A Sloan student was not expelled or suspended after sending a homophobic, threatening e-mail to members of the Sloan LGBT student group.
The e-mail was sent in December; the resulting Committee on Discipline case was resolved in February; a letter to the Sloan community was sent in March; and an open forum was held in April. The incident and subsequent discussion have forced the Sloan school to seriously reevaluate its values and to implement diversity training, according to students.
On Dec. 10, the officers of the MIT Sloan LGBT received a homophobic e-mail from a fellow Sloan student, threatening violence. A case was filed with Cambridge officials, and Sloan administrators filed a complaint with MIT’s Committee on Discipline.
The offending e-mail was a response to an invitation sent out by the Sloan Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender Club to an end-of-semester celebration. The response reads in part: “If you fucking fags send me something like that once again or contact me in any other way, I swear you won’t be able to study at Sloan for some time because you will spend it at resuscitation department. If this is what you want, go ahead.” The full message is available online along with a response from the LGBT group at http://tech.mit.edu/V128/N18/sloan/.
Group officers contacted the Sloan administration, who notified the MIT Police. Soon a court case was filed, said Tom Armet G, an officer of Sloan LGBT.
After proceedings in January, “the Cambridge Court case was closed pending further action,” said Eric J. Silverberg G, another officer of Sloan LGBT.
MIT’s Committee on Discipline heard on Feb. 14 a case against the student who sent the e-mail, whose name has not been released, and the case was resolved a few days afterward, Silverberg said.
COD officials would not confirm or deny that they had heard such a case, standard practice for the tight-lipped committee. “I can’t confirm” that this case or any other had been heard, said Sheila E. Widnall ’60, the committee’s current chair.
The details of the proceedings and the outcome are not known to anyone outside of those present at the hearings, which did not include members of Sloan LGBT. COD hearings generally include the accused student, an “advisor” the student chooses from the MIT community to help support him, and members of the COD. The advisor cannot speak at the hearing.
Before the COD hearings, LGBT officers strongly advocated expulsion of the student.
“If that same incident had happened in any Fortune 500 Company that employee would have been terminated no questions asked,” said Armet.
Sloan administrators had earlier “indicated to us that they felt at least suspension was warranted,” said Silverberg. The contents of the complaint filed by the Sloan administration against the student are considered confidential by the COD.
Prior to the hearings, the student underwent psychological evaluation, Silverberg said.
Although the sanctions against the student have not been made public, they do not include suspension or expulsion, since the person is still a student at Sloan.
Widnall said in an interview that possible sanctions might include a probation period or a letter in the student’s file. A letter placed in a student’s file is available only to the student, his advisor, and the COD, and it is destroyed after the student graduates.
Neither the COD nor administrators at the Sloan school were able to comment on any sanctions received by the offending student.
After the hearing took place, members of the LGBT community shared the incident with the Sloan community at large.
After many debates and disagreements among group members about how to release information, they finally decided to distribute a printed letter that included the text of the offending e-mail. The student’s name and nationality were removed to ensure that it wasn’t a “witch hunt” targeting the individual, said Armet.
Returning from spring break on March 31, Sloan students found the letter in their mailboxes. It asked for the community to “consider that harassment and threats toward minority groups are still real, still prevalent, and still require an unwavering commitment and vigilance to root out.”
Raphael G., a Sloan LGBT member who asked not to be identified by his full name because not all his relatives know he is gay, has been in contact with the student since late January. Raphael, after meeting with the student, said, “from very early on, within 5 or 10 minutes [of the meeting’s start, I] felt this person is not a threat to me or the LGBT community.”
“The incident occurred due to a deeply rooted cultural belief, not reflective of innate homophobia,” Raphael said.
Raphael stressed that while this belief doesn’t excuse the individual from writing the e-mail, it will help the community learn how to prevent a future occurrence.
Raphael said he understands that not everyone in the LGBT community feels the same way as he does. But based on his personal contact with the individual, said he believes an expulsion or suspension would have been unjust.
“I know the writer has learned a lot. It is a great opportunity for our community to come together” and to learn from the incident, said Raphael.
In contrast, Silverberg expressed dissatisfaction with the COD’s decision.
“The administration has essentially sent me a signal saying that they see fit to allow a student that explicitly threatened me to be in class with me an hour and a half twice a week,” he said.
Privacy implications of academic records motivate the confidentiality of COD hearings, said David Kennedy, Director, Office of Student Mediation & Community Standards and a staff member who helps COD keep its records. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects students from having academic records distributed to a third party without their consent, he said.
“The process may be clear on the Web site but the decisions are not,” said Silverberg.
Kennedy explained that all hearings are reviewed individually and therefore there are no exact precedents for sanctions.
In fact, according to Widnall, the committee does not keep transcripts of its hearings. The only record of a COD hearing is a letter sent to the student and kept on file by the COD explaining what the hearing concerned, what information was presented, and what sanctions were imposed, Widnall said. Although the committee evaluates hearings on a case-by-case basis, she said, she made the committee review several dozen prior sanction letters when she became chair, so they understand what rulings they have made in the past.
The committee is comprised of about a dozen faculty, administrators, and students; the membership is available online at http://web.mit.edu/committees/faculty/Rosters/CoD.pdf.
An open forum was held at the Sloan School on Friday, April 4 to discuss the incident. The forum, which was facilitated by Chaplain Robert M. Randolph, drew a crowd of about 50 students, according to Raphael.
One idea that arose at the forum was a need for a code of Sloan community values. Students are currently working on this code and on a request to ask President Susan Hockfield or Sloan School dean David C. Schmittlein to acknowledge and condemn the event.
The students are also working closely with the Sloan administration to provide more diversity training during Orientation. Since the incident, curriculum changes have included a diversity workshop during the Sloan Innovation Period, a one-week interval between the two halves of the semester.