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Remarks by President Reif at Institute faculty meeting

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The following are the remarks, as prepared for delivery, by President L. Rafael Reif at today's Institute faculty meeting.

Good afternoon, and welcome to our first faculty meeting of the year.

Out of fairness to our colleagues in the Media Lab, I want to start with a correction to the agenda that we sent out to faculty this week. The title for this section read “Media Lab.”

But it is obvious that the topics we will discuss this afternoon concern all of MIT.

Let me take this moment to express my appreciation to the Media Lab faculty, students and staff, and to the interim leadership team, who are working so hard to begin a new chapter.

Over the last few weeks, our whole community has experienced deep pain, sadness and disappointment. Many of you have expressed those feelings to me directly. I know that many of you are angry about the whole situation, and angry at me.

But I will not presume that I know or understand how all of you are feeling or how you have experienced these events. Learning more about that is a central goal of this meeting.

I do know that this is a disorienting time for all of us at the Institute. I have spent my entire career in this community and this institution. I look out at all of you this afternoon, and I see faculty colleagues I have known for decades, and many others just at the beginning of amazing careers. I see students who have chosen MIT as the place to start their journey.

I see staff who came to MIT specifically to support the Institute’s inspiring work. And I have been hearing from alumni around the world who care deeply about the strength and stature of this institution.

I know all of you work as hard as you can every day to advance our mission. And I know you are accustomed to feeling proud of MIT. 

I am too.

So I am deeply distressed, and I am deeply sorry, that steps which I and others took, and failed to take, have been part of bringing this trouble to all of you – to the people of MIT.

I understand that I have let you down and damaged your trust in me, and that our actions have injured both the Institute’s reputation and the fabric of our community.

Yet I also know that MIT’s reputation is firmly rooted in the brilliant work that you and our whole community have been doing, and sharing with the world, for decades, and that you will continue to do. And I know that the fabric of MIT is incredibly strong. I hope the conversation we have today will be a first step towards restoring that fabric – and making it even stronger.

The purpose of today’s meeting is to hear the concerns of faculty and students, to do our best to answer your questions and to help the Institute begin to regain its balance
and momentum.

Before we open the discussion, I would like to address three questions I have heard repeatedly in the last few days and then highlight a few things I have learned in the last month.  To the questions:

First: Many people have been asking how the results of the fact-finding will be shared with the community. The decision on this matter rests with the group that I report to: the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation.

The goal of the review is to bring clarity to the interactions with Epstein so that we can correct what went wrong, and then work together to establish principles to prevent anything like it from happening again. I do not know how or what the Executive Committee will choose to share. But I know that they are mindful, as I am, that, as MIT begins to recover from this period of distress, crucial information must be shared, so the community can have confidence in the fact-finding process.

Second: Many students have asked how I could have signed that acknowledgment letter without asking questions, and how I could fail to remember it. The answer is simple: I did not recognize the name, and I sign many standard thank-you letters every week. That includes several hundred letters every year thanking individuals for contributions to the Institute.

Third: I know that for many of you, the four letters I have sent to the community since August 22 were maddening – a drip-drip-drip of information. I make no excuses for that frustrating result, and I certainly wish I could have done it differently. But in each case, I was responding to the facts I had at the time. So I would like to explain why I sent each of those letters.

On August 22, I wrote because it seemed vital to share what we knew then about the total of Epstein’s gifts to MIT, to apologize to the girls and young women he victimized, and to begin to make amends by committing to contribute the money to a relevant charity and by launching an internal review.

On September 7th, after the New Yorker article, the situation clearly demanded external fact-finding, so I wrote again. Two days later, I wrote again to make sure the community heard from me, not from the media, that we had engaged a fact-finding team at Goodwin Procter.

That letter was also important to give individuals a direct way to share information with the factfinders and to share the initial next steps for the Media Lab community. The final letter conveyed new information that the factfinders had learned – information that I did not have clarity about before then. I wanted to dispel any assumptions you might have drawn from my earlier letters and replace them with definite facts, right away.

I know this last letter in particular generated confusion and dismay. I was trying to convey “just the facts” of what I had learned from the factfinders, without editorializing about them. But after hearing from many of you, I understand now that, unfortunately, you understood me to be trying to distance myself from responsibility for the events and decisions involved. I especially regret that, since it is the opposite of what I intended.

In the end, as I have said, I made mistakes of judgment. I take responsibility for those errors. And I hope to take responsibility for the work that must begin now: repairing the damage and rebuilding trust.

MIT is known for its willingness to face difficult facts, and to run towards problems, not away from them. I am trying to do that now.

We are already taking some steps in that direction:

As you know, I asked Provost Marty Schmidt to launch an internal review of how we assess donor relationships and gift agreements, so we can correct the flaws in our process and practices. He’ll talk briefly about that in a moment, as well as about the transition team at the Media Lab.

The outside law firm, Goodwin Procter, is fully engaged in its fact-finding now.  At the end of my remarks, Vice President and General Counsel Mark DiVincenzo will give an update on that process.

And to follow through on our earlier commitment, we are working with MIT’s Office of Violence Prevention and Response to identify appropriate charities that serve victims of sexual abuse, like Jeffrey Epstein’s young victims – the victims whose suffering we failed to see.

Which brings me to what I have learned.

The practical steps I just mentioned are necessary. But the two reviews focus mainly on process. And, as many of you have told me very clearly, we do have a process problem – but what we really have is a culture problem, because, as I am learning, our processes and practices reflect some entrenched and destructive attitudes and cultural assumptions at MIT.

I believe they fall into two categories:

The first is around money. From conversations across our community, I know that many people have deep concerns about sources we have relied on to raise funds for the work of the Institute. In this time of growing fortunes and shrinking federal funds, we need to look at everything from the changing nature of the donor population to how we should weigh the political, cultural and economic impacts of donors’ behavior. We need to examine the issues associated with anonymous giving – and much more.

In short, people are telling me that to guide how we choose to accept philanthropic gifts, we need to develop a new set of principles, clearly grounded in our community’s values. I agree.

We also need to work on addressing the power relationships and other cultural factors that kept people, especially students and staff, from feeling that they could question or stop bad decisions much sooner.

For me, the last few weeks have been a time to reflect on the incredible bravery of the several members of the Media Lab who took the risk of calling out the bad judgments and bad practices they saw. As an institution, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

And beyond the serious problems around gifts and donors, I have heard a second area of intense concern. Female faculty, post-docs, students and staff across MIT are telling me that this is a “last-straw” moment, that allowing Jeffrey Epstein to stain our reputation was only the latest example of how many in our community, and the tech world in general, devalue the lives, experiences and contributions of women and girls.

I am humbled that it took this cascade of misjudgments for me to truly see this persistent dynamic and appreciate its full impact. It’s now clear to me that the culture that made possible the mistakes around Jeffrey Epstein has prevailed for much too long at MIT. We need to stop looking away from bad behavior and start taking the time to see what it costs us as a community. This moment of crisis must be the moment of reckoning – and a turn towards real accountability.

The questions raised in the last month are profound, especially the cultural ones. Some have even asked if MIT has lost its way – if the Institute we all love has changed fundamentally and irretrievably. For me, the answer is an emphatic no.  MIT is still MIT. It is still the remarkable community that drew us all here in the first place.

But this disturbing period has shed a harsh new light on some elements of our culture that are serving us very poorly.

Since I played a role in this problem, I feel a deep responsibility to help repair a system and a culture that failed the people of MIT.

We need to identify and root out the cultural factors that contributed to these troubling errors and outcomes, so we can prevent damage like this in the future. We need to examine honestly what is wrong and work together to correct it. We need better processes, of course – better administrative guardrails. But we also need to make sure that, from our principles to our culture, the path forward is shaped by our community’s essential values. Because what we really want is a values path so clear and firm that people never have to run up against the guardrails at all.

I do believe that institutions are capable of serious, deliberate change. Along with MIT’s other senior leaders, I am committed to, and I am certain we are capable of, real change.

But cultural change is the hardest of all. Which means that achieving this transformation will take the sustained commitment and creativity of the whole community.

In other words – we need your help. I need your help.

Right now, I know that the most important thing that I and MIT’s other senior leaders can do to “run toward” this problem is to listen – to listen to all of you.

This is a difficult moment, but MIT will learn from it – I have learned from it, I will keep striving to learn from it, my senior leadership will learn from it. I hope I can begin to regain your trust – and I believe that together we can, and we will, find a constructive path forward.

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