Opinion guest column

Vote ‘yes’ on recall, and other thoughts about student advocacy

On David Spicer, shared governance, and the freedom of expression

I am writing this after learning about allegations that David Spicer, the current UA President, was a member of a group of people who recently created and put up posters around campus which contained hateful speech and slurs against multiple marginalized groups, including LGBTQ+ people, ethnic minorities, and women. As a queer, non-binary student, I have seen these posters and felt a kind of hurt I have not felt since coming to MIT. As a student leader, I am furious.

Let’s start by talking about freedom of expression. In November 2022, The Tech published an opinion column by Spicer criticizing the freedom of expression report, a report compiled by the Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression in June. The problem with this column is not solely that David’s argumentation is flimsy, taking some solid ideas and diluting them with poor writing and uncontextualized anecdotes, but that by tossing out such a document with seemingly minimal forethought, he diminishes the credibility of student governance as a whole. Instead of presenting a seasoned response to a report with genuine flaws, he presents half-baked arguments—such as complaints about the report’s length—allowing faculty members to assume that this is the best students can come up with in response. If this was the quality of Spicer’s contribution to the Ad Hoc Working Group, it is no wonder it was unpersuasive.

Indeed, there are problems with the Freedom of Expression report, such as the failure to acknowledge the extent to which “time, place, and manner” restrictions may place different burdens on faculty, staff, and students; or the continued inconsistencies between its theoretical grounding in the First Amendment, which also protects anonymous speech, and current policy. These are problems that the report fails to grapple with deeply, responding to a difficult scenario involving “conflict over student speech” by merely offering the option of more “viewpoint-neutral” restrictions, which seems to contradict the desire for additional free speech (p. 25). And, Spicer’s actions do raise a question of whether these posters go beyond the “freedom from unreasonable and disruptive [conduct]” promised to us by the Mind and Hand Book.

None of these issues will be addressed so long as the person attempting to address them is David Spicer. More generally, the UA will continue to fail as a student advocacy organization so long as it is stuck in a mindset of “politics as point-scoring,” where the correct way to accomplish things is to make a lot of noise about issues which sound like issues we ought to be working on. I get it—saying that you worked on the “freedom of expression” policy at MIT sounds great. But by engaging in vigilantism, rather than putting in the actual legwork of building consensus on the subject with his constituents and the administration, he doomed his mission before it ever took off. In fact, the amount of active harm Spicer has done in the process of trying to accomplish his goal massively outweighs any benefit which could have been gained by students. This was already true before the posters—he has wasted hours “working” on the subject with senior administrators and the UA Council to no avail, time which could’ve been better spent addressing student-centered issues, such as food security or mental health—but it is undeniably true now. This hate speech hurts our communities, and damages the very individuals the UA is meant to serve.

MIT has a strong history of student governance, and it is a tradition I am proud to be a part of. We know that, by working together, students and administrators can design initiatives and make decisions which can benefit both parties. This is the only reason students continue to have a seat at the table—it is because of the hard work of previous student leaders to maintain good relationships with administrators and win positive, feasible change along the way. It has not always been easy. Changes do not happen overnight. But, by working in good faith as collaborators tackling difficult issues, rather than as adversaries fighting for a particular cause, we can make a difference. When it comes, therefore, to leaders who seem to think that their particular issue is the most important one, and are not willing to engage collaboratively and in good faith with people with actual power—who must, sometimes, move slowly—we ought to reject them.

The UA Council has voted to trigger a recall election for David Spicer, and I thank them for their service. I urge him to step down and apologize to the groups he has hurt, but, barring that, I urge my fellow undergraduates to vote ‘yes’ on recalling him when the ballot opens. More importantly, however, I urge the incoming UA leadership to consider this tale a cautionary one; that is, not just a dismissable outlier, but rather a painful and important lesson to take your job seriously, to earn respect from administrators and faculty rather than demand it, and to work with the institution in a manner which directly benefits the undergraduates they represent. This kind of myopia has no place at our school, much less our student government.

Alan Zhu is a fourth-year undergraduate studying Creative Writing and Computer Science. They are the current Vice President of the Dormitory Council (DormCon), and served as the Next House President in 2022. This editorial reflects only their opinion and not the opinion of DormCon, nor of any other organizations they belong to.