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FIRE investigates allegations MIT canceled Mike Pompeo speech about China

Mike Pompeo speaking at 2018 NATO Summit

Gints Ivuskans /

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the 2018 NATO summit in Brussels. In his new memoir, Pompeo says his hawkish foreign policy toward China got him disinvited from speaking at MIT.

In his new memoir, “Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love,” Mike Pompeo, secretary of state during the Trump administration, makes a troubling accusation. Pompeo claims that in 2020, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s then-president L. Rafael Reif canceled Pompeo’s planned speech at the campus because “the risk of offending his Chinese students was too great.”

Today, FIRE sent a letter to MIT president Sally Kornbluth to ask the university to account for the details of the alleged cancellation. FIRE wrote:

If substantiated, the Pompeo speech cancelation would be the third high-profile censorship controversy at MIT in as many years: In October 2021, MIT canceled renowned climate scientist Dorian Abbot’s John Carlson Lecture over objections to his views on diversity initiatives. And in March of last year, MIT announced—then quickly backtracked—on a policy barring students and faculty from asking others to wear masks.

As you know, MIT makes profound and important commitments to free expression for students and faculty, and “aims to create an atmosphere of intellectual excitement, a climate of inquiry and innovation in which each student develops a consuming interest in understanding for its own sake.” Censorship in response to threat of controversy, or in response to pressure by powerful outside interests—including donors—is antithetical to this fundamental goal.

According to Pompeo’s memoir, his team asked MIT “if it would welcome America’s secretary of state to speak about matters important to its students and our nation’s security.” MIT agreed, Pompeo said, and confirmed a date for the event. 

But then MIT reversed course. Pompeo wrote that his office “received a call a couple weeks before my scheduled remarks. ‘We’re sorry, but we will be unable to host the secretary on our campus,’ came the message. In the end, the president of MIT, Rafael Reif, made clear that the risk of offending his Chinese students was too great.”

Pompeo would instead go on to speak at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he decried the role of the Chinese Communist Party on American campuses.

Pompeo’s allegations are concerning, especially because this is not the first time university officials have been accused of — or have admitted to — censoring criticism of the CCP because of the risk of offending the Chinese government or alienating students or donors from China. 

FIRE is asking MIT to respond to Pompeo’s claims and account for what spurred the cancellation.

In 2015, a Harvard Law administrator ordered Chinese dissident and human rights lawyer Teng Biao to reschedule a campus event about human rights in China because it overlapped with then-Harvard president Drew Faust’s trip to Beijing and could have imperiled the university’s business there. In 2009, North Carolina State University canceled an event with the Dalai Lama after the university’s Confucius Institute objected. The provost admitted China’s status as a “major trading partner” played a role. And last year, George Washington University temporarily investigated students who posted artwork satirizing the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, putting the involved Chinese international students and their families at risk of facing legal consequences at home. 

FIRE is asking MIT to respond to Pompeo’s claims and account for what spurred the cancellation. If, as Pompeo alleges, the offer was revoked to avoid “offending” students from China and perhaps threatening university dealings in the country or access to international students, MIT’s free speech reputation will yet again take another damaging hit. 

This isn’t MIT’s first brush with controversy around expression and China. In 2006, an award-winning multimedia project on “Visualizing Cultures” provoked controversy after a student posted online a section of the project titled “Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers.” The image detailed Japanese propaganda in the First Sino-Japanese War, but the resulting outrage missed the context of the work. The faculty members responsible for the project “received a flood of abusive emails, phone calls, and even death threats condemning them for their inclusion of the offensive woodprint.” 

MIT’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association involved itself in the matter, writing a letter to the professors, as well as MIT’s administration, addressing “the emotional damage the inappropriate presentation had caused to thousands of Chinese people worldwide.” And at a faculty meeting, “students from the [​​People’s Republic of China] circulated written demands that MIT shut down the VC website, cancel academic workshops related to the media project, revise the project’s text and images, and officially apologize to the offended ‘Chinese community.’” They succeeded, and the site for the project was taken down.

“We affirm in the strongest way possible our support for the work of these professors, and for the principles of academic freedom,” then-MIT President Susan Hockfield wrote a week later in announcing the relaunch of the project. “While some of the text and images on the web site are painful to see, the attacks on our colleagues and their work are antithetical to all that we stand for as a university dedicated to open inquiry and the free exchange of ideas. As scholars and educators, we have an obligation to explore complex and controversial ideas, and to do so in a manner that respects those with whom we may disagree.”

Hockfield was right to plainly state that academic freedom, open inquiry, and the free exchange of ideas are vital to MIT. We hope that President Kornbluth can use this opportunity in her new office at MIT to reaffirm these values once again, account for the details surrounding the cancellation of Pompeo’s speech and, if the facts are as alleged, confirm the university will ensure such a cancellation does not happen again. 

FIRE stands ready to work with President Kornbluth to promote a flourishing culture of free expression on campus.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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