Approximately 30 students gathered yesterday afternoon to protest the administration’s handling of controversies involving students. While the majority of the protest was focused on the Star A. Simpson ’10 arrest, the discussion also touched on administrative reactions to the sodium fire on the Charles River and the felony charges filed against hackers found in the MIT Faculty Club.
The protest, which took place outside of Pritchett Dining in Walker Memorial, consisted of students carrying signs such as “Question the Media,” “Wait for the Facts,” and “Support Your Student.” Students also carried a protest letter that had been circulated across the campus.
Administrators, including Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75, deans, and support staff, were in or arriving at Pritchett to attend the Chancellor’s Summit for student government leaders. Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict and Senior Associate Dean for Student Life Stephen D. Immerman stayed to speak with the students.
Immerman said that the situation is very complex and that Simpson’s arrest “can’t be simplified” because of the legal and safety issues involved. He added that concern for both Simpson and MIT need to be taken into account and that it is very difficult to deal with situations when individuals and MIT meet in conflict. Benedict said that MIT was still learning things about the situation and that Boston was nervous, with “everybody hypersensitive these days.”
Craig B.E. Wildman G said that Benedict’s comments were “reasonable” and that he was glad Benedict spoke. Wildman, who also earned an undergraduate degree at MIT, said that he had overall mixed feelings about MIT’s handling of controversies involving students but that MIT could have handled the Simpson situation better.
Much of the outrage at the protest seemed to center around MIT’s statement that, as reported, “Simpson’s actions were reckless.”
Participant Biyeun M. Buczyk ’10, said that MIT was “bending over to media” and “issued a comment that was taken as criticism when [Simpson] really didn’t do anything wrong. … [She] did no wrong in putting on a sweatshirt.”
Matthew S. Goldstein ’09 said he was “disgusted with how [the] administration … treat[s] its students.” Goldstein said that he wanted the administration to focus on “being more supportive in the future.”
Andrew R. Drechsler ’10 said he was disappointed that MIT distanced itself from Simpson, especially when MIT prides itself on students’ innovations. Drechsler said that the media does not have the complete background, and MIT is in the best position to change the public’s view.
Clay told The Tech that he understood the reasons behind protest and that “there was a disappointment or sadness that we did not protect Simpson.”
“There was a lot of reaction to our use of the word reckless … many thought that was unfair,” Clay said. He continued, “I think it was the right word based on what we knew at the time. … Trying to take perspective, we didn’t know the facts — we only knew what we saw over the line.”
Clay said that when MIT was contacted to verify that Simpson was a student, MIT needed to issue a statement. “We had to give a sense as to whether we thought it was appropriate or not. If we simply said [she] is a sophomore at MIT, we would appear to be uncooperative.”
Clay did not stop to talk with protesters since he was scheduled to give the keynote address at the Chancellor’s Summit. Clay was, however, presented a protest letter with approximately 100–200 signatures.
The letter describes MIT as trying to distance itself from community members during controversy rather than support them. The letter also states that the silence from MIT not only hurt Simpson’s reputation, but “undoubtedly hurt MIT’s reputation as well.” (For full text of the letter, see page 23.)
At the summit, Clay’s keynote speech included references to Simpson’s arrest and the sodium fire on the Charles River. An attendee of the summit who wishes to remain anonymous said that the protest prompted some discussion among administrators. Some administrators suggested that MIT could have sent support staff to Simpson’s arraignment, the attendee said.
Yesterday afternoon, Clay provided The Tech with a response to the protest letter. (For full text of Clay’s response, see page 23.)
In his response, Clay wrote that MIT does not believe Simpson “intended to cause harm,” but that MIT expects students to exercise “appropriate judgment and restraint in settings like airports.”
Clay told The Tech yesterday that media characterizations of Simpson, including the Sept. 22 cover of the Boston Herald, were “unfair and unfortunate” and that Simpson “is not a malicious person … and did not mean to be disruptive.”
He added that, in the future, “if a student with a clever gizmo goes to an airport … as silly as it sounds, go up and explain it to someone.”
Asked what could be done to improve MIT handling of similar situations, Clay said that the issue was a very difficult one. “We have a community with a great deal of autonomy,” Clay said. “But there are some times when conflicts arise from traditions — which are good traditions — or things done in the name of traditions.”
Clay specifically mentioned the hacking tradition, arguing that “some things have gone to the edge” — students who were injured falling through the Building 5 skylight and down an E52 chimney. Students should “exert some self discipline,” Clay said. “We can’t address this by discipline, campus police, or preaching.”
“I don’t want the public to get a sense that MIT students think they are above the law,” Clay said. “That’s my great fear.”
Joyce Kwan contributed to the reporting of this article.