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Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Guidelines for Outside Engagements holds forum – The Tech


Individuals and organizations tools will evaluate engagements using ‘red lines’ and ‘yellow areas’

Professor Rick Danheiser, chair of faculty, hosted a public forum May 21 to discuss the progress of the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Guidelines for Outside Engagements. An interim report will be released mid-June to allow time for open feedback before the report is finalized mid-July. The forum was attended by approximately 350 people.

The committee, chaired by Professor Tavneet Suri, was created October 2019 in response to staff and student reaction to MIT’s acceptance of donations from Jeffrey Epstein. The committee’s goal is to define “values and principles, consistent with MIT’s mission, to guide the assessment of outside engagements,” according to its charge.

Suri presented core values for outside engagements at the forum. According to the presentation slides, the core values include transparency; being worthy of a good reputation; honesty and integrity; respect for community members and human rights; “promoting diversity, inclusion and equity”; “pursuing and advancing knowledge with scientific integrity”; “educat[ing] and foster[ing] the advancement” of all community members; excellence; working toward a “better world” through engagements, teaching, and research; and “academic freedom and autonomy.”

Suri said that the committee has developed two tools to determine whether an outside engagement upholds these core values. One tool will deal with engagements with individuals while the other will deal with organizations. Each tool will use two sets of guidelines: “red lines” and “yellow areas.”

According to the slides, engagements that violate red line principles cannot proceed. Yellow areas are less particular guidelines that, if violated, will result in the engagement going to deliberation in a standing committee. Engagements that fail red lines may be appealed for discussion in the standing committee. 

MIT will then receive a “green light” to engage with an individual or organization after it either passes both the red line and yellow area tests or receives the approval of the standing committee.

The slides wrote that the individuals tool’s red lines include violations of U.S. national security; “flagrant violations of political, civil, or human rights”; “restricting the academic freedom or autonomy” of the MIT community; committing a felony “without mitigating circumstances”; and intent to “use MIT to promote dogma or a political agenda.” The individuals tool’s yellow areas address Institute core values, MIT’s reputation, willingness of MIT representatives to be transparent about the engagement, and correspondence with MIT’s mission.

The organizations tool is more complex because it applies to both the engagement itself and the “institutional partner,” Suri said.

The slides wrote that an institutional partner represents “the broader leadership of the organization.” If the organization is a country, the institutional partner “is not necessarily the government as a whole but the specific ministry/minister or department” that MIT is engaging with.

The red lines and yellow area guidelines are not distinguished by the “importance of issues” but by “how easy or hard it is to draw bright lines,” the slides wrote. Additionally, the slides wrote that the committee recommends “precedents and case law” be developed “through [an] archive of tools and corresponding decisions.”

Suri then led a Q&A, joined by faculty committee members Robert Desimone, Amy Glasmeier, Daniel Hastings PhD ’80, and Daron Acemoglu.

When asked about how a violation of U.S. national security would be defined, Desimone said that precedents matter and the process committee will evaluate the engagement and define a case law.

When asked about the consideration of mitigating circumstances for a felony, Suri said the issue will go to the standing committee for deliberation. Glasmeier added that this question will be addressed with greater precision as time goes on.

Hastings said that mitigating circumstances are considered because someone may have changed in a “fundamental way,” or what constitutes a crime in one country may differ from in the U.S.

When asked about how MIT will evaluate engagements involving team travel to countries that limit women’s rights, Acemoglu said that the institutional partner definition must be used “judiciously” to protect both the MIT community and institutional partner team members.

When asked whether the monetary amount of an engagement would affect decisions, Desimone said that it was “widely felt” that MIT should not have different principles for larger sums of money.

Suri said that the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Guidelines for Outside Engagements is a “principles committee,” distinct from a “process committee” like the Ad Hoc Committee to Review MIT Gift Processes.

Suri said that normally, one goes from defining principles to implementing processes, but due to timing, the principles and process committees had to be formed simultaneously. However, the overlap in members on  the committees would allow a “smooth transition” from principles to processes, Suri said.

When asked whether previous donations will be reassessed under the new guidelines, Desimone said that the principles committee is “forward-looking” and did not consider previous donors, though the process committee could evaluate donations retroactively.

When asked about the transparency behind standing committee deliberations, Desimone said that the principles would be transparent but there was no determination as to whether or not the deliberations’ outcomes would be published.

Desimone said that the committee would decide whether to accept anonymous gifts based on whether it would be comfortable publicly defending the gift if it were not anonymous.

When asked about MIT community participation in deliberations, Glasmeier said that the process committee will formulate practices that allow avenues of communication between the MIT community and the standing committee.

Professor Yossi Sheffi PhD ’78 raised concerns that the engagement approval process might take so long that potential deals could be lost by the time a decision is made. 

Desimone responded that the committee hopes that with clear case law, the majority of cases can be resolved quickly. Hastings added that the committee can re-evaluate if the process is too slow. The committee has studied test cases and has a “pretty good idea” of how much information is required to reach a decision, Glasmeier said.

The committee gathered community feedback in the fall from emails, 12 sets of office hours, 15 campus conversations, and 17 white papers, Suri said. 

Individuals with additional feedback can email Suri at tavneet@mit.edu.

Áron Ricardo Perez-Lopez contributed reporting.



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