M.I.T.’s President Has Weathered the Storm, for Now

As the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania were pushed out of their jobs in recent weeks, it was an open question whether the president of another prestigious institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, would suffer the same fate.

But Sally Kornbluth, who testified alongside her two colleagues in a tense congressional hearing last month on antisemitism, has avoided much of the ire directed at Claudine Gay, who resigned this week as Harvard’s president, and Elizabeth Magill, who stepped down as Penn’s president just a few days after her testimony.

Some are still calling for Dr. Kornbluth’s resignation, including Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the Republican who led the most pointed questioning at the hearing. But Dr. Kornbluth has so far not faced the kind of concerted effort from angry donors and alumni that helped bring down the other university presidents.

Notably, an organization of Jewish alumni at M.I.T. that has been critical of the university for not doing enough to address antisemitism on campus — and criticized the congressional testimony as “disastrous” — has not called for Dr. Kornbluth’s resignation.

Matt Handel, a founder of the M.I.T. Jewish Alumni Alliance, said he believes it is more constructive to work with the university administration than to begin demanding people lose their jobs. He and the alliance have taken other steps to register their discontent, including encouraging alumni to reduce their annual donations to $1.

“As alumni, we are dissatisfied with the approach the administration is taking,” Mr. Handel said in an interview. But, he added, “We as an organization are still trying to facilitate change in culture and policy.”

A spokeswoman for M.I.T. did not respond to a request for comment.

From the outset, M.I.T. has been unwavering in its public support for its president.Credit…Cj Gunther/EPA, via Shutterstock

Several other factors have worked in Dr. Kornbluth’s favor. From the outset, M.I.T. has been unwavering in its public support for its president, a cell biologist and former Duke University provost who assumed the university’s top job last January.

Dr. Kornbluth, who is Jewish, answered more directly under questioning from Ms. Stefanik about whether protest chants calling for genocide of Jews would constitute harassment under school policy.

Though Dr. Kornbluth testified that she had not specifically heard chants about genocide, she acknowledged that some of the protest rhetoric on campus could be defined as antisemitic and would be looked into as a disciplinary matter. “That would be investigated as harassment, if pervasive and severe,” she told Ms. Stefanik.

Her response, along with several concrete steps to address complaints from Jewish students and alumni, appear to have insulated her.

Dr. Gay and Ms. Magill, to whom Ms. Stefanik posed similar questions, offered more hedged answers about whether someone could be disciplined for chanting about genocide. Both said that such speech would have to cross a line into “conduct” — something Dr. Kornbluth did not say. The remarks by Dr. Gay and Ms. Magill went viral.

Still, many alumni and students were angry about Dr. Kornbluth’s remarks. Immediately following the hearing, Dr. Kornbluth took steps to address the firestorm of criticism that soon enveloped the three presidents. The same day, she wrote a letter to M.I.T. community members imploring them to stand with her “against hate of any kind, anywhere, but especially within our own community.” The letter did not, however, contain an apology for her comments, which some Jewish alumni have demanded. (Dr. Gay apologized for her testimony, but waited for two days after the hearing.)

Then the board that oversees the governance of M.I.T. quickly issued a full-throated statement of support for Dr. Kornbluth, praising her “excellent work in leading our community, including in addressing antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hate.” Harvard’s governing board did the same for Dr. Gay, but not after several more days, and after a daylong meeting.

More recently, Dr. Kornbluth has taken steps to demonstrate that she recognizes the need to address simmering tensions on campus over the Israel-Hamas war. This week, she wrote another open letter to the M.I.T. community announcing immediate actions the university would take, including a formal review of the student disciplinary process and the creation of a new administrative post that she said would advance “community, civility and mutual respect on our campus.”

Her approach has helped tamp down some of the criticism of her testimony and the school’s handling of student demonstrations, in particular one on Nov. 9 in which pro-Palestinian protesters occupied a university building without authorization. When counter demonstrators arrived, the police had to intervene and school officials decided to clear the area, fearing that the situation could deteriorate into violence.

Among the concerns that the Jewish M.I.T. alumni organization would like to see addressed is a more consistent approach to disciplining students involved in disruptive demonstrations that violate school codes of conduct.

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