MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXXI No. 4
March / April 2019
The Proposed New Review Process
for Outside Funders and MIT's
Governance Problem
A 21st Century Education at MIT
March 4, 1969 Scientists Strike for Peace:
50 Years Later
An Open Letter to the MIT Corporation
FNL Elects Four New and One
Returning Editorial Board Members
Open Access Task Force
Draft Recommendations
The Octopus
Progress Towards an Improved
Undergraduate First-Year Experience
Update on the Academic Climate Survey
Undergraduate Admissions:
A Recommendation
Public Forums at the
Center for International Studies
International Collaborations and
Donations to the Endowment
Faculty Responses to the
2019 Academic Climate Survey
Printable Version


The Proposed New Review Process for Outside Funders and MIT's Governance Problem


In response to the extensive criticism of MIT’s ties to the Saudi regime, the Institute announced in April that it would not engage in relationships with two Chinese corporations. At the same time, MIT established a new committee structure and process that would examine certain “high risk” engagements, including those with Saudi Arabia.

The encouraging part of this new review is that it establishes, for the first time for MIT, adherence to human rights standards as a benchmark for evaluating outside partnerships, even though it does not commit to a real due diligence process.

The process also establishes a multi-level risk assessment procedure instead of a one-stop approval, and involves faculty in at least one of those mechanisms, the International Advisory Committee (IAC). As a statement of policy, this is a step in the right direction. However, as a process of due diligence it is still highly problematic.

Let’s examine three of the serious problems in the proposed new review process. The first is the listing of three countries as "high risk" – China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia – without any explanation of how they were selected. Further, it does not reveal why other countries, or entities other than countries (companies, universities, foundations – including, for example, the Blackstone Group, chaired by the College of Computing benefactor Stephen A. Schwarzman) were not selected. A robust human rights due diligence must provide reasoning behind the selections, which this review does not do. In addition, will these selected countries be periodically reviewed to see if further tightening or loosening of relations with them are warranted?

Listing ongoing federal investigations – against Huawei for example – is not a sound basis for putting countries on a suspect list. Investigations are inherently political and unreliable. Unless there is a judicial finding against a company or an official condemnation, for example by a UN body, there is little basis for putting countries on such a list, unless the MIT administration is willing to share information on how it arrives at these judgments.

The second problem is that the three-step review process reflects the same problem described above: It is not sufficiently independent of the MIT administration and is full of loopholes. The first stage of review, the International Coordinating Committee (ICC), consists of the same individuals – the Associate Provost or the General Counsel’s Office for example – who will also be the third stage of review, the SRG (Senior Risk Group). It's hard to see how that constitutes a different level of review. Besides, the process states that the ICC will work to increase the odds of the project’s approval (thus showing its inherent bias), and will either recommend that the project proceed (the process ends here presumably) or refer it to the Associate Provost (who is already a member of the ICC) for additional review. The next step is for action by the IAC, which may review "certain of these projects" (but not all) referred by the Associate Provost. A key point to note is that IAC review is not mandatory, even for projects which come from one of the three "high risk" countries in question here. On the whole, this is hardly what one could characterize as a robust and independent review.

The third and final problem is that this new process "normalizes" MIT’s engagement with Saudi Arabia, making it appear as though the normalization results from a robust and ethically grounded process. Yet a large section of the MIT community vocally believes that all engagements with Saudi government entities must cease forthwith and many others agree. (See "An Open Letter to the MIT Corporation" in this issue.)

This is an issue on which the administration does not have the standing to speak on behalf of MIT. Compared with China or Russia – which do have serious problems – Saudi Arabia is far worse with regards to human rights. As of the writing of this editorial, there are reports that Saudi Arabia has executed 37 people in one fell swoop, most of them minority Shi’ites, including a college student admitted to study in the U.S. Wouldn’t it be better for MIT to show that it means what it says about human rights being part of its values by immediately suspending its cooperation with Saudi government entities?

The flaws of this new review process stem from one problem: the absence of representative governance at MIT, and the resulting inability to collectively resolve intrinsic conflicts of interest and other substantive disagreements, or decide on and affirm our values. The decision to establish contractual relationships with the Saudi monarchy was made by the MIT administration. The evaluation of that decision requires a body that is independent of the administration. However, absent a faculty senate, or any other form of authentic representation of the faculty, all administration-driven evaluations remain fraught with conflict of interest. The solutions might start with small steps, e.g., the Chair of the Faculty chairing the faculty meetings. However, in most U.S. research universities, faculty representatives to a senate are elected by the faculty alone. Detailed proposals moving in this direction were last proposed by former Chair of the Faculty Raphael Bras ("Improving Our System of Faculty Governance"), but no action was taken. In light of the current situation, the Faculty Newsletter will be reopening and revisiting this discussion in future issues.

Editorial Subcommittee

Sally Haslanger
Jonathan King
Ceasar McDowell
Balakrishnan Rajagopal

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