So far, no major fallout for MIT president after contentious testimony

So far, no major fallout for MIT president after contentious testimony

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Sally Kornbluth, who arrived at MIT less than a year ago, appeared to face no serious threat to her leadership.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth. Mark Schiefelbein / AP, File

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — While governing boards at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania weighed their presidents’ fates in tense closed-door meetings this month, the board at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology swiftly issued a statement of unequivocal support for its president, Sally Kornbluth.

Faculty leaders, department heads and deans at MIT soon followed with their own endorsements of Kornbluth, who along with the Harvard and Penn presidents gave evasive, legalistic answers at a congressional hearing about antisemitism on campus. Donors did not flock to social media to demand her removal; many students, busy with exams, paid scant attention to the spectacle.

Kornbluth, who arrived at MIT less than a year ago, appeared to face no serious threat to her leadership, even though her testimony at the hearing last week attracted the same harsh criticism as that of the other two presidents, Claudine Gay of Harvard and Liz Magill of Penn. The three leaders drew fire for how they responded to questions about whether they would discipline students who called for the genocide of Jews and for putting heavy emphasis on protecting free speech.

Magill resigned Saturday. Gay hung onto her job, but only after Harvard’s governing board spent many hours discussing the situation.

Though 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 governing board, the MIT Corporation, expressed alarm at Kornbluth’s “disastrous” testimony and the fact that she had not apologized for it. The letter also criticized the board’s endorsement of her leadership.

“We are alarmed to observe MIT earning a national reputation for antisemitism on President Kornbluth’s watch, rather than for academic excellence,” said the letter, signed by hundreds of alumni.

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

A second letter, sent to the university’s leaders by student members of the MIT Israel Alliance, also demanded action, including public acknowledgment of an “existential antisemitism problem on campus” and the removal of board members “who support tacitly, or otherwise, the calls for genocide of Jews.”

On MIT’s campus in Cambridge, where quiet descended this week in the run-up to final exams, there were few signs of disturbance. Many students remained glued to their laptops; social interaction shrank to bare essentials. The largest campus newspaper, The Tech, had no new coverage of the uproar over the hearings.

Some faculty members described a muted reaction.

“I haven’t gotten an email today or yesterday that really addresses this issue,” Phillip A. Sharp, an emeritus professor 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 major topic of conversation.”

The lack of distraction was on brand for MIT, an elite science and technology school about 2 miles from Harvard, which enrolls 4,700 undergraduates and accepts just 4% of applicants. Students and alumni point proudly to the fact that MIT does not make legacy admissions; they describe the school as having a culture of meritocracy, where hard work and ideas trump money and tradition — qualities some see as favorably distinguishing it from Harvard.

A spokesperson for MIT said Wednesday that Kornbluth was “focused on keeping campus safe and functioning,” while engaging in “numerous conversations” with students, faculty, staff and alumni. Next semester, the spokesperson said, senior leaders will get training in fighting antisemitism 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 surging antisemitic rhetoric on campus following the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel, as well as the administration’s failure to discipline protesters who violated campus rules or to protect Jewish students who felt threatened.

Khan described feeling “overwhelming disappointment” as she listened to Kornbluth’s testimony before Congress and then saw the school’s governing board offer unwavering support.

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

In her opening statement at the hearing last week, held before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Kornbluth acknowledged the fear and pain felt by Jewish students in response to recent demonstrations, while emphasizing a difference between “what we have a right to say and what we should say.”

“Those who want us to shut down protest language are, in effect, arguing for a speech code,” she said. “But in practice, speech codes do not work. Problematic speech needs to be countered with other speech and with education.”

Kornbluth, 62, a cell biologist and former Duke University provost who is Jewish, became the second woman to lead MIT in January. The other two presidents who came under fire for their testimony were relatively new to their posts as well: Gay, 53, became Harvard’s first Black president in July, and Magill, 57, began her presidency at Penn last year.

Like them, Kornbluth inherited a long-running debate over free speech on campus and the lingering fallout from earlier controversies.

Her 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, a billionaire Harvard alumnus and donor who lobbied loudly for Gay’s removal, also called on MIT to oust Kornbluth. Ackman’s wife, Neri Oxman, an Israeli-born architect and designer, earned a doctoral degree from MIT and taught there while directing research in material ecology.

According to Jewish student organization Hillel International, about 6% of undergraduate students at MIT are Jewish, as are about 10% of undergraduates at Harvard.

A few Jewish students at MIT said this week that they believed worries about their safety had been overblown.

“I’ve always felt safe here,” said Gabriella Martinelli, a graduate student who is Jewish and helps lead MIT Jews for Ceasefire, a campus group that argues that its advocacy for “a free Palestine” and criticism of Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip are not antisemitic. “The idea that anything that’s happened here should lead to the resignation of the president, who’s essentially being bullied out by members of Congress who I think have a political agenda in what they’re doing, would set a terrible precedent,” Martinelli said.

A number of students, faculty members and alumni declined to talk about the controversy or did not respond to interview requests for this article.

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

Professor Mary Fuller, the faculty chair at MIT, referred a reporter to her letter of support for Kornbluth, signed by more than a dozen past chairs. “Let me point you to 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).”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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