A group of students, alumni, and faculty from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is calling for the school to cancel a planned three-day celebration of a new college later this month and to apologize for inviting Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state, to speak at the event.
In an op-ed in The Tech, an MIT student publication, the group calls for the school’s administration to cancel the celebrations for the opening of the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, named after the chief executive of Blackstone, one of the world’s leading investment firms. Schwarzman gave $350 million to the school, which made the new endeavor possible, according to MIT.
Three days of events celebrating the launch of the college are scheduled to start Feb. 26. Kissinger is scheduled to speak on Feb. 28.
“Concerns about Schwarzman are far ranging, from being an advisor to Donald Trump to heading the Blackstone Group that spent millions opposing an affordable housing ballot measure in California,” wrote the group in their op-ed. “Last spring, Schwarzman hosted the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) — a war criminal in charge of a repressive monarchy — after Blackstone received a $20 billion investment from his government.”
In a statement Monday, MIT Provost Martin Schmidt defended the school’s celebration and planned events.
“Following last fall’s announcement of the new MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, President [Rafael] Reif and I decided to create an event for the launch that would not only celebrate this historic moment for MIT but provide opportunities to consider the most important issues around AI [Artificial Intelligence] and its impact on society,” Schmidt said in the statement. “The resulting program includes an impressive range of visionaries from within the MIT community, as well as outside experts, luminaries and other public figures. Nearly 50 speakers across three days are scheduled to participate, with an additional 140 exceptional poster presentations from MIT student teams in response to the Computing Connections challenges.”
Messages left with Blackstone were not immediately returned.
The group is also calling for MIT to apologize for inviting Kissinger to speak on Feb. 28.
“In addition to his well-known role in prolonging the Vietnam War, Kissinger also orchestrated secret bombing campaigns in Cambodia and Laos,” wrote the group in the op-ed. “More bombs were dropped on Cambodia and Laos in those years than the Allies dropped on their enemies during all of World War II.”
Kissinger, 95, regarded as an elder statesman of American diplomacy, was US secretary of state under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and was awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for the Vietnam War accords. He also served as a national security adviser for both presidents.
Schmidt defended Kissinger’s appearance at the event.
“Last summer, Dr. Henry Kissinger wrote a provocative reflection for The Atlantic that addressed his views on the ethics and dangers of artificial intelligence, topics directly relevant to the launch program. We hope the event will allow for many voices to explore the social impacts of AI, an issue that matters deeply to MIT and that bears on the challenges we aim to address with the College,” Schmidt said in the statement.
If the events surrounding the new college’s opening are not canceled, the group is urging the MIT community to boycott the celebrations.
Yarden Katz, who earned his PhD in neuroscience at MIT in 2014, is one of the op-ed’s signatories. He said the school’s administration is not listening to its own community. Events like the opening of the college appear to serve “no purpose aside from accumulating money and the wrong kind of prestige.”
“I think rudderless is a good way to put it,” he said during a Monday morning phone interview.
Stripping the name of the new college and disinviting Kissinger would be positive things, said Katz, but he also would like to see the school establish a democratic procedure for
“the broader university community to be able to vote on partnerships.”
“The university does what it wants without community input,” he said.
Earlier this month, the school’s president said MIT won’t sever its financial and research ties to Saudi Arabian government groups over the slaying of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite the urging of many faculty members and students, and complaints by some of the university’s female researchers that they face more restrictions than their male colleagues when working in the Saudi kingdom.Deirdre Fernandes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.