The Hard Road to Recovery
Revelations over the past several weeks have left many at MIT feeling unwilling accomplices in the harming of children and the degradation of women.
[You will not see his name nor the names of others who have admitted their complicity in this article. They are not the issue that has MIT in moral turmoil. We are.]
MIT took money from a convicted Level 3 serial sex offender who preyed on young girls. MIT provided him access to the campus. MIT crafted an acknowledgment gift for him. MIT dismissed objections raised by members of the community. And MIT attempted to cover up its involvement through lies, omissions, silence.
Once the silence was broken things began to happen. There were resignations. The Administration launched an investigation. Members of the community held protests and demanded transparency and change in how MIT solicits and receives funds. MIT's Senior women faculty demanded integrity and action, and faculty sought a resolution for an independent faculty-led investigation.
While varied in tone and scope, these efforts have focused energy on the structural and ethical failures that brought MIT to this moment.
This structural failure is rooted in our system’s failure – its limited transparency and community oversight. Calls for remedies range from independent faculty governance, to open donor records, to a mechanism for the community to reject and the Administration not to pursue funding from individuals or organizations that represent values antithetical to those of MIT.
The lack of clarity and specificity in our values is another failure. For many in the MIT community, the recent revelations coupled with the courting of Mohammad bin Salman, the honoring of Henry Kissinger, the naming of a college after Stephen Schwarzman, and the deep involvement of David Koch in MIT governance are all evidence of a clash between values and goals. A conflict where the goal of raising more money wins because the values that guide the taking of funds are neither clear, enforceable, nor collectively shared and agreed upon.
These are substantial failures of the MIT system. But we cannot address them without attending to what I believe is the most critical failure: The loss of trust, safety, and security in the community that has resulted in a profound sense of betrayal.
MIT needs to provide as much if not more energy and resources into how to recover from this social trauma as it will put into investigations and reforms. Recovery cannot happen without reform. And reform alone is not sufficient for recovery.
What's required for community recovery at MIT?
I put MIT in the title of this section because of the prevailing sense of MIT exceptionalism that pervades the community. But in this situation, MIT is like any other human social system and society. MIT's path to recovery requires paying attention to and honoring what all human systems dealing with trauma must confront in an equitable and just manner. Let me list a few, in no particular order.
Naming – The community, particularly those most victimized by the issue, must name and frame the trauma the community is facing.
Truth – Without being compelled, those who have participated in the harm done to the community must reveal their role in the events that created the trauma.
Listening – Those who have facilitated harm must listen to those harmed.
Consequences – Those who most directly initiated and facilitated the harm must atone for their actions or inactions.
Atonement – To apologize is not enough. Those involved must ask for forgiveness, understanding that forgiveness may not be given.
Amnesty – The community needs a pathway for forgiveness and amnesty.
Shift in Power – Those entrusted with the decision that caused the harm can no longer fully or collectively hold that power.
Transparency – Hidden practices that facilitate this trauma must default to a position of openness.
Time – Individuals and groups require time, space, and resources for recovery.
Urgency – What can happen now must happen now regardless of the pain to the individual and the institution.
Purging – The community will need a means of purging itself from people and practices that enabled the trauma.
Remembering – The community needs to provide a means always to remember what created the trauma and how it has recovered.
There is no easy path forward. The steps are complicated, and at times at odds with each other. But they must all be considered. No group is more affected by this than our students. I have heard from undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral students who are concerned about what this means to them and their future. They feel betrayed – some by direct experience, some by association. In certain parts of our campus, distrust is the primary operating sentiment.
We do not have to be defined by this trauma. Instead, we can be identified by how we approach it.
Last week, students, faculty, and staff gathered in the City Arena at DUSP (Department of Urban Studies and Planning) to reflect on the impact and meaning of the past month's revelations. The packed room reminded me of a similar gathering in DUSP two days after the Boston Marathon bombing. Some had been there when the bomb went off, others just heard about it on the news. All experienced the lockdown that occurred in Cambridge and felt the impact of the death of eight-year-old Martin William Richard and Officer Sean Collier. Many spoke of the trauma from being an unwilling victim and sometimes perpetrator of planned, unexpected, unwarranted, or thoughtless violence. From a former Israeli soldier, who asked "Do I kill these four men in my line of sight because of the threat they may pose?" to a woman who survived a brutal rape, the bombing made visible the deep trauma so many people live with from day to day.
As we sat in a circle listening to these stories, a young veteran spoke up about his experience with violence in the streets of Los Angeles and the desert of Iraq. He spoke with a deep passion that disrupted the quiet reflection of the group. "We can't just sit around and talk about this. If things are going to change, we have to shift something fundamental in ourselves to stop the massive violence in our world." He continued, "For me, it is the following commitment I have made to myself and that I tell each person I am engaged with: I Will Not Harm Your Children." Then he stopped.
His words struck a chord. Over the next few days, the community crafted his commitment into a collective obligation for the department. While we never formally adopted this statement, it is worth recounting today:
I will not harm children. As a member of the DUSP community, I commit to live by this statement. I will do this by asking the following question before I act in the world: Will this action, policy, investment, etc. harm children? If harm to a child is a possibility, how can I change what I am about to do so that I do not harm a child?
I agree to take on this commitment and to work to embed this commitment into the mission, practice, teaching, and research at DUSP.
Perhaps we need to put this commitment in front of the entire MIT community. If adopted and practiced, we may never find ourselves blindly (but willingly) making decisions that make us unwitting accomplices in harming children. If adopted and practiced we can find our way to recovery.