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Why do we need to democratize MIT? First, because the administration has a long history of privatizing the university and ignoring the voices of faculty, students, staff, and alumni. Second, because MIT has numerous unethical sponsors beyond Jeffrey Epstein. Third, because corporate, military, and philanthropic sponsorship can affect research agendas in various detrimental ways.
On this page, you can find references that substantiate these three reasons.
1. History and situation of MIT
1.1. Lack of faculty senate or association
1.2. Lack of diversity in senior administration and faculty
1.3. History of funding sources
1.4. History of divestment campaigns
2. Ethical problems with MIT sponsors
2.1. Human rights violations (Saudi Arabia)
2.2. Climate change denial (Koch)
2.3. Surveillance of Uyghurs in China (SenseTime, iFlyTek)
2.4. Amazon deforestation in Brazil, global housing crisis (Blackstone)
2.5. Fossil fuel interests
3. General issues in US universities
3.1. Effects of sponsored research
3.2. Limits of philanthropy
Some appraisals of past and present democratic struggles at MIT.
MIT has an unusual governance structure, “lacking a faculty association or faculty senate, so that no faculty not serving on standing committees are delegated responsibility for governance, and all committees are in essence joint committees of the faculty and the administration.” “Improving Faculty Governance For Changing Times,” MIT Faculty Newsletter (2016).
MIT senior administrators who participate in major decisions about funding are overwhelmingly white, mostly men, and not at all representative of the rest of the MIT community. See the MIT Organization Chart.
Moreover, there are few women and people of color in the MIT faculty. “In 2019/20, there are 1,066 faculty members at MIT. Only 266 of them are women (178 are tenured; 88 are untenured; of all women only 21 are women of color).” See the open letter regarding Epstein from women faculty at MIT.
A brief timeline of funding sources at MIT, transcribed/adapted from a handout distributed at the “Science and Society Carnival” for the MIT Day of Engagement and Action (2017), is below:
1862: The Morrill Act directs profits from the sale of federal (once native) land to found MIT and other “practical” land-grant colleges offering military, engineering, & agriculture training. MIT’s first president, William Barton Rogers, possessed enslaved Africans until the 1850s.
1919: As tuition, philanthropic grants (e.g. Carnegie & Rockefeller), and state funds waver, MIT targets corporate sponsors with the Tech Plan; the Division of Industrial Cooperation and Research forms.
1945: Former MIT VP Vannevar Bush urges federal grant-based support for science beyond wartime research & later establishes NSF; MIT defense laboratories (Draper, Lincoln, etc.) receive the lion’s share.
1957: Sputnik launches, spurring the creation of (D)ARPA/NASA and accelerating US defense research (nuclear, electronics, & materials); in 12 years MIT partially divests in military research after the Vietnam War.
1980: Fears of dwindling innovation lead to the Bayh-Dole Act, granting university ownership over patents based on federally funded research; technology transfer offices facilitate spin-offs and other industry patent usage.
1985: Architecture professor Nicholas Negroponte founds the MIT Media Lab, catalyzing media & design research through the patronage of technology companies, which invest in shared intellectual property.
2010: Obama’s plan to boost federal science funding stalls in Republican-dominated Congress; Koch Institute opens, signaling philanthropy’s return (Gates, Wyss, Broad, Ellison, etc.).
2017: Trump issues his blueprint for the 2018 budget, enlarging funds for national defense & cutting several major science funding agencies: NIH, EPA, ARPA-E, NOAA, etc.
Stuart W. Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (Columbia University Press, 1993).
David Kaiser (ed.), Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision (MIT Press, 2010).
Syllabus for STS.050, “The History of MIT” (2011).
MIT and Slavery, an ongoing research project by MIT professor Craig Steven Wilder, archivist Nora Murphy, and students.
Fossil Free MIT has compiled a list of articles about divestment campaigns at MIT, based on the archives of The Tech. An adapted summary is below:
Military funding (1967–1986): Protests against “multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles” (MIRV), a type of ballistic missile containing several warheads, and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, also known as “Star Wars”), an anti-nuclear missile defense system proposed by the Reagan administration. Prominent groups were SACC (Science Action Coordinating Committee), NAC (November Action Coalition), and MIT Students Against the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Apartheid (1978–1991): Protests for divestment from South Africa in protest of apartheid. A prominent group was the Coalition Against Apartheid. Despite extensive mobilization, MIT did not divest. However, successful divestment campaigns at other universities, including the University of California in 1986, were key in the struggle against apartheid.
Sudan (2005–2008): MIT divested from Sudan in 2007, after a campaign against the genocide sponsored by the Sudanese state in the Darfur region.
Israel (2002–): Unsuccessful campaign for divestment from Israel in 2002, and sporadic calls for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) in later years.
Fossil fuels (2013–): Ongoing campaigns for divestment from fossil fuel companies. Prominent groups are Fossil Free MIT and MIT Alumni for Climate Action Leadership (MITACAL).
Some moral and political controversies regarding current MIT sponsors beyond Jeffrey Epstein.
MIT has multiple sponsored research programs, partnerships, investments, and financial engagements with Saudi Aramco, SABIC, and KACST, entities controlled by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia under the authoritarian regime of Mohammad bin Salman (MBS).
In an open letter, members of the MIT community have called on MIT to end its ongoing relationships with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They wrote:
Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian state with one of the worst human-rights records in the world. Its shameful record is by now familiar from international press coverage: thousands of deaths and millions on the brink of famine in the Yemeni Civil War since 2015; the 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul; and the list goes on. Collaborative agreements with an authoritarian state with this record are antithetical to the mission, interests, and values of MIT and of open, democratic, societies worldwide.
MIT’s History faculty and Philosophy faculty published critical responses to Associate Provost Richard Lester’s report on MIT’s engagements with Saudi Arabia.
For more on contemporary Saudi Arabia, see Madawi al-Rasheed (ed.), Salman’s Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia (Oxford University Press, 2018).
The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT is named after David Koch, former co-owner of the conglomerate Koch Industries. Koch was a life member of the MIT Corporation and a major funder of many MIT initiatives.
Along with his brother Charles, David Koch was a leading funder of climate change denial and many other right-wing causes. See, for example, “Covert Operations,” The New Yorker (2010).
UnKoch MIT has launched a campaign to counter the influence of the Koch family on campus.
For a history of the Kochs’ central role in opposing government action on climate change, see Christopher Leonard, The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America (Simon & Schuster, 2019).
For a history of the right-wing intellectual movement fueled by the Koch family and its allies, see Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (Penguin, 2017).
The MIT Quest for Intelligence is funded largely by Chinese companies SenseTime and iFlyTek.
These companies produce surveillance technologies deployed by the Chinese state to target Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. “One Month, 500,000 Face Scans: How China Is Using A.I. to Profile a Minority,” The New York Times (2019).
See also the transcript of the MIT-Harvard Conference on the Uyghur Human Rights Crisis (2019).
For an ethnography of the systematic normalization of state-sponsored violence against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities, see Darren Byler, “Violent Paternalism: On the Banality of Uyghur Unfreedom,” The Asia-Pacific Journal (2018).
The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing is named after Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder and CEO of private equity firm Blackstone. Schwarzman is a close ally of Donald Trump.
Blackstone owns two Brazilian firms that are “significantly responsible for the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest.” “A Top Financier of Trump and McConnell Is a Driving Force Behind Amazon Deforestation,” The Intercept (2019).
Blackstone, one world’s largest corporate residential landlords, is significantly responsible for fueling the global housing crisis. UN officials have “singled out Blackstone’s business practices – which they claim include massively inflating rents and imposing an array of heavy fees and charges for ordinary repairs – as having ‘devastating consequences’ for many tenants in countries around the world.” “UN accuses Blackstone Group of contributing to global housing crisis,” The Guardian (2019).
The MIT Energy Initiative is funded by many firms with fossil fuel interests, including BP, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, Shell, Chevron, Schlumberger, Statoil, and Total.
Fossil Free MIT has demanded that MIT freeze new investment in fossil fuel companies and divest from current holdings. Divestment is crucial and much more consequential than other “campus sustainability” efforts. Fossil Free MIT estimates that “the MIT endowment supports about 40 times more CO2-extraction than all of the MIT campus emitted in 2012.”
Some issues concerning US universities more generally.
For a political-economic analysis of the privatization of US universities, see Christopher Newfield, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (JHU Press, 2016). The chapter “Subsidizing Outside Sponsors” includes an analysis of the multiple effects of sponsored research. A brief excerpt is below:
Privatization thus delivers six separate blows to research. Business has steadily shrunk its commitment to basic research, requiring universities to pick up the slack. Business has generally not supported increases in either the share of existing public R&D funding going to universities (which would reduce business’s share) or tax increases that would expand the overall public R&D pie. (Some high-tech companies that depend heavily on R&D, like Apple, are leading tax avoiders.) Third, business has not increased its funding of academic R&D as a share of either the academic budget or its own, requiring universities to compete for shrinking public R&D funds. Next, when business does send money the university’s way, it systematically underfunds indirect costs. It forces universities to spend more institutional funds covering research losses rather than helping to reduce these university losses. Outside sponsors in effect force students and taxpayers to cross-subsidize their research, and many of these students are in SASH [arts, humanities, and qualitative social sciences] fields that lack research funding in the first place. Finally, privatization erodes the nonsponsored research that is of particular social and cultural relevance.
The same chapter (“Subsidizing Outside Sponsors” in Newfield, The Great Mistake) also includes an analysis of the limits and effects of philanthropy. A brief excerpt is below:
The main exception to the blind eye turned toward philanthropy’s drawbacks has been the specific gifts that threaten academic freedom. These occur when donors seek to buy direct influence over academic content by endowing programs or professorships. A classic example has been the Charles Koch Foundation’s funding of academic programs, including the Program for the Study of Political Economy and Free Enterprise at Florida State University. A faculty committee that examined the gift memorandum found that “this issue is not about the study of free-market economics. It is about outside control and undue influence over the academic endeavors of the FSU Economics department and about abatement of faculty control over the curriculum of the Economics department.” Such outside control included Koch Foundation influence over the selection of teaching personnel, student fellows, curricula, and other matters. This type of direct donor intervention is important, since it involves individuals or foundations trying to use their wealth to change faculty research and teaching. But there has been a fair amount of mainstream press coverage of direction intervention, and I will sidestep it here.
Donors may also seek to control an institution indirectly. This is a routine part of gift structuring: focusing on developing one discipline or unit on a campus rather than all the others. Philanthropy is not the general provision of basic research, with questions and directions defined by a diverse body of researchers, but is targeted at issues and applications of interest to donors. Some policy analysts are increasingly concerned that a few disciplines receive much more funding than others—biomedical research as opposed to researching how to achieve equitable voting mechanisms in multiracial societies. In addition, donors may “pick winners” among goals and methodologies, with the experts in question forced to follow the money and operate, at least in project selection, as hired hands.
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