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Policies, Principles, and Protests by Stu Schmill '86

thinking about responsible citizenship in a time of student protests

Last Wednesday, February 14th, 2018, seventeen people, including fourteen students, were killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Over the past week, student activists from Stoneman Douglas have spoken out loudly, often, and in public, advocating for policies to prevent such a shooting from happening again. They have formed an organization, Never Again MSD, and led peaceful demonstrations at the Florida Capitol and the White House, as well as meetings with state legislators. Their leadership has galvanized students at schools across the country to join them in protests, including several school walkouts scheduled for March and April.

In response, some high schools have announced that students who demonstrate will face disciplinary action, which may in turn be reported to universities to which they applied. Indeed, the “fine print” on our acceptance letter includes the following clause:

We also insist you continue to conduct yourself appropriately. You must report to our office any conduct that may result or has resulted in any disciplinary or other action that occurs after your admission to MIT. We have the right to revoke or defer your offer of admission if your conduct does not remain consistent with the high levels of integrity that you have shown in your application.

 

As such, some students who have been admitted to MIT’s Class of 2022 have asked us if their acceptance will be rescinded if they are disciplined for joining the protests, while other applicants still under consideration are wondering if they have to choose between speaking out and getting in. We have already informed those who asked that, in this case, a disciplinary action associated with meaningful, peaceful participation in a protest will not negatively impact their admissions decision, because we would not view it as inappropriate or lacking integrity on its face. The purpose of this blog post is to communicate that fact more broadly and explain our reasoning as to why.

We have long held that students should not make decisions based on what they think will get them into college, but instead based on values and interests that are important to them. We believe students should follow compasses over maps, pursuing points of direction rather than specific destinations and trusting they will end up where they belong. As such, we always encourage students to undertake whatever course of action in life is most meaningful to, and consistent with, their own principles, and not prioritize how it might impact their college applications. We do not expect or prefer any particular choice in the abstract, and even if we did, it shouldn’t change what students do.

However, as part of the Turning the Tide report, we have also committed to using our process to “promote greater ethical engagement among aspiring students,” because we believe that college admissions operates in the public interest. And in this case, when the threat of being denied from MIT solely on the basis of being disciplined for participating in a protest is being held, explicitly or implicitly, over the heads of our applicants, we believe it is important to clarify what’s important to us as an office and as an Institute.

We believe an MIT education is about learning more than mere facts and figures, but about developing the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind. This conviction is nothing new. In 1949, the Lewis Report, which established the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, argued that “since we attract some of the best youth of this and other countries, the Institute is obligated to educate them to be not only capable technical [people but also] aware of their responsibilities as citizens.” In 1966, B. Alden Thresher, the inaugural Director of Admissions at MIT, noted the “demands of the entire polity for an increasingly literate society, an increasingly knowledgeable electorate, and a citizenry with a depth of cultural awareness that would scarcely have been thought of a generation ago.” And, in an essay published last fall, Professor Susan Silbey, the current Chair of the MIT Faculty, observed that the goals of “responsible citizenship and civic responsibility” remain as, if not more, pressing today as at any point in the Institute’s history.

We also believe that civic responsibility is, like most things at MIT, something you learn best by doing: indeed, to be civically responsible is to put into practice the obligation we owe to each other and to the common good. At MIT our students govern and manage their residences, serve on influential committees that inform Institute affairs, make policy recommendations to serve social goals, and, yes, protest, at the local and national level. They’ve done all these things for generations. Indeed, the broad autonomy awarded to — and the responsibility expected from — MIT students is a core feature of our educational mission and culture: we hold our students to a high standard and give them a wide berth. It would be at best quixotic, and at worst hypocritical, if we treated our applicants differently, penalizing them for engaging in responsible, responsive citizenship as the students at Stoneman Douglas and elsewhere have done.

So: if any admitted students or applicants are disciplined by their high school for practicing responsible citizenship by engaging in peaceful, meaningful protest related to this (or any other) issue, we will still require them to report it to us. However, because we do not view such conduct on its face as inappropriate or inconsistent with their prior conduct, or anything we wouldn’t applaud amongst our own students, it will not negatively impact their admissions outcome. We hope that this explanation will clarify the principles and policies that guide our decisions, articulate the importance of responsible citizenship, and give students the freedom to follow their own compasses wherever they lead.