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Letter to the MIT community regarding engagement with Saudi Arabia

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The following email was sent today to the MIT community by President L. Rafael Reif.

To the members of the MIT community,

Last October, following the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, I asked Associate Provost Richard Lester, who oversees MIT’s international activities, to reassess MIT engagements with Saudi entities. On December 6, Richard shared his preliminary report and recommendations with faculty, students and staff, and he asked for comments. Last week, Richard sent me a letter that summarizes and reflects on the community comments, adds several recommendations and offers some new information, including funding amounts from Saudi state sources.

You may read what Richard sent me here, including both his recent summary letter and his report from December. Together these constitute the Lester report.

I write now to share my view of how MIT should proceed in this complex situation.

The Lester report

The Lester report defines the three types of engagements that people from MIT have with entities in Saudi Arabia: sponsored research backed primarily by entities affiliated with the Saudi government; research and education programs funded by gifts, mostly from private Saudi foundations; and a few smaller connections, including executive education and Industrial Liaison Program memberships.

The report explores the full range of competing factors to consider, including faculty autonomy, the social and scientific value of the work we undertake with Saudi people and entities, the challenge of working in a nation so out of step with our commitment to inclusion and free expression, and our community’s deep sense of revulsion at actions of the Saudi regime.

Ultimately, the report concludes that if MIT faculty wish to continue their current engagements with colleagues, students, and public and private research sponsors in Saudi Arabia, they should be free to do so, as long as these projects remain consistent with MIT policies and procedures and US laws and regulations. It also proposes that if faculty members wish to disengage from Saudi projects in light of recent events, we should help them, including smoothing the transition for the teams involved. And it recommends ways to make sure that international projects with countries whose governments engage in troubling behaviors go through a specified review process before they are allowed to proceed or be renewed.

I offer some background to explain why I agree with these recommendations.

Some background on MIT’s Saudi relationships

I know many of you find the behavior of the Saudi regime so horrifying that you believe MIT should immediately sever all ties with any Saudi government entities. I share the sense of horror, and I have great respect for that point of view.

However, my experience leads me to see our Saudi engagements differently, and therefore to believe that cutting off these longstanding faculty-led relationships abruptly in midstream is not the best course of action.

For decades, MIT has strongly favored a strategy of engaging with the world and of opening the door to collaboration where our faculty see a significant opportunity to do constructive work. In this spirit, in 2007, when I was provost, faculty in Mechanical Engineering sought to begin working with King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM) on solar energy, seawater desalination and design education.

Because MIT had no formal mechanism for reviewing international engagements, I established the International Advisory Committee (IAC). The IAC co-chairs guided a review of the proposed KFUPM engagement, which included a representative, independent faculty group making a site visit to assess various concerns. The resulting report allowed the project to proceed, and in 2008 the Center for Clean Water and Clean Energy at MIT and KFUPM was launched. Because KFUPM is all male, a condition of the engagement was that the organizers create a path to scientific education for Saudi women; this inspired the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship that brings Saudi women PhDs to MIT.

Since that initial engagement, I have come to know many Saudi citizens, including MIT alumni, Saudi officials and industry leaders working to modernize Saudi society. I have also met Saudi students and postdocs, both women and men, who dream of helping their society participate in and contribute to the global scientific community. Through these contacts, I have been struck by the intensity of their commitment and the value of their efforts to use research and education to make progress for themselves and their society. And of course, knowing these individuals, it is impossible not to see them as separate from the regime they did not choose and cannot control.

Saudi Arabia faces an unusual demographic moment: More than half of Saudi citizens are younger than 30. In such a society, building knowledge and helping more people gain access to higher education constitute the surest path to social progress. This is why I have felt confident that allowing interested faculty to continue to engage constructively with Saudi students, postdocs, alumni, colleagues and sponsors whom they trust and respect is consistent with our mission to advance knowledge and educate students for the betterment of humankind.

How should we move forward?

The present moment is testing that position. When I agreed to host the Saudi state delegation at MIT last spring, I shared the hope of many in the US 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 by that decision, and I understand that disappointment.

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. 

Nevertheless, I hope we can respond to present circumstances in a way that does not suddenly reject, abandon or isolate worthy Saudi people who share our principles and are doing good work for themselves, their society and the world, particularly if MIT faculty wish to continue the engagement.

The way forward will include carefully and thoroughly reassessing these engagements if faculty seek to renew them. This practice will of course apply to proposed new international engagements as well.  To do this well, we need to reexamine aspects of our assessment process and find ways to improve them.

Strengthening our system of assessment

Indeed, many of you have suggested to both Richard and me that MIT develop stronger processes to assess our international engagements in general.

As Richard describes in his summary, we have a head start on this. With just this goal – and considering engagements in a range of nations beyond Saudi Arabia – we have been working over the last 18 months to revamp our existing procedures and groups, including reconstituting the IAC as a faculty-led, standing committee of the Institute.

Already, the IAC is better equipped to vet potential new international engagements and those up for renewal, including those with foreign state entities; to assess whether, weighing all the relevant factors, a given engagement is advancing MIT's core academic mission; and to advise on the right course of action. At the same time, we are developing new administrative practices for assessing the complex risks that international projects may pose. We will systematically coordinate these two approaches, to make sure that MIT’s international engagements receive a thorough review.

Many of you also observed that we have an opportunity now to consider further questions about how we might approach international engagements in problematic countries. How could we include a broader range of community voices? What’s the best way to tap our faculty expertise in fields like history, political science, anthropology, philosophy and more? Can we offer our campus community new ways to gain a fuller understanding of the countries we engage in? Is there a general standard that could be applied in such cases? Are there further steps we can take to make sure that our engagements are not only in tune with but advance MIT’s values, including equality and free expression?

The faculty officers – Chair Susan Silbey, Associate Chair Rick Danheiser and Secretary Craig Carter – have agreed, at my request, to create an ad hoc interdisciplinary committee of faculty, staff and students to consider such questions. The committee will report to the MIT administration by this coming September. They will offer guidelines for action as well as expertise to call on when MIT assesses new international engagements.

I am deeply grateful to Susan, Rick and Craig for taking on this important assignment; I believe the work of the ad hoc committee will be of great value in MIT’s development as a globally engaged university.

*   *   *

I close by thanking Richard for his tremendous care and effort in leading this reassessment, and by thanking everyone in the community who has taken the time to contribute their perspectives on this sensitive and complex topic. One can only be grateful to belong to a society that guarantees each of us the right to openly express our opinions, and to a community that takes so seriously its obligation to wrestle honestly with its most difficult challenges. We all become smarter and wiser by thoughtfully engaging one another and taking advantage of such a precious right.


L. Rafael Reif

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