Mistake of Judgement

Recent events involving MIT and its relationship to certain individuals, institutions and even nation-states, have brought attention to the ethical challenges of accepting largesse from the wealthy and powerful. Last year, many MIT community members were deeply troubled, and continue to be so, by MIT’s partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a nation with a dismal human rights record and one that is currently creating a humanitarian disaster in Yemen; students founded MIT Students Against War and protested a visit by Henry Kissinger and are expressing their concern regarding the use of AI for military purposes; there are myriad questions surrounding the process by which ethical standards will be established for the new Schwarzman College of Computing; most recently, the Media Lab has been embroiled in controversy over the acceptance of funding from Jeffrey Epstein, so much that President Reif felt compelled to send an extensive email to the MIT community, apologizing for this “mistake of judgement”. This controversy has continued to plague the Media Lab and the director of the Lab has resigned, following a extensive report in the New Yorker published on September 6. 

All large institutions experience controversy and strife at one time or another. These institutions must face the unintended consequences of misguided decisions. With these controversies comes a choice: Maintain the status quo or take courageous steps to examine our actions, our choices, our ethical and moral frameworks.

In May, the Museum of Fine Arts faced a firestorm of criticism over the racist treatment of a group of visiting students. Although only a few MFA affiliates were involved, it created a moment of truth for the administrators and board members. One of those board members is David Howse, Executive Director of Arts Emerson and a Vice President of Emerson College. David is also a highly respected public speaker, frequently and eloquently addressing issues of racism. His TEDx talk on navigating race with truth and dignity can be found here.  

During the crisis at the MFA, David encouraged the Museum to hold this moment up as truth and as an opportunity for honest conversation that can lead to change. The following is from a Boston Globe interview:

           “The incident at the MFA was a gift…one that we have to embrace and not try to push away and hide”. Such challenges force institutions to examine themselves and continue to evolve. “For me, it all goes back to our values. What are the shared values that we are agreeing to in these spaces? How do we communicate that? How do we hold ourselves accountable to them?”

Our hope is that MIT will have the courage to face our controversies with openness and to hold ourselves accountable; to spell out exactly what our shared values are and to determine what kind of institution we want to become. 

Radius will offer many opportunities this academic year, creating those spaces where we can come together and have these challenging conversations. A list of our current fall line-up of programs is here. Please join us!