Institutional “Partisanship” and Education

In a recent op-ed, Daniel Newman ’17 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggested that, by taking an official stance on a partisan issue, the Institute acted in a manner that stifled conservative voices on campus and served to ostracize conservative students, effectively making them feel threatened. Specifically, Daniel stated that, “MIT’s partisan stance has only exacerbated the polarization that has led us here. A nonpartisan approach by MIT would have been far better for all MIT students. In an effort to promote diversity of both culture and ideas, MIT should encourage its students to strive to see both sides of the political spectrum so as to find common ground.”

It should be no surprise that institutions of higher education have values and interests. As a private university, MIT has more leeway in guarding these values and interests than a publicly-funded university. As these values and interests are critical to the functioning of the Institute, it makes sense that they have a further interest to protect them. Such values and interests may include, but are certainly much more expansive than, such things as educational quality, or the quality and integrity of our research, or having the best physical facilities available for living and working. These also have subsets of many other things that MIT has, over its history, identified as critical to ensuring that its values and interests are maintained – such as funding, choosing the right students and staff, and having the flexibility and ability to have the best faculty and students possible.

These values and interests are determined by a number of criteria, such as a university’s mission statement, legal obligations established by the state and the stakeholders that come together to make the university successful, such as donors, staff, students, faculty and alumni. Circumstances that affect these are also under the purview of the university’s interests – for example, if an event occurred that severely affected the morale or wellbeing of a large portion of its stakeholders, such as a large portion of its students, faculty and staff, and affected their ability to contribute to the wellbeing of the Institute as a whole, the university would have an interest in acting accordingly to those circumstances such that the wellbeing or morale of its students, faculty and staff improved.

At times, the values and interests of a university may not align with the views of the government or a political party. This should not be a surprise, as the views of the American government change dramatically depending on the party in power, and the views of that party change dramatically with each election cycle. Furthermore, since we live in a lively republic/democratic two-party system, it is highly likely that at any period of time, a university has views that disagrees with some segment, perhaps large segment, of the population. This simply reflects the reality of the world, that people have different opinions and views from each other, that these opinions and views are rooted in a variety of methods used to arrive at them, and that they are represented by political groups.

When this occurs, the values and interests of an institution do not necessarily change. Indeed, if MIT’s values and interests changed with every politician’s statement, or the evolution of a party’s platform, it would be extremely difficult to maintain a sustained commitment and focus which would enable us to have the strong network of partnerships, as well as the storied and long history, that we have. What is partisan today is not partisan tomorrow, and vice versa. Moreover, just as opinions and views are formed in different ways amongst people, universities have their own unique way of determining their values and interests that can be different as well. For MIT, we tend to determine our values and interests through prolonged discussion amongst our various stakeholders, based heavily on data and research, in order to determine a common basis for progress. This is not necessarily the same approach taken by everyone else, and our stakeholders are not necessarily the same as other people’s stakeholders either, so the values and interests are different from those of other people, political parties or institutions.

Accordingly, institutions may periodically contrast with the views of a political party, and therefore its party’s members. Some, if not most, of a university’s students may even be a member of a political party that has different views from the university itself. Since the scope of what is and is not partisan is more a matter of framing a discussion versus an actual distinction, and also changes on a nearly daily basis, attempting to ignore every issue as partisan is not only highly impractical, but also inadvisable – especially when a given issue conflicts with a university’s values and interests. Rather, it is the duty of an institution to protect its values and interests in a way that also respects those same values and interests, and is in alignment with its mission and purpose.

MIT makes it very clear that it advocates for, and takes a stance on, a variety of issues that can potentially be seen as partisan. For example, there exists an MIT Washington Office that specifically lobbies members of Congress and the Executive to take political stances that are inclined towards research and education. It publishes positions outlining its stance on a variety of political issues, ranging from biomedical science to intellectual property and manufacturing. Furthermore, MIT publicly publishes a mission statement that espouses certain values and guides its outcomes as a university. Members of MIT administration also make public statements on a variety of topics outlining MIT’s commitment to these values on potentially political issues, such as academic collaboration with Israel and federal government funding priorities. Accordingly, it should not be a surprise that MIT decided to take a stand on the recent immigration ban in line with its perceived values and interests.

If we accept that MIT, and other universities, will take stances on political issues that affect their values and interests, we are then more interested in how it can do so in a way that also balances those same values and interests. In terms of MIT, we are probably most concerned with being able to take a position, especially a political position, while both enabling and promoting an atmosphere of debate, dissent and discussion on campus. Historically, MIT has had wide-ranging conversations on its response to many of its stances, most recently and significantly probably being the campus-wide conversation on climate change, and whether MIT should divest from fossil fuel companies. In the end, MIT chose not to divest, and certain groups such as Fossil Free MIT disagreed with the administration’s decision. In these instances, MIT was able to take a stance on an issue, while other groups felt comfortable disagreeing with the decision and taking action in line with their beliefs. Simply put, MIT taking an official position did not have the effect of chilling, or ostracizing, a group of people on campus that disagreed with it.

In terms of the current political climate, the challenge for MIT will be even greater to take official positions on political (or “partisan”) issues in defense of its values and interests, while enabling discussions and debate on campus. Currently, MIT can and does so in a multitude of ways. First, as a comment on the aforementioned Newman article stated, concerned students may form student groups that actively hold contrarian views to the Institute. These student groups are guaranteed funding** if they are recognized through the Association of Student Activities (ASA), whose criteria are as follows (in addition to the group not discriminating based on race, sex, gender, or disability):

‘…the ASA primarily looks for a unique purpose and at the student group’s anticipated use of resources. Students interested in starting a new group are advised to consider whether their purpose can be acheived within an already-recognized group; frequently, students will be told to talk to a similar-seeming group before the ASA makes a final decision about recognition.’

Second, MIT can choose to sponsor events, as it has in the past, to allow multiple perspectives on a given issue to be debated. Third, it can continue to show no bias or favour, amongst the population on campus, towards one position or another – while holding an official position outside of the university towards other stakeholders. What this means, is that administrators and staff are receptive to and listen to differing perspectives – which they have shown an ability and interest in doing, with such events as open office hours. The underlying principle is that MIT takes an official stance, while doing so in line with its values as an educational institution – ie, providing an educational opportunity for students, staff and faculty. The challenge lies not in taking the view itself, but in how the view is taken – and the aim is not necessarily towards finding common ground, but rather to allow both sides to better understand each other and work towards solutions.

Indeed, the same quandary that Daniel Newman expressed in his article – that conservative students feel stifled by an institution that has taken an opposing view – is the same situation that liberals find themselves in today, with a conservative White House and Congress. However, rather than stifling conversation, the argument can easily be made anecdotally that this situation has resulted in some of the highest levels of political engagement observed in recent memory by both conservatives and liberals.

Therefore, the concern is not around whether MIT can take a view, but whether it is doing so in a way that allows an atmosphere of debate, dissent and discussion on campus. While it may be more difficult for a conservative club to succeed in attracting attention, sympathy and membership from the MIT community, simply due to the existing views and the formation of those views, it is not impossible and the difficulty is not due to institutional bias. It would not be unreasonable for a strongly conservative or pro-Trump student group to be met with a large body of criticism and skepticism, and it would be fair to say that the weight of evidence would be on such groups to prove their merits. The question, which remains to be answered, is whether MIT community members would choose to engage with such a group with the same respect that they would give to any other student group on campus. Will the criticism and skepticism be channeled through wittily-written opinion articles, strongly-worded debates and peaceful protests, or will it be channeled through verbal intimidation, shutting down that group’s events and speakers, and physical threats? Hopefully it will be the former, and we need to ensure that our community would react accordingly.

In conclusion, institutes can, and should, be “partisan” to protect their values and interests. In doing so, it needs to ensure that it also balances those values and interests in a way that both promotes them and allows them to prosper. At MIT, we do so through inculcating a culture of debate, dissent and discussion, through a variety of institutional mechanisms that do not favour one viewpoint over another. By engaging with, and listening to, alternative viewpoints or opposition, we allow ourselves to protect our university’s integrity while also encouraging the growth and education of our community.


**However, this guaranteed funding may be under threat by vague wording recently added to the Undergraduate Association’s Financial Board Funding Policy, which guarantees this funding for undergraduates. An amendment passed on September 1, only briefly discussed by student representatives after it was passed without discussion, caveated guaranteed funding with the statement:

‘In all cases, Finboard reserves the overarching right to make funding decisions at the discretion of the Board in order to reinforce the fundamental principle of benefiting the MIT undergraduate community. ‘

The Financial Board has taken no steps to define what this principle means, or provide any meaningful criteria to show that they may not be discriminatory along partisan lines in the future.

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