will draw lessons from the Khashoggi episode. There is a dire need for an institution such as MIT to take the lead.