So far, no major consequences for MIT president after controversial testimony


As the boards of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania weighed the fate of their presidents in tense closed-door meetings this month, the board of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology quickly issued a statement of unequivocal support for its president, Sally Kornbluth.

MIT academic leaders, department heads, and deans soon followed with their own endorsement of Dr. Kornbluth, who along with the presidents of Harvard and Penn gave evasive and legalistic responses at a Congressional hearing on anti-Semitism on campus. Donors did not flock to social media to demand its removal; Many students, busy with exams, paid little attention to the spectacle.

Dr. Kornbluth, who arrived at MIT less than a year ago, did not appear to face any serious threats to her leadership, even though her testimony at last week's hearing drew the same harsh criticism as that of the other two presidents. , Claudine Gay of Harvard. and Elizabeth Magill of Penn. The three leaders were criticized for how they responded to questions about whether they would discipline students who called for the genocide of Jews and for placing great emphasis on protecting free speech.

Magill resigned on Saturday. Dr. Gay kept her job, but only after Harvard's board of trustees spent many hours discussing the situation.

Although the fallout at MIT appeared to be contained, tension and frustration still simmered among some students and alumni.

A letter from “a growing group” of Jewish alumni and their allies, sent Monday to the university's administration and its board of directors, the MIT Corporation, expressed alarm over Dr. Kornbluth's “disastrous” testimony and the fact that that he had not apologized for him. The letter also criticized the board's support for his leadership.

“We are alarmed to see that MIT has earned a national reputation for anti-Semitism under President Kornbluth, rather than for academic excellence,” said the letter, signed by hundreds of alumni.

He called for “concrete actions” to “right this rocky ship,” including discipline for students who violate university rules; for example, protesting “in areas that MIT has explicitly said were off-limits to protests.” The letter also called for the creation of a task force to ensure the safety of Jewish students.

A second letter, sent to university leaders by student members of the MIT Israel Alliance, also demanded action, including public recognition of an “existential anti-Semitism problem on campus” and the removal of board members. “who tacitly support, or not, calls for genocide of Jews.”

On the MIT campus in Cambridge, where silence reigned this week in the run-up to final exams, there were few signs of unrest. Many students remained glued to their laptops; social interaction was reduced to the essentials. The largest college newspaper, The Tech, did not publish any new coverage of the uproar over the hearings.

Some faculty members described a muted reaction.

“I haven't received any emails today or yesterday that really address this issue,” Phillip A. Sharp, professor emeritus of biology and Nobel Prize winner, said in an interview Tuesday. “I was at a dinner last night, a biotech dinner, and it wasn't the main topic of conversation.”

The lack of distraction was characteristic of MIT, the elite science and technology school about two miles from Harvard, which enrolls 4,700 undergraduates and accepts only four percent of applicants. Students and alumni proudly point to the fact that MIT does not do legacy admissions; They describe the school as having a culture of meritocracy, where hard work and ideas trump money and tradition, qualities that some believe distinguish it favorably from Harvard.

An MIT spokeswoman said Wednesday that Dr. Kornbluth was “focused on keeping the campus safe and operational,” while having “numerous conversations” with students, faculty, staff and alumni. Next semester, the spokeswoman said, senior leaders will receive training in combating anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Some students say much more is needed to restore balance on campus.

Talia Khan, a graduate student and president of the MIT Israel Alliance, said the group was created in response to growing anti-Semitic rhetoric on campus following the October 7 attacks by Hamas against Israel, as well as the lack of discipline from the administration to the protesters who violated the campus. rules, or to protect Jewish students who felt threatened.

Ms. Khan described feeling “overwhelming disappointment” listening to Dr. Kornbluth's testimony before Congress and then seeing the school's board of directors offer their unwavering support.

“They don't want to believe that what's happening on campus is really happening,” he said. “I know the president and I think she has a heart, but I didn't see it in her testimony.”

In her opening remarks at last week's hearing before the House Education and Workforce Committee, Dr. Kornbluth acknowledged the fear and pain Jewish students felt in response to the recent protests, while emphasizing the difference between “what we have the right to say and what we should say.”

“Those who want us to eliminate protest language are, in fact, advocating for a speech code,” he said. “But in practice the codes of expression do not work. “Problematic speech must be countered with other speech and with education.”

Dr. Kornbluth, 62, a cell biologist and former chancellor of Duke University who is Jewish, became the second woman to lead MIT in January. The other two presidents who came under fire for their testimonies were also relatively new to their positions: Dr. Gay, 53, became Harvard's first black president in July, and Magill, 57, had begun his presidency. at Penn last year.

On Wednesday afternoon, the House passed a resolution condemning the testimony of the three presidents, who failed to clearly state that calls for the genocide of Jews constituted harassment and violated their institutions' codes of conduct.

The resolution, led by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-New York, stated that Dr. Kornbluth and Dr. Gay should resign. Eighty-four Democrats joined nearly all Republicans in voting for the measure.

Ms. Stefanik, who aggressively questioned the presidents at the hearing, launched an investigation into the universities and sent a letter to their boards of directors demanding the presidents' removal.

The three leaders inherited a long-running debate over free speech on campus and the lingering consequences of previous controversies.

Dr. Kornbluth's predecessor, L. Rafael Reif, acknowledged several years ago that MIT administrators quietly accepted repeated donations from convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein from 2002 to 2017, despite concerns about the relationship.

Bill Ackman, the billionaire Harvard alumnus and donor who lobbied vigorously for Dr. Gay's ouster, also called to MIT to remove Dr. Kornbluth. Mr. Ackman's wife, Neri Oxman, an Israeli-born architect and designer, earned a doctorate at MIT and taught there while directing research in materials ecology.

According to the Jewish student organization Hillel International, about six percent of MIT undergraduates are Jewish, as are about 10 percent of Harvard undergraduates.

Some Jewish MIT students said this week that they believed concerns about their safety had been overblown.

“I have always felt safe here,” said Gabriella Martini, a graduate student who is Jewish and helps direct Jews for Ceasefire at MIT, a university group that maintains that its advocacy for “a free Palestine” and its criticisms to Israel's military campaign in Gaza are not anti-Semitic. “The idea that anything that happened here should lead to the resignation of the president, who is essentially being bullied by members of Congress who I think have a political agenda in what they're doing, would set a terrible precedent,” said Ms. Martini saying

Several students, faculty and alumni declined to speak about the controversy or did not respond to interview requests for this article.

Dr. Sharp, professor emeritus, said he supported Dr. Kornbluth. “She has been transparent about supporting open dialogue on campus while protecting people from threats, harassment, and interference with daily activities,” he wrote in an email.

Professor Mary Fuller, president of the MIT faculty, referred a reporter to her letter of support for Dr. Kornbluth, signed by more than a dozen former professors. “Let me point out something solid,” she wrote in an email, “rather than trying to describe the mood of thousands of people on the cusp of finals (and winter break).”

Mable Chan contributed reporting from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Annie Karni from Washington.

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