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MIT responds, denies Mike Pompeo’s claim he was disinvited over feared China fallout

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses press after a United Nations Security Council nuclear non-proliferation meeting at UN Headquarters in New York.

Lev Radin /

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the press after a United Nations Security Council meeting on nuclear non-proliferation at UN Headquarters in 2018. Pompeo alleges in his new memoir that MIT cancelled a speech he was scheduled to give in 2020.

In response to an inquiry from FIRE seeking clarification, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has denied former Secretary of State and CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s allegations that the university canceled his planned campus speech in 2020 over concerns he would criticize the university for receiving funding from China. 

According to MIT, and confirmed in an email to FIRE from the university’s new president, Sally Kornbluth, the decision not to host Pompeo rested on COVID-19 restrictions in place at the time, which prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people and banned guests from visiting the campus.

Pompeo’s account paints a different picture. Pompeo claims his office received a call from MIT a couple of weeks before the scheduled speech, stating the university could not accommodate his visit. Pompeo wrote that then-president of MIT, Rafael Reif, “made clear that the risk of offending his Chinese students was too great.”

When faced with external pressure, whether domestic or from overseas, universities must remain committed to the principles of free speech and academic freedom.

This claim, if true, is doubly concerning, particularly in light of MIT’s spotty record on free expression. MIT has a documented history of throttling controversial or dissenting speech related to diversity initiatives, masking, and faculty-sponsored multimedia projects. Pompeo’s accusation intimates that the school may also be willing to censor criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, fearing alienating Chinese students or donors. Pompeo’s assertion raises broader questions about the influence of foreign governments on college campuses, and the extent to which universities limit free speech in order to protect their funding or relationships with certain groups. As my colleague Sarah McLaughlin wrote last week:

​​MIT should clarify whether the event was planned, despite campus COVID-19 restrictions, or if it was never scheduled at all. Further, it should clarify whether its president indeed cited Pompeo’s opinions as the impetus for the cancellation, rather than a viewpoint-neutral policy governing in-person events.

Encouragingly, President Kornbluth responded to FIRE’s letter, noting MIT faculty are considering “a motion designed to clarify the [university’s recently adopted free expression] statement further.” FIRE was pleased to see MIT reform its policies in December, and we are heartened by President Kornbluth’s ongoing commitments to freedom of thought. 

When faced with external pressure, whether domestic or from overseas, universities must remain committed to the principles of free speech and academic freedom, preserving an environment where all topics are up for discussion. 

We’re encouraged that President Kornbluth says she and faculty are working on policy changes that would further protect these important rights at one of the world’s top universities.

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 a 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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