The MIT Alumni Association sponsored the “MIT Alumni Association Town Hall on Freedom of Expression and Community” on November 22, 2021. Although this purpose was not stated in the announcement of the town hall, the meeting was held in response to the controversy surrounding the cancellation of a speech by Dr. Dorian Abbot that is profiled elsewhere on the MIT Free Speech Alliance (MFSA) web site. This town hall followed two similar town halls which MIT conducted internally for faculty and staff the previous week. The MIT Alumni Association town hall was advertised lightly to the MIT alumni community. The town hall announcement said that registration was restricted in number “due to breakout room constraints” although it does not appear that any interested alumni were unable to register.
The Town Hall Meetings
The format of the town hall was a large Zoom meeting. There were numerous technical problems in conducting the Zoom meeting and the breakout sessions.
The President of the MIT Alumni Association, Annalisa Weigel, provided opening remarks setting out the MIT Administration view on the Abbot controversy and the purpose of the town hall meeting. Her comments merely reprised the Administration position justifying Dr. Abbot’s disinvitation. The Provost, Martin Schmidt, then made some brief remarks. (The next day MIT announced that Dr. Schmidt would be leaving MIT to take over as President of Rensellaer Polytechnic, replacing current RPI President Shirley Jackson—who is currently Chair of the MIT Corporation’s Governance and Nominations Committee.) They announced that the comments made in the town halls would be transcribed, anonymized and provided as input to the MIT ad hoc working group that is preparing a statement of values for MIT.
Next, as previously advertised, the large meeting was broken up into several smaller, more manageable working sessions with five to seven alumni in each, in an attempt to allow each participant to express their thoughts. A facilitator from the MIT Administration conducted each working session. The facilitator attempted to steer the discussion around five questions the Administration had provided, but which had not been publicized in advance. The five questions were:
As alumni, are you concerned about matters of free expression at MIT? If so, why?
Are there conditions or issues on campus or in the larger world that you believe are affecting how MIT handles free expression issues? If so, what conditions or issues?
In your mind, are there any limits to MIT's obligation to protect freedom of expression on campus? If yes, what are those? (On clarification, this could be restated to mean “What are the values that MIT should also hold that are reasons for limiting free expression?)
Many students, faculty, and alumni do not see the recent Carlson Lecture situation as primarily being about free expression. What values do you think are inspiring this thinking?
What might be some guidelines you would recommend to help ensure that freedom of expression remains a fundamental value at MIT?
There were over 70 attendees in the midday town hall, approximately 50 being actual MIT alumni and the rest MIT staff. MFSA members signed up and attended the town hall meetings in force and were widely represented across both breakout sessions. It appears that almost all the alumni who attended the breakout sessions did speak. With varying degrees of success in each breakout session, the facilitator tried to get the alumni attendees to speak to the five specific questions. At the conclusion of the breakout sessions, the large general Zoom meeting was reconvened. The CEO of the MIT Alumni Association, Whitney Espich, briefly thanked us for our participation and concluded the meeting.
Annalisa Weigel opened the meeting with the justification for MIT disinviting Dr. Abbot from his scheduled speech at the Carlson Lecture. The rationalization were: 1) that it was an off campus venue, and so less of an official MIT event, 2) that it was partially intended as a means of outreach to disadvantaged and minority students to interest them in STEM studies but a speech by Dr. Abbot would detract from that (as if Dr. Abbot’s Newsweek op-ed was widely read among high school students), and 3) that Dr. Abbot had been reinvited to give his presentation at another MIT venue at a later date (albeit one that had far less prestige and visibility than the Carlson Lecture). At no point did Ms. Weigel acknowledge that Dr. Abbot had been originally invited to present on an academic topic and that his presentation was only cancelled after Newsweek later published an op-ed by Dr. Abbot on a subject far removed from the astronomy topic of his Carlson Lecture.
Ms. Weigel’s opening comments came off as condescending and offensive, given the audience and the situation. The obvious concerns about Dr. Abbot’s cancellation and its broader implications for free speech at MIT were brushed off as being based on our misunderstanding and having incomplete information. As the breakout sessions showed, the attendees were very well informed about this incident and were genuinely and appropriately concerned. Apparently MIT (and the MIT Alumni Association) could not understand how intelligent people could be fully informed about the Abbot incident and still be critical of the Administration. That possibility was never acknowledged or given credence.
The Administration appears to have been very concerned about the town hall breakouts turning into acrimonious shouting matches. There were multiple anonymous facilitators attending each breakout (about 30% of people in each breakout in the midday session, slightly more in the evening). In the opening comments we were enjoined to remain respectful and courteous in our discussions. Unsurprisingly, all of the participating MIT alumni remained respectful throughout, even when there were disagreements, and everyone was given time to express their viewpoints on the general issue of free speech at MIT and on the specific topic questions.
Most of the alumni who attended expressed concerns about the cancellation of Dr. Abbot’s lecture. Alumni were concerned to see MIT suppressing academic expression in any form, and particularly the cancellation of an academic speaker in reaction to opposition on social media. Given that these town halls were held specifically to solicit alumni comments about free expression at MIT, it is to be expected that primarily alumni with concerns attended.
On the other hand, support for free speech at MIT was neither unanimous nor unrestricted among the alumni participants.
The town halls were positioned as forums to gather viewpoints from the alumni community on freedom of expression at MIT, but they felt like an exercise in message management and how to fine tune that message.
Even though this was billed as a town hall of the MIT Alumni Association, this was run by the MIT Administration. They provided the talking points, they dictated the format, they provided the workshop topic questions, and they provided facilitators and observers for the breakout sessions.
There was no discussion of the internal “investigation” that the Administration has announced that it is conducting to document the events surrounding Dr. Abbot’s cancellation. They did say that they are separately forming an ad hoc group to compose a statement of shared values and community for MIT to formally adopt in the future.