Will MIT Move Beyond the Koch Era?

In separate open letters circulated on August 23rd, MIT President L. Raphael Reif referenced two of MIT’s major contributors.

In one, Reif expressed gratitude for David Koch’s “longstanding devotion to the Institute”. In the other, Reif issued “a profound and humble apology” for accepting the contributions of Jeffrey Epstein.

Both Koch and Epstein, as should be obvious, left the world a significantly worse place due to their presence in it, though most would agree with the results of this informal poll that Koch was “responsible for more human suffering.”

This point was soon reinforced by Hurricane Dorian slamming into the Bahamas, destroying thousands of homes and creating thousands of refugees.

A Permanent Stain

Perhaps more than any single person, David Koch is responsible for the climate catastrophe of which Dorian was a relatively minor expression. MIT’s failure to ask questions about its decades long association with Koch was troubling. It is even more so since Reif recognizes that Epstein’s gifts “contribute(d) to the elevation of his reputation, which in turn served to distract from his horrifying acts.”

The same holds for Koch’s contributions which were no more charitable than Epstein’s. Rather, the purpose of donating to the nation’s premier institution of pure and applied science and engineering was to enhance Koch’s prestige, adding credibility to his anti-science, climate denialist agenda..

Koch’s contributions were over $180 million, two orders of magnitude greater than Epstein making Koch one of the leading contributors to MIT over the past four decades. As we now know, during this period, fully one half of all CO2 emissions were produced, even after James Hansen issued his warning to the U.S. Senate of a carbon choked planet unable to sustain human life.

We may never know whether MIT officials would have spoken out more forcefully in support of the scientific consensus had its major contributor not been David Koch. We do know that Koch was responsible for funding climate change denial think tanks, providing high profile bylines to climate change denying journalists and hiring teams of private investigators to smear leading climate scientists. The lavish praise contained in MIT’s encomium to Koch cannot erase Koch’s catastrophic impact. MIT’s association with him is a lasting stain on its reputation.

Taking Climate Seriously

It is incumbent on Reif and MIT to show that they have moved beyond the Koch era and that they have fully repudiated the Koch agenda. That will mean putting as its top priority advancing disciplines which the Kochs claim have no reason to exist-those with direct application to the climate crisis which they, more than any family, are responsible for creating.

This will require an unprecedented investment in fields addressing the myriad technical challenges posed by a warming planet, establishing ambitious programs, recruiting new faculty and providing scholarships for students.

Taking the climate crisis seriously will also mean curtailing and in some cases jettisoning programs which are an active hindrance to the pursuit of solutions. Among these is the Financial Engineering major which channels its graduates into “investment and corporate banks, brokerage firms, financial data providers, ratings firms, hedge funds, venture capitalists” whose pursuit of bottom line profits at any cost has been a major economic driver of the fossil fuel economy.

Another major contributor to global warming also has long standing connections to MIT, namely the U.S. military. According to an audit from 2018, the Army, Navy and Air Force pumped more than 1.2 billion tons of CO2 into the earth’s atmosophere between 2001 and 2017, more than entire countries. In some ways just as consequential has been the military employing pre-eminent scientific and engineering talent in producing weapons systems which were useless at best, actively destabiling at worst. Had they been engaged in research in alternative energy, energy storage, and carbon capture technologies, we might now have solutions available to be deployed rather than hoping for a miracle.

MIT and the (Green) New Deal

That said, the military does provide a useful framework to view MIT’s subsequent contribution, if it decides to make one. As Senator Sanders has recently noted, addressing the climate crisis will require a national commitment equivalent to a “war footing” now mainly familiar to us from the history books, in the stories of our grandparents or in newsreels posted on youtube. Just as MIT was key in defeating a previous existential threat, so too will it need to assume its role within a $16.3 trillion all hands on deck mobilization

Much of the foundation of MIT’s greatness and moral authority was due to its contributions from three quarters of a century ago.

In the years since, and most conspicuously in the last few weeks, it has done much to erode it.

In committing to being part of the solution rather than the problem MIT can place itself again on the right side of history.

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