Opinion open letter

A letter to the MIT community on accepting donations

In the face of complex decisions, we must keep our values in mind

To the MIT community,

It is difficult to know what to do. The senior leadership team must have found it difficult to balance the pros and cons of taking money from Epstein, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and other bad actors. They must have struggled with comparing tangible benefits with intangible costs, with deciding where to draw the line, and with the choice to cross over that line without appearing to do so. I’m heartbroken that the senior team apparently spent more time discussing concerns about Epstein’s reputation than about MIT’s, when they took the drastic step of accepting money from a disqualified donor.

How many other times has this happened? Who are the other disqualified donors? Was money taken from them? Has the leadership team consulted with community members outside their privileged circle, including sexual assault victims, to understand the impact of their decisions? What happened to those people who expressed concerns?

The new College of Computing has adopted a mission statement calling it to address the social and ethical aspects of computing. That is putting the cart before the horse. We need to address the social and ethical aspects of leadership. We want our students to take ethics classes, but what about our leaders? How many of our senior team understood that taking dirty money to do clean work means destroying the community’s trust? What do excellence, integrity, meritocracy, boldness, and humility mean now? Whose responsibility is it to make the world a better place?

To my friends who want to focus on the positive — for everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose. I don’t feel ready to focus entirely on the positive, and I am not alone. Listen to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that the greatest stumbling block for African Americans is not the Ku Klux Klanner, “but the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

It is difficult to know what to do. But it is not difficult to know when one’s personal values, and a community’s stated values, have been violated.

Edmund Bertschinger
Professor, Department of Physics
Faculty Affiliate, Program in Women’s and Gender Studies