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Concern's over MIT's involvement in SDI


To the Editor:

I would like to repeat and amplify some of the remarks I made at the May 15 faculty meeting in response to the letter by Robin Wagner G, et al. [Feedback, May 14].

The letter suggests that Institute officials have "tried to prohibit faculty from publicly voicing objections to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program if they mention their Institute affiliation." In addition, a petition circulating on campus asks signatories to affirm that they "have learned that the MIT Administration has discouraged faculty who have reservations about SDI from expressing their views publicly as an MIT professor (sic)." The petition then goes on to ask the MIT Administration to reverse itself on that position.

The MIT Administration has never taken such a position. On the contrary, it has always insisted on the right of faculty members and staff members to express their views on any subject together with their institutional affiliation. It, of course, expects those who do so to make it clear, if there is any doubt, that they are not speaking for MIT but are speaking as individuals.

The letter of Wagner et al. also lists a number of concerns which I share, some of which I will list and will discuss below. These concerns are not qualitatively different from ones with which we have had to deal in the past, but come with special force because of the controvertial nature and public awareness of the SDI program.

1. MIT researchers might inadvertently commit themselves under this program to projects which later become classified or have other contractual restrictions on publication or access placed on them. This is a real concern. However, we have now ongoing programs that have been and others that may become targets for the imposition of various kinds of restrictions. In each case, with help from concerned faculty members, as well as from sympathetic officials in Washington, we have been able to avoid any such imposition, and we will work in the future to do the same. Should an SDI project have such restrictions, we will not accept it. Should one acquire such restrictions after we have accepted it, we will withdraw from it.

2. If the Department of Defense (DOD) transfers areas of research in which MIT is involved to the SDI program, MIT researchers will undoubtedly apply to the program for support, or even find themselves automatically transferred into it. MIT will then be put in the position of appearing to support the program. Our position on this is the following: The same tradition of academic freedom that permits professors to take public positions on public issues also permits them to work on research projects of their choice, provided that the projects carry no contractual restrictions on publication or on access, and are appropriate projects for the university. Within very broad limits, the source of funding has not been used as a criterion for acceptance of a contract by MIT. To do otherwise would amount to applying a political test to MIT research projects. The step from that to applying similar tests to appointments and promotions is not large. We must make it clear that our acceptance of research under the SDI program is based on our tradition of faculty initiated research, and in no way contitutes an institutional position on the SDI program.

3. SDI has a narrower goal than other DOD projects. Thus, SDI is likely to fund research at MIT in a narrower range of disciplines. The number of research opportunities in SDI-related areas will probably increase at the expense of "irrelevant" fields. This is true, but not only for the SDI program. It also holds true whenever funding is transferred into a highly mission oriented program. A further problem not discussed in the Wagner et al. letter is the instability associated with such funding. Politically motivated, mission oriented programs can have a meteoric rise followed by a precipitous fall. Recent examples are the solar energy and the synthetic fuels programs of the Department of Energy.

4. The Wagner et al. letter calls for a thorough discussion fo the SDI program and its implications for academic research in general and on MIT in particular. I agree that such an open discussion would be useful and should take place. As the letter suggests, these issues will certainly be explored by the committee that was recently formed to examine the impact of military funding at MIT. In addition, the Technology and Culture Seminar, which has been funded by the Office of the Provost, has decided to present a series of meetings and discussions in the Fall term on several aspects of SDI. Sessions are planned dealing with the technical feasibility of SDI, its political and economic implications, and its impact on academic research in general and on MIT in particular. These sessions will provide an opportunity for members of this community to listen to discussions of various issues and to comment on them. These sessions, however, should not be expected to result in an MIT institutional position.

Francis E. Low->



Editor's note: The Tech was sent the following response to Low's letter.


To the Editor:

We greatly appreciate the prompt and thoughtful reply of Provost Francis E. Low to our previous letter to The Tech, in which we expressed our concern over the political manipulation of MIT by the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program. We would like to respond to his comments.

First, however, we wish to correct a statement made in our previous letter and in the initial version of the MIT/SDI petition which we circulated. Contrary to the impression given in that letter and petition, Institute officials have not tried to prohibit faculty from speaking publicly on the SDI program. Rather, there was faculty discussion on public disclosure (alluded to in our previous letter) which included ambiguous statements. These ambiguities led some to question whether the net result would be a chilling effect on open discussion. We are pleased that Low has clarified the Institute's position -- both at the May faculty meeting and in his letter. Accordingly, we modified our petition. Over three-quarters of the 700 signatures we collected were on the revised petition. We regret any misunderstanding our statements may have caused.

Nevertheless, our fundamental concerns remain. To create an atmosphere of open discussion, we feel the Administration must go beyond reaffirming the right of faculty and staff members to express their personal views, citing their institutional affiliation. The administration should actively promote public discussion of controvertial issues, including SDI funding at MIT, which may have great bearing on the future of the Institute.

We understand the reluctance of some high MIT officials to make statements on this subject because of the conviction that MIT's name should not be used for partisan political purposes. We share this conviction, and it forms the basis of our position that MIT has the right and the duty to try to prevent DOD officials from using the Institute's prestige to further their political agenda: to increase federal funding of SDI by 166 percent in the next fiscal year.

How can MIT avoid being politically manipulated? In the short-run, MIT should immediately raise any concerns it has over SDI funding tactics in an official policy statement. To incorporate diverse views into this statement, the Institute should solicit comments from all interested members of MIT in an appropriate university forum. While we believe the Technology and Culture Seminars on various aspects of SDI planned for next fall will make an important and valuable contribution to the discussion at MIT, we do not feel that these seminars can take the place of an official MIT policy position. Furthermore, the fall will be too late; DOD officials and Congress are acting now on proposals to fund a new and controversial $100 million SDI research program, and MIT's name is being misused in the process. This should not be permitted.

The provost did not comment on our earlier request that MIT publish information on the on-campus and Lincoln Laboratory research projects whose funding source has been or will be shifted to SDI. Publication will greatly facilitate an open and educated discussion of the effects of "Star Wars" funding at the Institute. We hope the Administration will grant our request.

In the long-run, MIT should formulate a policy to deal with the potential impacts of greater reliance on SDI funds on university research and educational programs. For instance, Low agreed with our original argument that mission-oriented programs, such as SDI, may result in sponsorship of narrow areas of research at the expense of "irrelevant" disciplines (such as the life sciences). However, he did not indicate how MIT will respond if money is reduced for research in these "irrelevant" fields on campus. Does MIT plan to make a special effort to secure funds for these fields? These and other problematic issues should be dealt with in a formal university policy statement.

We do not wish MIT to stand alone among major research universities in objecting to SDI research funding tactics. Consequently, we repeat our request that President Paul E. Gray '54 immediately initiate a meeting with these universities to discuss how SDI will affect their research and educational programs. A goal of the meeting should be to produce a public document which outlines areas of concern and possible courses of action which universities can take in responding to their concerns. Because we feel an open exploration of these issues is so important, we will be writing to the presidents of potentially affected research universities to urge them to initiate or participate in such a conference.

In closing, we again would like to thank Low for replying to our first letter. It is gratifying to learn that senior members of the administration share our concerns over the SDI program. We hope that the incoming provost, Dean of Science John M. Deutch '61, will continue to encourage open discussion on campus of these and related issues involving the effects of DOD funding on the MIT academic environment.

Robin Wagner G->

Erik Devereux '85->

'84-'85 Student Representatives->

to the Faculty Committee on->

Educational Policy->

Jonathan Weil G->

Student Disarmament Study Group->


Editor's note: Student Disarmament Study Group member and Tech columnist Scott R. Saleska '86 appended this comment to Wagner, Devereux and Weil's letter.


I concur completely with the response of Wagner, Devereux, and Weil to Provost Francis E. Low's letter. I feel there is one point, however, which was not squarely addressed in that letter. This point concerns the problems of maintaining academic freedom in a world of heavily vested political interests. In order to honestly address the issue of academic freedom we have to face up to the fact that MIT is a political entity in a political world.

Low asserts -- correctly, I believe -- that "the same tradition of academic freedom that permits professors to take public positions on public issues also permits them to work on research projects of their choice." He does not seem to acknowledge, however, that academic freedom is neither established nor maintained by simply proclaiming it. An educational institution abrogates its responsibility to academic freedom if it merely responds passively to external funding sources. It must also act vigorously to make diverse funding available. It is possible, of course, for MIT to do nothing, and accept uncritically the research priorities defined by those in power. But we must recognize that by doing so MIT is making a political judgment which places externally imposed priorities above internal principles. We cannot be so naive as to fail to recognize it as such.

If, however, we are sincerely concerned about preserving academic freedom, then we -- as an educational institution committed to certain principles -- are obligated to take political stands as a matter of policy. In fact, MIT does this constantly. The Institute's opposition to the Nuclear-Free Cambridge Act, its non-discrimination and affirmative action policies, and its active lobbying position on behalf of student financial aid are all examples of MIT taking political stands to uphold certain principles.

I am not saying such decisions will necessarily be easy -- only that they are unavoidable ones for an educational institution. My personal view is that in the instance of the SDI program, the obligation to speak out is particularly strong. As Wagner et al. have pointed out, MIT is being publicly manipulated to further the goals of the DOD -- goals which in this case will place constraints on research funds and thereby threaten academic freedom at MIT.

Let us give these difficult questions the serious consideration they deserve. Further, let us not be squeamish about making political decisions because we still believe the fantasy that scientific research is somehow an apolitical pursuit which takes place off in some value-free Platonic heaven where any scientist can do whatever he or she wishes. We are all sufficiently capable, I believe, of dealing with the political realities of the real world without hiding behind such naive illusions.