Wayne Stargardt, a graduate of the school and the president of the MIT Free Speech Alliance, which formed when faculty and others became alarmed that the school was losing its culture of open and freewheeling discourse, said Kornbluth has taken steps over the past year to support freedom of speech. “She was walking the walk” long before her congressional testimony, he said. And that was key to how people at MIT responded to the hearing, he said.
The controversy stirred backlash from alumni, some of whom created a nonprofit group, the MIT Free Speech Alliance, to push for protections of free expression at the institute. Wayne Stargardt, president of the alliance, said the fallout from the congressional hearing with the college presidents could force a broader reckoning, as university leaders are forced to think hard about the definition of free speech.
Kornbluth took the helm at MIT in January. In February, she endorsed the faculty-approved MIT Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom, which Stargardt said was a “a strong positive first step.” “She inherited an environment that had created a fair amount of self-censorship on campus,” Stargardt said. “She’s trying to get her arms around why that is and what she can do in a political sense.”
Edward Schiappa, a humanities professor at MIT, wrote in an email that he thought Kornbluth acquitted herself well at the hearing. He rejected what he called Stefanik’s implication that some thoughts are too awful to be stated. “No one doubts that a public speaker has the right to say stupid, hurtful, and even hateful things,” wrote Schiappa, who was a member of the group that helped write MIT’s free speech statement. “Equally, no one doubts that a student screaming the same things to a fellow student in a dorm is engaging in unacceptable (and punishable)harassment. The difference is context.”
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Eric Rasmusen, an MIT alumnus and a retired professor of business economics and public policy at Indiana University, praised Kornbluth, pointing to testimony she gave at the hearing that signaled support for free speech rights.
“She just started a year ago. She has said she supports free speech, and we should give her the benefit of the doubt,” Rasmusen said in an email.
Wayne Stargardt, another MIT alum who serves as president of the MIT Free Speech Alliance, supported Kornbluth’s answer to Stefanik because she was defending free speech rights.
“I think it was a proper response,” Stargardt said. “The proper response for a university is that pure speech, of any type, as long as it’s within the protections of the First Amendment, should be allowed.”