British author Salman Rushdie made a surprise visit to MIT last week to accept an award as Honorary Visiting Professor of the Humanities, to read from his work, and to seek public support for his fight against a death sentence issued February 14, 1989, by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran.
Mr. Rushdie appeared at MIT Tuesday, Nov. 23, to receive the honorary professorship, a unique honor which was presented on behalf of MIT President Charles M. Vest by Mark S. Wrighton, provost and chief academic officer. MIT does not award honorary degrees.
"This is the first academic honor I've ever received, so it's nice to start at the top," Mr. Rushdie said. He continued: "I really do hope that this is. the beginning of a long-term relationship with this great institution."
Mr. Rushdie said he made public appearances to proclaim that he was not afraid of the assassination threats. "The only defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized," he said.
The author noted that the assassination attempt of his Norwegian publisher in October "makes me even more determined to try to make sure that this is the last such atrocity." (In 1991 his Japanese translator was murdered and his Italian translator was severely wounded in separate attacks.)
To end the terrorism, he asked the audience to continue to put pressure on their governments. "The governments of the democratic world will act in this matter only if they believe it's a matter of special interest to their own citizens," he explained. "It's therefore extremely important that citizens of democratic countries understand and make plain that the case of the murder of a writer or a publisher or a bookseller or a translator is an insult to their freedom.
"The attempt to suppress a book is the attempt not just to suppress the right of the writer to write or the publisher to publish or the translator to translate; it is also the attempt to suppress the right of the reader to read."
Mr. Rushdie was introduced at the ceremony by Susan Sontag, who came from New York for the presentation and what the crowd expected to be a reading by Ms. Sontag. More than 550 people from MIT and the Boston area overflowed Rm 26-100 to hear her. Ms. Sontag spoke about 10 minutes about Mr. Rushdie's struggle, and then surprised the audience by introducing the writer who was greeted with a standing ovation as he appeared from behind the stage.
About two dozen MIT Campus Police, US State Department security forces, and Massachusetts State Police ringed the lecture hall, which was locked during the 90-minute event. (Members of the audience were told that the room would be locked, and were given time to leave before the program began if they wanted to do so.)
Provost Wrighton presented Mr. Rushdie with the citation of the honorary professorship. That citation reads: "In recognition of your outstanding contributions to world literature, and in recognition of the independence of thought and expression that you have come to represent, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology proudly appoints you Honorary Visiting Professor of the Humanities."
After reading President Vest's citation, Provost Wrighton said, "This evening we are privileged to host the visit of a distinguished author, and we honor him and celebrate his right to freedom of expression." Philip Khoury, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of history at MIT, said, "He is acknowledged to be one of the greatest writers of fiction in the English language. MIT is proud to offer him a place in its community."
Ellen Harris, associate provost of the arts and professor of music at MIT, said, "MIT is proud to recognize the abilities and achievements of Salman Rushdie. In doing so, we not only honor the man but we reaffirm our long-standing commitments to excellence and academic freedom." Anita Desai, professor of writing at MIT, said.
"Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children was the most important book of his generation for India; it has had a profound and enduring effect," said Anita Desai, professor of writing at MIT. The book, which received the Booker Prize in 1981, was named last year by the Booker committee to be the best novel by a British author in the past quarter century. At the Tuesday night event Mr. Rushdie read from the book; he also read a short story about Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella.
Alan Lightman, head of the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies and professor of science and writing at MIT, said, "Independence of thought is the most precious gift we can give to our students. Tonight, we honor a great writer, and we honor ourselves." After Mr. Rushdie finished his readings, Professor Lightman joined him on the stage and gave him a brief hug.
Mr. Rushdie is MIT's first honorary visiting professor. Four men have been named honorary lecturers: Winston Churchill, when he spoke at MIT in 1949, and later, philanthropists Cecil Green, Eugene McDermott and Carl Mueller.
A version of this article appeared in the December 1, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 16).