The Massachusetts Institute of Technology will not terminate existing projects with Saudi Arabia, but its leaders say they will seek to strengthen their internal processes for approving or renewing projects with countries where governments are engaged in serious human rights violations.
MIT president L. Rafael Reif commissioned a report on the university’s Saudi connections last fall after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and journalist, was killed in a Saudi consulate in Turkey in a crime that the Central Intelligence Agency concluded was ordered by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The crown prince was received by Reif when he visited the MIT campus last March.
Reif addressed the decision to host the crown prince in a letter that accompanied the report, which was released Wednesday. In the letter, Reif wrote that he agreed with the report’s recommendations, including the recommendation that faculty should be free to continue existing engagements with Saudi Arabian entities. Reif also condemned the killing of Khashoggi.
“When I agreed to host the Saudi state delegation at MIT last spring, I shared the hope of many in the U.S. and around the world that the visit and official engagement were an important part of an ongoing process of reform and modernization. I know some of you were and remain disappointed with that decision, and I understand that disappointment,” Reif wrote.
“As many of you have made plain, in the present situation, if MIT simply continues to work with Saudi state entities without comment, we risk having our silence taken as an endorsement of the regime’s behavior — an unacceptable result.
“For the record then, let me be clear: MIT utterly condemns such brutal human rights violations, discrimination and suppression of dissent, including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
The report on MIT’s Saudi activities was written by Richard K. Lester, MIT’s associate provost for international activities. The final report issued Wednesday followed a preliminary report released for comment in December.
Lester wrote that he had received 111 separate comments since December from faculty, students, postdocs, administrative staff and alumni. Many of these commenters, Lester wrote, “are appalled by the conduct of the Saudi government and are deeply troubled that MIT’s relationships with this government might in any way be enabling such behavior. They find it very difficult to reconcile MIT’s mission to work effectively for the benefit of humankind with what is occurring on the ground in Saudi Arabia and in neighboring Yemen.
“The words some respondents used to describe their views — ‘sickened’, ‘outraged’, ‘embarrassed’, ‘ashamed’ — make clear the depth of feelings elicited by the situation,” Lester wrote. “These reactions are linked partly to the Khashoggi assassination and attempted coverup but also to the atrocities perpetrated against civilians in Yemen, and the repression of human rights, the absence of basic rights of self-determination for women, the persecution of Saudi LGBTQ citizens, and the attacks on free speech in the Kingdom.”
Beyond the comments, the student newspaper, The Tech, also published an editorial in response to the Lester report calling on the university to cut ties with the Saudi government and government-linked entities.
The Lester report does not concur with that recommendation, recommending instead that the decision to continue projects sponsored by Saudi state entities should be left to the individual faculty members who are leading such projects. According to the report, MIT received in the most recent fiscal year a total of about $7.2 million in sponsored research support from five Saudi sources, including two state-owned companies, the Saudi national science agency and laboratory, and two Saudi universities.
“The principle that our faculty should be permitted to pursue their intellectual interests and objectives without interference is among the most fundamental operating principles of our Institute,” Lester wrote. “Of course, this is not an unalloyed right. Sometimes the administration does say no to faculty research proposals. But for ongoing research projects that are initiated and led by faculty, as is the case here, I expect our faculty would broadly agree that the bar for administrative intervention to terminate such projects should be set very high.”
Going forward, Lester wrote that new relationships in Saudi Arabia, and renewals of existing relationships, will be considered by MIT’s International Advisory Committee, which recently was reconstituted as a faculty-led standing committee, as well as by a group of senior administrators tasked with reviewing “all major international engagements that may pose significant institutional risks to MIT.”
In his report, Lester suggested that future proposed Saudi collaborations may be subject to a higher bar than in the past. He reflected on the view of one commenter who recommended that “engagements that do not allow MIT community members to participate fully and equally in all activities and opportunities should receive the highest level of scrutiny.”
“I agree with this recommendation,” Lester wrote, “especially as it applies to projects that require travel to the kingdom by MIT investigators. In at least one previous case involving such travel, full participation in the project required some participants to hide certain aspects of their identity; opportunities to participate in social events linked to the project were restricted by gender; and in a variety of settings female MIT faculty researchers were not accorded the same civil rights as their male MIT faculty colleagues.
“When a proposed project only involves a single investigator, that individual can decide for him or herself whether such restrictions are acceptable. But if a project involves the expectation of travel by multiple MIT investigators, the principal investigator should be required to present for consideration by the reviewing committees a written explanation of why such restrictions should be tolerated, and a plan for managing them. In general, such cases will not pass muster.”
Of course, Saudi Arabia isn’t the only place where MIT has collaborations where there are concerns about the actions of the government and potential reputational risk to the university.
Last month Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Liberty reported that MIT had to remove a Russian billionaire, Viktor Vekselberg, from its board after the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on him as part of a move to punish a group of Russian oligarchs who were deemed to have benefited from the government of President Vladimir Putin or to have played “a key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities.” Vekselberg is president of a foundation that contracted with MIT for a large-scale project to help develop a science and tech-focused university near Moscow, the Skolkovo Institute of Technology, known as Skoltech.
The second phase of MIT’s collaboration with Skoltech — which Lester said is focused on faculty research collaboration — is coming to an end soon. “If there is a proposal to renew that, [it] is a serious one and we’re not at that point yet — we haven’t got to that point yet — but if there is it will be subject to the same set of reviews that we would expect any renewal of the Saudi projects would also be exposed to,” Lester said in an interview.
Reif said in his letter that MIT is also constituting an ad hoc committee of faculty and staff members and students to further consider how the university might engage in “problematic countries,” including questions about how to better tap in to faculty expertise and whether there is a general standard that can apply. The ad hoc committee will report to the MIT administration by September with proposed guidelines.
“This exercise, which was triggered by the situation in the Kingdom, is extremely helpful for us,” Reif said in an interview. “I anticipate we will be facing these kinds of issues over and over again, and we need to better anticipate when to engage, why to engage and where.
“It is really a painfully complex issue,” Reif said. “Universities want to have a global footprint because we have people from all over the world at MIT, and these people want to interact and find collaborators in different countries. Once you start doing that … these kinds of risks occur, and managing this or preventing this is a serious issue.
“There are many progressive people that we want to engage with because it’s helping the country, and how do we distinguish helping the people who want to help the country versus helping the regime? How do you sort all those things out? It’s not trivial. It’s complex. We are setting a path to figure it out for themselves, and maybe for others, too.”