The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced it’s ending its relationship with a private graduate research university in Russia that it helped establish about a decade ago following the invasion of Ukraine.
In a statement posted on the MIT Skoltech Program website, the school called Russia’s military actions in Ukraine “unacceptable” and said it notified the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology on Friday that MIT was terminating the collaboration. The Russian university is also known as Skoltech.
“This step is a rejection of the actions of the Russian government in Ukraine,” said the statement, which noted that MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, reached the decision with input from senior leaders at MIT. “We take it with deep regret because of our great respect for the Russian people and our profound appreciation for the contributions of the many extraordinary Russian colleagues we have worked with.”
Reif, the son of Jewish refugees, has family ties to the region. His father was born in what is now western Ukraine and his mother was born nearby in what is now Moldova. In the late 1930s, the couple fled Eastern Europe to escape the Nazis. Reif was born in Venezuela and grew up speaking Spanish and Yiddish at home, according to his biography. He is resigning at the end of the year.
MIT’s ties to the Russian institute go back more than a decade to 2011, when the school signed an agreement with the nonprofit Skolkovo Foundation to establish the research university outside Moscow in Skolkovo and turn it into a leading academic institute for science and technology. The foundation was designated by the Russian government under then-president Dmitry Medvedev to create a science and technology hub in Skolkovo, according to an MIT news release from June 2010.
During the collaboration, MIT participated in a wide range of activities to develop the Russian university, playing a role in recruiting students and faculty, hosting Skoltech students at MIT, letting MIT instructors teach at the Russian institution, pursuing research, and developing a program to teach entrepreneurship and innovation to students in Russian, according to the program’s website.
The inaugural class of about 50 master’s students graduated in June 2015, the website said.
MIT’s statement said the end of the relationship with Skoltech will affect principal investigators at MIT who were leading projects with Skoltech and their students.
MIT said it expects to provide money to allow personnel and students to complete projects that had already received funding. The end of the relationship affects 21 faculty members and 38 students and postdoctoral researchers at MIT. No one affiliated with MIT is currently at Skoltech.
The press office for Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology said in an e-mail Saturday that it has nine ongoing projects with MIT that were launched in mid-2020. The institute acknowledged that MIT’s action ends the official relationship between two institutions, but said the school remains “in close contact with our colleagues at MIT.”
Elizabeth A. Wood, co-faculty director of the MIT Russia and Eurasia Program, said she supported the decision to end the collaboration.
“When a world power acts as badly as Russia is acting right now, then the rest of us have to take a hit,” she said in an interview.
The program Wood helps to direct provides summer internship opportunities for MIT students and receives financial support from the partnership between MIT and Skoltech, she said. The collaboration between the two institutions also helped re-introduce Russian language courses at MIT in 2011 after a 16-year absence, Wood said.
The impact of the ending the relationship is small, Wood said, compared with the suffering Russia is inflicting by invading Ukraine, arresting detractors in Russia, and stationing troops in Belarus, which is governed by an authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko.
“All three countries are suffering immensely,” she said.
MIT’s statement said the school is proud of its work with Skoltech and “the research it has produced over the past decade.”
“We affirm our steadfast belief in our colleagues at Skoltech: They are fellow scholars who have devoted themselves to an ethos of openness and who have contributed their own expertise and knowledge to build a unique and pioneering academic center in Russia,” the statement said.
Among Skoltech’s faculty is Mikhail Gelfand, a professor who is collecting signatures from Russian scientists and science journalists for an open letter he wrote condemning the invasion of Ukraine. The letter was published by TrV-Nauka, an independent science news site that Gelfand helps edit, according to an online news outlet affiliated with the journal, Science.
“Having unleashed the war, Russia has doomed itself to international isolation. It has devolved into a pariah country. This means that we, Russian scientists and journalists, will no longer be able to do our job in a normal way because conducting scientific research is unthinkable without cooperation and trust with colleagues from other countries,” Gelfand wrote in the letter, which has been translated into English and other languages.
“The isolation of Russia from the world means cultural and technological degradation of our country with a complete lack of positive prospects,” he wrote. “The war with Ukraine is a step to nowhere.”