Opinion open letter

A response to President Kornbluth’s letter to the alumni community

Dear President Kornbluth,

Thank you for your letter to the MIT-wide alumni community explaining your decision to remove the encampment on Kresge Lawn [1]. You did not name the encampment group, but it is Scientists Against Genocide Encampment @MIT (SAGE@MIT).  Your letter said that you had exhausted dialogue with the encampment group, and you explained that "[r]eaching a solution hinged on our ability to meet the students’ primary demand, which we could not do in a well-principled way that respected the academic freedom of our faculty.” Your letter never tells us (the MIT alumni community) what that primary demand was, let alone why it is in conflict with academic freedom. It is important that you address these issues, otherwise your communication leaves the wider alumni community in the dark on just what the dispute was, and why academic freedom was at stake. The failure to address these issues also leaves open the possibility that you have acted improperly in resorting to force to remove the encampment.

We searched to find out what the primary demand of the SAGE@MIT group was. We found statements on their web site and in the opinion article in The Tech by 'MIT Graduate Students for Palestine' that both indicate that the primary demand is to cease all research collaboration with the Israeli military [2]. Please communicate that to the community and explain why it is in conflict with academic freedom, since this is not at all obvious to us. Academic freedom (seemingly defined here as the ability to take whatever funding one chooses) does not trump all human rights concerns, and MIT has a long history of rejecting research on weapons when this has been deemed immoral. In a more recent example of research funding being curtailed for moral reasons, the MIT community and our previous President Reif, expressed their views clearly that MIT should not take funding from the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein [3].

MIT's Suri report on guidelines for outside engagements identifies critical issues that would lead to rejection of a gift or engagement with MIT, which includes violation of human rights and the laws of war [4]. The examples of these violations identified in the report includes "genocide, slavery and slave trading, murder, enforced disappearances, torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged arbitrary detention, deportation or forcible transfer of population, and systematic racial discrimination fall into this category. Deliberate and systematic deprivation of essential foodstuffs, essential primary health care, or basic shelter and housing may also amount to gross violations of human rights". The Israeli military has committed, and is manifestly in the process of committing, a number of the violations listed here, as documented by the UN Human Rights Council [5], Amnesty International [6], and international relief agencies [7]. 

MIT's support for the Israeli military makes it complicit in their actions in Gaza. The International Court of Justice ruling that Israel's actions in Gaza plausibly constitute genocide may make you and your board criminally culpable [8]. 

(Editor’s note: rulings made by the International Court of Justice do not result in criminal convictions; the court also does not have the jurisdiction to enforce its own rulings.)

Whether or not you are found to be legally complicit, the moral burden falls on MIT and the MIT community. The Israeli military is conducting a systematic destruction of Gazan people and culture, has detonated their universities, blown up their schools and hospitals, destroyed their crops, cut off water supplies, dismantled the entire health support system, heavily restricted or attacked aid supplies, and killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians, many of them children. Yet in your letter to our community, you seem to be seriously out of touch with this reality. 

You say that "[o]ur community includes people who lost friends and family to the brutal terror attack of October 7, and people with friends and family currently in mortal danger in Rafah" [1]. On the one hand, you accurately describe the brutal terror attack by Hamas as a "brutal terror attack," such that your condemnation of Hamas' actions is clear. On the other hand, Gazans are just "in mortal danger" from some unspecified source. You do not describe the far more brutal attack on Gazans as 'terror'; you simply say that Gazans are in "danger" and make no mention of the tens of thousands already dead and the complete destruction of their homes, infrastructure, and society, and you do not implicate the Israeli military as the agent of this destruction. This characterization is deeply insulting to the victims and community. Why did you not ascribe any agency to the Israeli military here and why did you not mention in your letter to us that the encampment demonstrators’ primary concern was MIT's research collaborations with the Israeli military?

Your letter to the MIT community lacks critical context that seems designed to frame your case to us as if you had no choice. Those omissions raise concerns for us of the actions you have taken, the failure to communicate openly with the alumni community about the reasons for those actions, and of the ongoing impact of your actions on the demonstrators and the MIT community. 

After you sent your letter to the MIT community, your administration provided an online FAQ on campus events [9]. Crucially, that FAQ was not broadcast to the wider alumni community that your letter addressed, and the vast majority of external alumni almost certainly don’t know about it. The chancellor’s FAQ purports to justify why your administration could not possibly end MIT's research support for the Israeli military without violating academic freedom. Your argument is essentially that the research is for grants with individual PIs (not the Institute more broadly) [9], that the two remaining grants are compliant with US law, that the grants are small (about $4 million by your estimates) [9], and that termination of them would breach the academic freedom of the PIs. None of these issues are identified in the Suri report as factors that would overcome the need to be compliant with the guidelines in that report. 

Clear guidance on the relationship between academic freedom and MIT principles was provided by former President Reif in his letter to the MIT community regarding the $800,000 received from convicted sex offender Epstein by the MIT Media Lab and MIT Professor Seth Lloyd [10]. Reif explained: "MIT offers faculty great freedom in conducting and building support for their research; that freedom is and always will be a precious value of our community. Yet it is important to understand that faculty are not “on their own”; their decisions about gifts are always subject to longstanding Institute processes and principles" [10].

In other words, individual faculty (PIs) do not have academic immunity to take money wherever they can get it if it violates MIT principles. Imagine if President Reif had said instead about Epstein's funding to MIT: "well, it's not much money, it was legally given, and we couldn't possibly violate the freedom of those individual faculty who want to take it." Of course, he didn't say that because it would sound grotesque and it would be a betrayal of all our principles. The MIT community deserves better from you and your administration, and we call on you to reference and follow the Institute's own guidelines and principles on engagements with MIT.

In the Epstein case, President Reif regrets that MIT "did not have sufficient policies and procedures in place" to guide senior administrators, and he wished these administrators "had taken to heart the concerns others brought to them and simply put a stop to the Epstein funding" [11]. President Kornbluth, MIT now has those policies in place, and the concerns of your students, faculty, staff, and alumni have been conveyed to you to stop MIT research contributing to the Israeli military's destruction of Gaza and its people.


James Risbey Course 12 PhD 1994

Ali Ishtiaque Course 6 Class B.S. 1982

[1] Kornbluth, S. (2024, May 10). Actions this morning. MIT Office of the President. https://president.mit.edu/writing-speeches/actions-morning 

[2] MIT Graduate Students for Palestine. (2024, May 10). No More MIT research for Israel’s Ministry of Defense. The Tech. https://thetech.com/2024/05/10/no-research-for-israeli-defense

[3] Bradt, S. (2020, January 10). MIT releases results of fact-finding on engagements with Jeffrey Epstein. MIT News Office. https://news.mit.edu/2020/mit-releases-results-fact-finding-report-jeffrey-epstein-0110

[4] Suri, T. (2020, December 15). Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Guidelines for Outside Engagements. MIT. https://facultygovernance.mit.edu/sites/default/files/reports/2020-12_Final_Report_of_the_Ad_Hoc_Faculty_Committee_on_Guidelines_for_Outside_Engagements.pdf

[5] (2024, May 27). Gaza: UN officials condemn Israeli airstrikes on camp for displaced. United Nations. https://news.un.org/en/story/2024/05/1150261

[6] (2024, May 27). Israeli air strikes that killed 44 civilians further evidence of war crimes – new investigation. Amnesty International. https://www.amnestyusa.org/press-releases/israeli-air-strikes-that-killed-44-civilians-further-evidence-of-war-crimes-new-investigation/ 

[7] Donate, G. How far can we travel with aid on our shoulders? A warning on Gaza from a humanitarian worker. Save the Children. https://www.savethechildren.org/us/charity-stories/gaza-humanitarian-worker-story 

[8] Borrell, J. (2024, May 26). On the International Court of Justice ruling regarding Gaza. European Union External Action. https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/international-court-justice-ruling-regarding-gaza_en

[9] (2024, May 14). FAQ: Campus Events in Challenging Times. MIT Office of the Chancellor.  https://chancellor.mit.edu/faq-campus-events

[10] Reif, L.R. (2019, August 22). Jeffrey Epstein and MIT. MIT. https://reif.mit.edu/speeches-writing/jeffrey-epstein-and-mit

[11]  Reif, L.R. (2020, January 10).  Learning from the facts and taking action.