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Freedom of Speech, to an Extent

Michael Borucke

It would seem that students are able to say pretty much whatever we want at MIT. We can criticize the President, we can write exposes on faculty and their CIA connections, we can even complain about meal plans. But the extent to which this institution protects freedom of speech is perhaps best demonstrated by what MIT has done to one of its employees who tried to exercise his freedom of speech.

Here is a condensed version of the story: Last Thursday, Hatch Sterrett, an MIT employee who works at the DuPont-MIT Alliance located in the Chemical Engineering Building, handed out flyers at a Shell Oil presentation on campus. These flyers called into question Shell’s claims to social responsibility. During the question and answer period of the presentation, Mr. Sterrett asked the Shell representatives about their company’s social responsibility. The next day, Mr. Sterrett received a memorandum notifying him of his suspension and potential dismissal from his job. It was explicitly stated in the memo that his activities the prior night were the reason for his suspension. Individuals from the department of chemical engineering had lodged complaints with administration. Unbeknownst to Mr. Sterrett, it was the chemical engineering department which had invited Shell to give the presentation.

Soon after his suspension, members of MIT’s Social Justice Cooperative began letter writing and media campaigns to attract attention to the incident. I could mention the dubious legal ground upon which the suspension was handed out, but it’s now a moot point. President Vest released a statement this past Tuesday, notifying the community of Sterrett’s full reinstatement.

Even though everything seems to have turned out fine, this incident points to a couple of larger problems at MIT and universities in general: one is the increasing influence corporations have on campuses; another is the encroachment of the university on employee’s rights.

MIT’s love affair with industry is no secret. They give us money, we give them the fruits of our research; they give us a new building, we pump out some workers that know how to program. It’s a give and take relationship. The question is, when does this cozy symbiosis break down and assimilation begin? Will we recognize that point when we (the university community) lose our autonomy and become fully inserted into the matrix? Have we already passed that point? Are we now completely dependent on and subordinate to the power that is the multi-national corporation? Is this even worth discussing?

Of course it is. The ties that link universities to industry are also the ties that encourage us to remain silent about corporate behavior. If this behavior should fall short of decent, then we have a problem.

As current policy stands, Shell can be complicit in the murder of Nigerian Writer/Activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Shell can extract millions of gallons of oil, devastating the environment in the process and leaving the Nigerian population is as poor as ever. However, the company still remains a legitimate body that is able to elicit workers and research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But when a socially conscious MIT employee tries to point out this type of despicable behavior to students, that is not accepted. What in the hell kind of totalitarian state is this?

What’s possibly even more distressing is that more and more, it’s not the corporations that are threatening to sever university ties; it is self-censorship on the part of the university in an effort to not aggravate the large benefactors. During Apartheid, then-Provost John Deutsch wouldn’t divest MIT funds from corporations with holdings in South Africa for fear of driving away corporate investment from MIT.

But the current issue isn’t even about attempting to influence corporate behavior through divestment; it’s much more fundamental. It’s about the range of expression that a member of the MIT community is capable of without fearing attacks on his or her livelihood. Today, administration can’t allow an employee to raise awareness of corporate behavior, even if done on his own time, in collaboration with an official student group, and in a “respectful” manner. The reason for this repression? Current active agreements between MIT and Shell are worth over two million dollars.

While it’s true that every workplace needs its employees to maintain an effective level of cooperation and respect for the purposes of their jobs, the atmosphere at MIT has gone well beyond that, to induce fear and self-censorship. There is widespread class condescension expressed in off-hand remarks, which support and service staff must bite their tongues and bear.

MIT would really benefit from a culture of openness and dialogue - about political and challenging questions - so we learn how to increase our hope and our morale. If this Institute is really to fulfill the spirit of its great commencement speeches and its earnest crisis pronouncements, it needs to take some character-building risks in support of its members-all of them.