Courtesy of Financial Times
Two years after Yale drew ire for naming a new center for student life after business mogul and Trump confidante Stephen Schwarzman ’69, students and faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are calling for the university to return his $350 million gift and rename the school that bears his name.
Though he was unable to secure his name on a residential college at Yale, Schwarzman will see his name on a college of computing at MIT — a result of a $350 million October donation. In an op-ed published last week in MIT’s student newspaper The Tech, a group of 18 students, faculty members and alumni criticized Schwarzman for advising President Donald Trump, opposing an affordable housing bill in California and hosting the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after The Blackstone Group received an investment from the Saudi government. The nation’s leaders had just come under fire for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A petition addressed to MIT president L. Rafael Reif and chair of the MIT corporation Robert Millard requested the removal of Schwarzman’s name from the new college, garnering 86 signatures from MIT students, alumni and faculty members as of Tuesday evening.
“For the MIT administration, as for Schwarzman, money trumps concerns for human rights and economic justice,” the op-ed stated. “Regarding the Schwarzman College, the administration has also failed to address numerous questions from students and faculty about the college’s direction and focus. Rather than engaging with the community, the administration adopted an uncritically ‘celebratory’ tone towards the college’s opening that caters to donors.”
MIT’s Director of Media Relations Kimberly Allen could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
In October, Schwarzman donated $350 million to MIT to fund, in part, the school’s $1 billion initiative to advance the study of computing and artificial intelligence. While the donation appeared to be a snub at Yale, the financier’s own alma mater, University President Peter Salovey congratulated the business mogul and MIT on establishing a new college for computing and artificial intelligence.
According to the MIT website, the school will be celebrating the creation of the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing on Feb. 28. The event — which Schwarzman is slated to attend — features discussions with MIT professors and guest speakers, including Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
“Following last fall’s announcement of the new MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, President 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 and its impact on society,” MIT Provost Marty Schmit said in a statement to the News. “The resulting program includes an impressive range of visionaries from within the MIT community, as well as outside experts, luminaries and other public figures.”
Authors of The Tech op-ed also criticized MIT for inviting guests with controversial political backgrounds to the event.
“How can we celebrate a college claiming to lead ethical, thoughtful research when war criminals such as Kissinger are invited to speak?” the op-ed stated. “When MIT invites former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who famously dismissed the very idea of privacy and the abusive powers of surveillance, to help guide ‘ethical’ computing research? Or when MIT, in the height of cynicism, picks Thomas Friedman to moderate a panel on ‘Computing for the People?’”
In an emailed statement to the News, Blackstone’s spokeswoman Christine Anderson said Schwarzman is proud to support a university that is “at the epicenter of technology’s evolution.” Because “the responsible advancement of artificial intelligence” is one of society’s most pressing challenges today, Schwarzman’s gift to MIT should transcend politics, Anderson said.
In a statement of his own, Schwarzman told the News that funding transformative projects in higher education has regularly encountered “small groups of naysayers” throughout history.
“This in no way invalidates the initiatives, nor does it mean that minority views shouldn’t be aired,” Schwarzman said. “It is important to remember that these projects are supported by the administrations and trustees of these institutions, groups which not only have the long-term perspective to understand the profound impact of these gifts, but also the responsibility for stewardship of their respective institutions. Responsible private giving is an American tradition, and I am fortunate to be able to be a part of it.”
But the recent outcry from MIT students and faculty members echoes a controversy closer to home. In November 2017, a News survey found that just 14 percent of Yale faculty respondents viewed the Schwarzman Center for student life favorably.
According to former chair of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate and American Studies professor Matthew Jacobson, many faculty members believe that the new student center is “driven by the donors rather than driven by the faculty and their mission.” Former president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate Elizabeth Mo GRD ’18, who has long advocated for a student center and served on the Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee, told the News in 2017 that the naming of the new center would “definitely be a source of discussion.”
At the time, Yale administrators defended Schwarzman’s ties to Trump. In an interview with the News in 2017, Salovey said there is “a great danger” in creating “political litmus tests around charitable giving.”
“I might be able to imagine some extreme that would be problematic, but even in saying that, there’s the danger of the slippery slope,” Salovey explained. “We should be thankful that a Yale alumnus is willing both to be generous to our University, as well as serve our country, whether that service is to someone with whom we agree strongly or disagree strongly.”
Schwarzman donated $150 million in May 2015 to create the Schwarzman Center.
Serena Cho | email@example.com
Clarification, Feb. 20: A previous version of this article stated that MIT has so far responded to criticisms with silence. The story has been updated to include a comment from MIT Provost Marty Schmit on the February celebration, which was emailed to the News after the story’s publication.