Open Letter to MIT President Reif

Yesterday, I received an email from MIT crowing about MIT’s global entrepreneurial impact. The email from MIT President Reif included this paragraph: “Our community’s passion for doing, making, designing and building is alive and growing. As we do our part by continuing to foster our students’ natural creativity and energy, it is inspiring to see the potential our alumni hold to extend MIT’s power to do good for the world.”

It made me so angry that I wrote a response and am posting it here.

Some context: when I went to MIT, the institution treated me like an adult capable of making my own decisions and supported me in those decisions. As a freshman newly arrived on campus, I was told I’d have 5 days to figure out where I wanted to live for the next four years – I chose TEP, and that decision changed my life. As a freshman, we built a compressed air cannon that we used on campus to fire water balloons at the dome without anybody from MIT commenting. When I was a newly declared physics major as a sophomore, I told my new advisor that I wanted to take 5 classes and 2 seminars, which was aggressive given that I’d struggled taking just 4 classes in my freshman year. But my advisor let me try it instead of forbidding me, and I pulled it off.

However, in the 22 years since I was there, MIT has increasingly moved in the direction of making decisions for its students (like choosing where they will live) while also denying any responsibility for other decisions made by students. There have been many incidents where MIT disavowed the actions of its students (e.g. Elizabeth Shin or my friend Star Simpson), which I find hypocritical – MIT wants to take credit for the positive things its students do without supporting them in their time of need. So that led to this letter, which I’m sharing here:

Dear President Reif,

I agree wholeheartedly with the kudos to the MIT alumni community in innovating and creating new value in the world.

However, I disagree that MIT is doing its part “by continuing to foster our students’ natural creativity and energy”, as it claims in this email. MIT has made many choices over the years to make the campus a less innovative place, in not supporting its students in trying new things, to not defending students who tried new things and were mis-understood by others. The MIT administration has continually chosen the path of least legal risk over the path of fostering and encouraging innovation.

This is particularly apropos given that Star Simpson just published her experience where she proudly wore her electronics shirt to the airport, and got arrested as a terrorist. Did MIT support Star’s creativity and energy? No, they disavowed her: “Star Simpson’s actions were reckless and understandably created alarm at the airport.” — MIT News Office, Sep 21 2007

I truly value the MIT community – my friends from MIT are among my best friends, and they continue to inspire and amaze me, and I continue do do alumni interviews for MIT. But I feel like the MIT administration has fallen from the ideals of supporting creativity and energy over the past twenty years, and I have refused to donate to MIT as a result. In light of Star’s post, I am considering donating again, but only to support the student law center, which will actually help students to explore their creativity while still being defended against the sometimes short-sighted community outside of MIT.

The next time a student gets in trouble because they are pushing the bounds of what the outside community considers acceptable, take a moment to reflect that pushing boundaries is _exactly_ where innovation comes from. Then choose the path that encourages that student’s creativity and energy, and not the path of least legal risk.

Thanks for your consideration,
Eric Nehrlich, ’94, Course 8

One thought on “Open Letter to MIT President Reif

  1. Thanks for giving me a reminder of what ‘first world problems’ looks like. Use some of that money you’ve been saving in the last 22 years to travel the world, you’ll see what people really need to go through in order to get creative.

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