Letter to Members from MFSA President Wayne Stargardt

Letter to Members from MFSA President Wayne Stargardt

To read a version of this letter in PDF format, click here.

January 19, 2024

To Members of the MIT Free Speech Alliance:

This past year was been a busy and productive one for the MIT Free Speech Alliance and for our cause of improving support for free speech, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom at MIT. Before I turn to reviewing our 2023 successes and our plans for the next year, however, it seems important to discuss the free speech challenges that have been gripping MIT and other universities over the past several months.

The war between Israel and Hamas that started on October 7 has gripped the campus more strongly than any issue since the killing of George Floyd in 2020. But this time, there are significant segments of the MIT community supporting each side in the conflict.

At MIT these events have crystalized a wide range of debates regarding freedom of expression and viewpoint diversity. Administrators, faculty, and students have tested the boundaries of MIT’s new Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom. The issues that have arisen, explicitly or implicitly, include the definitions of protected and unprotected speech, the specific distinction between speech and actions, the rationale for reasonable time, place, and manner regulations on speech, and even what is the essential nature and purpose of a university.

The Institute has also had to wrestle with defining and imposing penalties for violating its policies. Belatedly, the Institute also began to recognize the rationale and value of adopting a policy of institutional neutrality about non-Institute issues.

Despite having a new President and a new free speech policy, MIT’s prior history of speech suppression and cancel culture meant that it was not fully prepared to deal with the range and magnitude of issues that the conflict in the Middle East brought to campus. Regardless of whether MIT provides its own public assessment of its free speech performance over this episode, MFSA will publish our own analysis of where MIT did well, and where it fell down.

This conflict has also tested our own convictions and mission. Most of us in the MFSA leadership have strong passions about what is happening in Israel and Gaza. Our members do as well, and they have let us know it. We appreciate their doing so, and thank them for being so forthcoming. We have all been challenged to reconcile our own broader values with the focused mission of free speech advocacy for which this organization was created. This has been especially difficult when some of the hateful speech being spoken on campus is vile and odious – and for some of us, personal.

This most demanding moment highlights the importance of free speech at MIT. This time of institutional stress and reflection also gives us a unique opportunity to effect lasting change. As at other universities, the depth of MIT’s hypocrisy over freedom of expression has been revealed. The consequences of the Institute’s history of ideological bias have become obvious, perhaps even to the practitioners. That bias gave rise to the administration’s inconsistency in supporting or suppressing particular viewpoints. This history eroded its credibility on free expression at a moment when principled leadership is most needed. And current events have exposed the folly of letting the Institute’s principles and policies be dictated by students’ emotions and an illiberal minority of the faculty.

Of the three university presidents to testify in the U.S. House of Representatives in December, MIT President Sally Kornbluth is the only one who remains in her position. The stakes for her tenure are high and, while MIT has made improvements on free expression in her first year, recent events have made clear that more change is needed. Just as we have done since our inception, MFSA plans to influence the direction of those changes.

Review of 2023

Let’s review some of the more salient accomplishments of the MIT Free Speech Alliance over the past year.


  • MIT adopted its new statement supporting free speech
    While this policy was mainly defined by a brave and principled segment of the faculty, MFSA did contribute to the deliberations of the Ad Hoc Working Group. The resulting Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom largely mirrored our recommendations.

  • We co-sponsored our first two campus debates on contentious issues
    Debates at MIT are our first step to both expand the Overton window of topics that can be discussed on campus and to model how to engage in civil discourse over disagreements. Our first debate covered Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives in higher education, the topic over which Professor Dorian Abbot had been cancelled just a year and a half earlier. Our second debate addressed systemic racism in STEM, another issue whose existence is frequently asserted without being held open to discussion.

  • We held our first annual conference
    At our first conference, held in Cambridge, we brought together a wide range of perspectives on how to build a more open culture and improve support for freedom of expression at MIT. Along with the viewpoints of MIT faculty and students, we also heard perspectives from faculty, alumni and students from other campuses. Professor Glenn Lowry of Brown University, who earned his doctorate from MIT’s famed economics department, gave a powerful and candid keynote address, followed by a lively discussion with attendees.

  • We continued All-Hands meetings with guest presenters
    Since our beginnings we have held quarterly video conference meetings with our members which include guest speakers discussing various issues concerning free speech. We continued these informative meetings throughout 2023, and our guest speakers included MIT President Sally Kornbluth and John Tomasi, President of Heterodox Academy. We look forward to continuing these meetings in 2024, beginning on February 1, when we will be joined by FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff.

  • We increased our engagement with students
    Besides continuing to work with the Adam Smith Society, which has co-sponsored our debates on campus, we have been working hard to develop a broader set of relationships with students. We have watched with interest the formation of the MIT Students for Open Inquiry, who are also working to expand the Overton window at MIT. We are also extending those relationships by working through the campus activities of the Heterodox Academy and MIT’s homegrown Concourse program.

  • We attracted over 1,100 members
    By the end of 2023, we had over 1,100 registered members, including not only MIT graduates, but also MIT faculty and students. Representatives of other university free speech organizations and free expression-supporting members of the public have always been welcome members.

  • We launched a new website
    Among our most arduous undertakings of 2023, we launched a new website that includes a wealth of information about the state of freedom of expression at MIT. The website makes public the single largest collection of information on the Abbot Cancellation as well as other information on free speech issues and events at MIT. Through our new website as well as our new YouTube channel, members have access to the video recordings of our on-campus debates, our 2023 conference sessions, and our previous quarterly All Hands meetings. The website includes forums for members to dialog about free speech issues at MIT as well as other topics of interest.

  • We increased our visibility and communication
    New volunteers have expanded our presence on social media and have helped publicize our MIT free speech advocacy to a broader audience. We have increased our communication about free speech issues at MIT through both direct and open letters about campus controversies, including the spring 2023 postering controversy and the campus protests prompted by the Israel-Hamas conflict last fall. Our media profile increased as well, with MFSA leaders quoted in a variety of publications including most recently in The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.

Plans for 2024
In the coming year we plan to build on last year’s successes in restoring a more open culture at MIT. The world outside of MIT appears to be adding a tailwind to our crusade. So we expect even more progress. Here are some of our planned initiatives for 2024, which we’re already working on.
  • Sponsor more debates on campus
    Our debates have been successful at modeling how to have a civil disagreement over a contentious topic. Because we are selecting topics to expand the Overton window of allowable opinions, and inviting highly qualified participants, our debates also attract attention outside of MIT. We will continue to hold more debates on subjects that apply to science and the Institute.
  • Hold our second annual conference
    Our first conference was a stimulating and informative dialogue around ways to improve the culture for open inquiry and discourse at MIT. We will continue the dialog at another conference this year, with increased emphasis on involving the MIT faculty in the discussion. Additionally, we plan to hold this year’s conference on the eve of MIT’s Alumni Leadership Conference to make attendance more convenient.
  • Engage with the MIT Committee for Academic Freedom and Campus Expression (CAFCE)
    President Kornbluth recently upgraded this new faculty group from a subcommittee to a fully-fledged Committee. They are chartered to focus in the short term on defining policies to protect freedom of expression and community member rights, and the repercussions for violating those. Their longer focus will be on changes that MIT can make to foster a more open and respectful campus. We are documenting several recommendations for these goals, and we will work with the Committee to have them included in their agenda.
  • Advocate for specific changes to foster freedom of expression
    Even without waiting for CAFCE, we have identified three specific initiatives that are needed immediately to restore the culture of freedom of expression, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom at MIT. We will advocate with MIT for these high impact measures:
    • Highlight freedom of expression in first year orientation
      Too many students come to MIT with poor preparation for engaging in open discourse, tolerating other viewpoints, and conducting in respectful disagreement.
    • Stop requiring DEI compliance statements
      DEI statements for admission, hiring and promotion are simply compelled speech. They are a violation of the spirit of the Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom, and they violate the logic of last summer’s SCOTUS ruling.
    • Stop administrative policing of protected speech
      MIT’s IDHR Office and Bias Response Team are set up to accept and investigate complaints about biased, disrespectful, and disagreeable speech, not just actions of harassment and discrimination. This function is a violation of the Statement on Freedom of Expression and needs to be stopped.
  • Foster collaborations with like-minded members of the MIT community
    As I’ve already noted, we’ve followed with interest the formation of the MIT Students for Open Inquiry, but there are other promising efforts underway at MIT as well. Most promisingly, a new, faculty-led civil discourse initiative is working to bring heterodox perspectives to MIT and foster constructive dialogue in the student community. We’re happy to support and promote such initiatives coming from within the MIT community, and to network our efforts where possible.
  • Continue to advocate for freedom of expression at MIT
    In addition to these initiatives, we will continue to monitor the state of free speech at MIT and to advocate to restore a culture of open, vigorous and respectful discourse. We will reach out to all the MIT community with this message – faculty, students, staff and administrators. We will continue to highlight any speech suppression to you, our members, as well as to the general press.
  • Support campus programming through our Concerned Donors Fund
    The Concerned Donors Fund, an externally managed donor-advised fund, was created specifically as a vehicle to support free expression-centered initiatives in the MIT community. MIT students and faculty will be invited to propose projects or events to receive grants from the Concerned Donors Fund. We expect to make our first grants this year.
  • Grow our alumni membership
    Despite national news about the recent conflicts between Israeli and Palestinians on the MIT campus, most alumni are still not aware of the extent to which cancel culture has infected the MIT campus and the suppressive effect it is having on personal expression. With the help of our members, we will reach out to non-member alumni to educate them about this situation and solicit their support for restoring free speech, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom on campus.
A final word on our year-end fundraising: Thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of our members, we far exceeded our $25,000 fundraising goal set in December, raising $43,343 before year’s end. With the $25,000 matching grant contributed by MIT alumnus Neil Webber, our members have given MFSA more than $68,000 in a matter of weeks. Thank you from all of us at MFSA for stepping up and helping make our continued work possible. We’re not resting on our laurels, though. We’ve set a more ambitious agenda for 2024, and we’ll need the support of our members to match it. Your gift at this pivotal moment – both for our organization and for free speech at MIT – will go a long way.

If you’re looking for other ways to give, you can also consider giving your time. We still rely significantly on the help and expertise of our volunteers, and are always looking to get more of our members involved. Several of our planned programs for the coming year, such as a first year orientation initiative, require more bandwidth than our current volunteers can provide. There’s more than one way you can help us make a difference at MIT in 2024, and we look forward to working with you.


Wayne Stargardt ‘74
MIT Free Speech Alliance