Remarks Delivered to Faculty Meeting
19 December 2007
When I first heard about the Star Simpson incident on CNN, I was in an airport on my way
back to Boston. Fool, idiot, loony-tune, tech terrorist, the passengers around me
muttered. This rush to judgment seemed itself foolish. And then, within minutes, across
the airwaves came MIT's statement calling Star's behavior reckless, preceded by the
unfortunate phrase As reported to us by the authorities. The mood around me turned
uglier; some chimed in repeating the opinion of talking heads on CNN that Star should
thank her lucky stars that the authorities hadn't shot her dead on the spot, the
implication being that they would have been justified in doing so.
Right from the beginning, the public saw Star as reckless in part because MIT had said so.
Take the son of a friend of mine, who had just finished U-Mass-Amherst: Star, he said,
must be reckless as this was MIT's considered judgment. I think I showed him the logical
fallacy here, but realized there was little, if anything, I could do about what the larger
public might conclude.
I was relieved, then, to see MIT students responding quickly, without rehearsal or
preparation, within a day or so. Their letters to the Tech were thoughtful and
impressive, going straight to the heart of the matterconstitutional rights and due
process in the face of a near-hysterical public. These students were not prejudging the
case, nor were they asking MIT to defend Star; they were simply asking MIT to remain
silent and to refrain from characterizing actions under criminal investigation.
I waited several weeks for some kind of public response from faculty, but few came. What
came was a kind of circling-the-wagons by the administration. The administration's
response, several weeks later, was to defend its reaction and choice of wording at the
time as appropriate, stating that it had no regrets and would respond exactly the same way
again if faced with a similar situation.
I felt that the students who had written so passionately, eloquently, and reasonably about
the issue in the Tech deserved better than this. They had raised legitimate points not
only about alternative practical ways to handle such matters, but also about how our
responses can reflect on or even undermine our deepest values as a community. And the
response that came from the administration did not appear to match the students' level of
concern for either due process or community values.
Professor Winston and I then decided to frame the issues for the MIT community as a whole.
To that end, we presented our resolution at the last faculty meeting as new business.
Then, in order to stimulate further reflection and broad debate, we tabled the motion
rather than call for a vote. Since then, our effort to engage further debate at today's
faculty meeting has met with ongoing resistance, along with pressure to drop the matter
and to let sleeping dogs lie. But we feel that faculty voice and governance at MIT are
too essential for us to yield to such pressures. We remain confident that open debate and
discussion, on this and other issues, will make our community stronger.
The purpose of the resolution is to express to the administration a sense of the faculty
in light of a past administrative action. The resolution is an attempt neither to write
nor to make policy. Its wording clearly indicates this, in the use of words like refrain
from and request. The language is deliberately moderate and tempered, in marked
contrast with the heat (but not much light) that prompted us to draft it.
Our motion is about the basic civil right, as derived from constitutional rights, of due
process. And a broader question is: should MIT protect the civil rights of its members
even if its own popular image may be at risk, even if restraint may be required in
responding to inquiries from the press? We think so. The fact is that any MIT statement
about one of its members, especially a student, carries significant weight in the eyes of
the public. The question that the court very likely will be deciding in the Star Simpson
case is precisely whether or not her actions were reckless. MIT's statement that these
actions were indeed reckless may influence or prejudice this decision.
Our resolution, in short, proposes that MIT exercise reasonable sensitivity and
responsibility when it comes to an individual's constitutional protections. I urge you to
vote its acceptance.