MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXXII No. 2
November / December 2019
The Right to Vote; Prof. Woodie Flowers;
Undermining the Institute Professorships
A Bookstore Without Books
“A Peculiar MIT Concoction”:
Our System of Faculty Governance – Part I
The Schwarzman College of Computing: Giving Back
Woodie Flowers
Unintended Downsides to Recent Changes
to the P/NR Policy
What We and Our Students Value
A Peek Inside the Random Faculty Dinners
Comments at MIT Institute Faculty Meeting
September 18, 2019
An Open Letter to MIT Department Heads
Reflections on Epstein and MIT
Update on MIT’s Open Access Policy and
Continued Negotiations With Publishers
2019-2020 Academic Calendar Changes
Angered By Recent FNL Editorial
Back in 1949
Campus Research Expenditures FY 2019 (%)
Campus Research Expenditures FY 2019 ($)
Printable Version

Comments at MIT Institute Faculty Meeting
September 18, 2019

Susan S. Silbey

The following is an excerpted version (by Prof. Silbey) of the comments she made at the September 18, 2019 Institute Faculty Meeting.

When we live in a culture whose anthem is “move fast and break things,” when disruptive entrepreneurship is the ostensible purpose of education, we cannot really be surprised that a Level 3 registered sex offender is a courted financial donor to educational institutions and is celebrated for his imagination and creativity. Jeffrey Epstein, a known sexual predator who trafficked in young girls, is invited to campuses. We should be horrified but not surprised.

We all know that MIT, like all institutions of higher education, research, and the arts, needs capital. For nearly 40 years, our governments (federal and state) have increasingly abandoned their commitment to both public and private education, as well as to science and the arts. We have no choice but to rely – as we do – on the generosity of philanthropists: individuals, families, foundations, and corporations.

I have heard some make the argument that taking money from Epstein is no different than taking money from the Kochs. The Kochs harm more people with their philosophies and political activity, some suggest. Others think we should not take money from these alumni for cancer research because they also spend their money disseminating false and misleading information about the effects of fossil fuels on the earth’s atmosphere and also because they use their wealth, and its consequent power, to build organizations that impede the progress of science, knowledge, and a more equitable and just world (which is what we say we are doing and tell our donors). Some think we should not take money from authoritarian governments that engage in what appears to be genocide of their population or their neighbors.

I do not like the Kochs or their politics, and I am willing to debate the tenets of their political philosophies and the value of their philanthropy.

But, there can be no debate about sex trafficking of children. It is beyond reason, truly unspeakable. There is no defense.

If we cannot see the difference between the Kochs and Jeffrey Epstein, we are indeed in trouble. We are good at making distinctions; that is what scholars do. This is the heart of the issue, I think. So, how did we come to this place?

We are mistaken if we think what happened is simply a breakdown in process. No process – thorough or cursory – should have resulted in taking money from a person who is and was at the time a registered sex offender, known for prostituting minors, and had a reputation for such at the time MIT engaged with him.

Misunderstanding this as a process issue instead of a judgment issue is symptomatic of serious problems deep in the organizational structure of MIT as well as cognitive and intellectual failures characteristic of the MIT culture.

First, the organizational and structural problem. What explains the failure of due diligence that enabled a donation from Jeffrey Epstein? I imagine, frankly, that there was limited or no attention to the case. I imagine that a list of current and prospective donors went past a group of senior administrators, like many such lists, and no one paid much attention. Why?

Most likely, it is a consequence of organizational overload. Issues are treated as they are presented, already framed and packaged without sufficient time, or without a diverse group of advisors with multiple perspectives. Debate is unproductive, not lean. Thus, Epstein’s involvement was not seen for what it was. It was not noticed as a problem because there was neither time to discuss nor a sufficient range of persons with expertise and sensitivity to know better. The group lacked the cognitive ability and experiential variability to identify the harm Epstein’s donation and involvement with MIT would cause, to see the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

When leaders are surrounded by a relatively homogeneous group of like-thinking colleagues, they are less likely to be offered contrary interpretations of the situation, which compounds the organizational overload. Managing size and complexity, plus the absence of diverse points of view generates less conversation, not more, about the issues to be decided, impeding recognition of what may turn out to be a critical, game-changing decision.

There are other organizational features that threaten the governance of MIT. For example: we use the accounting procedures of a profit-making organization for a non-profit organization. As such, we try to balance revenue and costs: income (from tuition, research grants and contracts, endowment and philanthropy) and expenses (education, research, physical plant, administration, development, etc.). This accounting model obscures the fact that this is an expense-generating organization where there is no limit to what could be an expense, no limit to what we might dream to do, if we only had the money (e.g., starting online education, inventing new courses for prospective students, enhancing our teaching of ethics, expanding quality of life for students and staff as well as faculty, creating new Schools, developing new research programs).

Over the last five years, we raised 5+ billion dollars, and are in no better position than where we were to begin because our bottom line needs have escalated. We pursue the money to feed endless growth. The data on the increasing size of the faculty, the staff, the number of graduate students, and the square footage of the physical plant all attest to this exuberant but potentially calamitous growth. Thus, we appear to value growth above all, perhaps defining excellence by size and speed. Is this really who we are?

Second, this is not just an organizational and structural problem, but a deep cultural failure, which derives from and is enacted by prioritizing mechanical thinking and devaluing social knowledge, history, and expertise. We regularly return to this at MIT.

In the last two years we had to deal with misunderstanding of: IQ in setting up the quest for intelligence; the relations with Saudi Arabia and MBS; the invitation to Henry Kissinger for the opening of the College; the design of the College; and now Epstein. In each of these instances, mistakes were said to be unintended. But they are repeated and the injuries compounded because we have not understood that these issues are problems of social meaning. Intentions are not physical causes. Intentions enter the social world as words and actions that are interpreted by diverse audiences in multiple ways, which can be explained and are interpretable by the social and humanistic disciplines. The mistakes are repeated because those making them think intentions can be known and understood in singular ways, with a fixed meaning (and as good intentions) despite the words and actions being in fact received and experienced in many ways (some of them unfortunate).

Back to top

Offering process as the explanation of and cure for these cultural failures reproduces the cultural failures. Technologies of decision-making – call this an algorithm or layers of review cannot overcome the necessity of exercising judgment within a social context at each step of the process – e.g., making a choice or choices.

Neither law nor machines eliminate the role of human judgment, which exists at every step of the governance structure. Legal and organizational processes provide backup, do-overs, and appeals to help improve outcomes and move us toward more reliable and valid decisions that are acceptable to the community. But at every step of a process, a person or persons make a choice. Processes are choice engines, and if a process is too narrowly conceived, it invites bad choices.

Misunderstanding this as a process problem instead of a judgment problem offends all of us who know that when we do business with predators, and we agree to give him even an ounce of pleasure by doing business with us, we fail to condemn his acts and fail to ostracize the person from the community. 

If we cannot recognize a problem for what it is, we cannot exercise good judgment, but we also cannot even begin to solve the problem. Misunderstanding this as solely a process problem instead of a judgment problem prevents us from even beginning to see that the problem has been too narrowly framed. This applies to the particular decision process that allowed us to take money from a sexual predator, and it also applies now to the response to this failure by looking for a new or improved process. What we have here is deep cultural failure, of which processes are a small piece.

However, and importantly, I urge us, as strongly as I can, not to see or say simply “the culture is to blame.” That is too facile. We must ask what aspects – practices and messages – of our culture led to the poor process and failure to deliver a good decision.
The fast and blinkered decision-making and narrow choices need not be the only way to govern.

The messiness of social action and human decisions is the subject of fields of study researched and taught here at the Institute, but these are devalued in the technological culture of disruptive entrepreneurship and big science. The inability to recognize a problem is a consequence of insularity, ignorance, lack of sufficient references and associated context to identify and interpret the phenomena or situation and thus recognize a problem when it stares you in the face.

It is not only normalized misogyny, but the devaluing of what too many at MIT describe as soft, not hard, knowledge. Even here there is a masculine picture of the world right down to our corporeal bodies. It is a matter of respect and resources that enable participation and productivity.

We effectively enact our values, make words into action and over time into habitual practices when we reward celebrity instead of scholarship, distribute our material resources to those who succeed in the marketplace not of ideas but of commerce, and fail to see the actual and added value that organizational, social, and humanistic knowledge brings.

What is to be concluded about our enacted values when we allow men at MIT to advertise “hot girls” on their office doors and no one does anything about it? And what does it say about our values when someone who removes murals of naked women and references to sexual assault from the walls of dormitories is called fascist? The students justify their action promoting the murals as protected speech (which it is not) and local culture. Is it any wonder that our students develop AI that cannot recognize women’s or black persons’ faces, and our students populate Silicon Valley, building an Internet awash with pornography and destructive social media threatening constitutional democracies?

What choices are they making? Where did they learn to make those choices? Or do they think that they have no choices to make? To many social scientists, these are all explainable consequences of an organizational structure and culture that silences opposition at the very top of MIT.

We are collectively ashamed because it looks like MIT cares more about taking money than we care about the harm specific people have caused to women and children. No matter how you consider it, we were balancing some sum of money against something most of us would think has no price. The only reason to take the money is if we did not know what we were doing. And so we have to figure out how such not knowing can be prevented.

We say that we want to teach about ethical conduct. This is a moment to show what that means.

Back to top
Send your comments